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Maneuvering in the Complex World of Pharma Social Media

January 15, 2013

Maneuvering in the Complex World of Pharma Social Media

Want to reach consumers? "Get social," experts say. Create Facebook and Twitter accounts. Blog about issues that are buzzworthy and important to customers. Interact with consumers to discuss their preferences and suggestions for improvements. It's a great concept, but it is easier said than done in the pharmaceutical industry.

No doubt participating in social media has become a given as consumers are more active on the channel than ever before and expect to connect with companies on various social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and more. Pharma marketing executives realize that social media activity is no longer a "should we" question. Rather, it's "how do we?" But the pharma industry has very unique challenges:

• How social media fits within the overall marketing and brand strategies
• Uncertainty about rules and regulations often paralyzes social media initiatives
• Pharma firms are unclear of their role as gatekeeper of information and data to patients, physicians, practitioners, scientists, and key opinion leaders
• There's ambiguity about the best strategy for pharma interactions -- proactive vs. reactive
• How to handle large amount of unsolicited inquiries from patients and physicians
• Unclear KPIs and metrics to measure social media investments
• Limited experience in social media, unlike other industries

The FDA draft guidance, published in December 2011, fell short to provide a clear guideline on how to engage patients in the social media setting. For example, if a public, unsolicited request was made about your product (i.e. through social media), the guidelines state that the response must only be given directly and privately to the requestor and not posted publicly. Public response should not include off-label information and must include disclosure of affiliation. In addition, the answer should indicate that the request pertains to off-label usage and that medical staff (include contact info) can be contacted.

How can all that fit in a tweet?

pharma-social.jpg While the task is daunting, the potential benefits of enhanced social media participation outweigh the challenge. A few pharma companies have taken the FDA guidelines and created their own social media policies.

Roche was the first to publish its Social Media Playbook publicly to indicate its strategic importance. At only four pages, it's very accessible and user-friendly. The company does not get bogged down in legalease. The document outlines Roche's philosophy on social media, establishes a set of ground rules and principles, and offers seven rules of communication when speaking about Roche as an employee or when speaking on behalf of Roche as an employee. The document gives employees a high degree of latitude with caution on product, financial info. It assumes employees already know the basics of using social media tools.

Following suit, Sanofi created its own social media guidelines and ramped up its participation on Facebook, Twitter, and online communities , Diabetapedia , and the DX.

The point here is to not let the obstacles limit your company's social media potential. We recommend pharma companies take a customer-centric approach to social media activity. Customize your own company's social media guidelines based on understanding your audience, the channels they use, and the types of content they're interested in. Then allow employees and the public to participate within those "rules of engagement." Sanofi decided to own the diabetes space with niche content and resources for diabetes patients, for example. Decide what to be good at, and do it.

There is a world of opportunity for companies to excel at social media. Most of the existing content online pertains to legal issues and news - not your typical quick-hit, sharable social content. The gap just needs to be filled with interesting, relevant dialogue aimed at interested parties. For instance, there are a number of communities where young doctors and med students congregate to discuss everything from their residency to prognosis and staffing. And there are thousands of patient communities already buzzing along, just waiting for some more experts to join the fold.

When it comes to social media, the "how do we" question asked by pharma marketers can be answered with a strategic look at social media through the customer lens.

roger estafanos_small.GIFAbout the author: Roger Estafanos is the director of Life Sciences for Peppers & Rogers Group's Healthcare practice. Contact him at

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