How the pharma sector benefits from social media

If implemented correctly, social media can deliver strong returns on investment in terms of customer loyalty, brand promotion and awareness campaigns.

If implemented correctly, social media can deliver strong returns on investment in terms of customer loyalty, brand promotion and awareness campaigns.

British doctors see online media as the future of medical information, a new study from ICM Market Research indicates. The study found that nine out of 10 doctors considered online medical media to be on par with traditional medical journals, and that one out of six doctors considered social media central to their profession, a number ICM forecast to increase steadily.

The study, in conjunction with a Pew Research report that suggests 61 percent of American adults (and a similar percentage of Europeans) now look online for medical help, illuminates how quickly online and social media has saturated the medical profession. It also raises the question of how pharma firms will take advantage of it. No longer are we operating with a customer base who are happy to receive information; we need to engage in a dialogue and build relationships, says Catherine Warne, managing director at Red Door Communications, which as part of the Creston Health Group commissioned the ICM study. Social media and other digital vehicles provide us with an opportunity to expand the way in which we communicate with our customers, which should ultimately result in more meaningful and beneficial interactions.

To date, pharma firms have been timid around with social media. There are, of course, a few celebrity examples. Johnson&Johnson has launched the Johnson&Johnson health channel on YouTube, a Twitter account, and two Facebook communitiesADHD Moms, via McNeil Pediatrics, and Psychiatry 24x7, via Janssen-Cilag. Likewise, Sanofi-Aventis runs the GOINSULIN YouTube page, and Germanys Boehringer Ingelheim runs the global Twitter channel Boehringer.

But the vast majority of pharma firms are still waiting on the sidelines. Legal concerns, coupled with a lack of regulation, have raised red flags in more than a few internal regulatory committees. Last summer the FDA, which had been quiet about pharma online advertising, sent out 14 warnings about pay-per-click advertising. This week the Obama administration hosted a much-anticipated public hearing, Promotion of FDA-Regulated Medical Products Using the Internet and Social Media Tools, which many in pharma marketing hope will clarify a new set of guidelines for online activity.  

I really think that the biggest issue for pharma companies is the fact that their legal departments dont know whats right and whats wrong in regard to the Internet and social media specifically, says Jim Dayton, emerging media director at Intouch Solutions, a pharma marketing agency whose clients include Sanofi-Aventis. Social media is a lot more difficult to interpret because its a two-way conversation instead of a one-way broadcasting of information. As soon as you change to that two-way street, theres an obvious need for new guidelines.

Additionally, with social media spreading so quickly, it can be difficult to determine the best place to begin. Its almost like a gold rush and everyone feels theyve got to do something on the Web, theyve got to do something social, on Facebook or Twitter, says Irina Osovskaya, e-business manager for U.K. and Ireland at Janssen-Cilag. But its essential to identify the value of why youre actually doing it first, and to go through a robust analytical process. I dont think many people actually go through that process very well.

To implement social media intelligently, says Osovskaya, pharma firms have to look at the basics first. Resources like Forresters Groundswell, which offers start-up advice about social technologies as well as data about which of these technologies reach particular audiences, are a good place to begin. Warne adds that its essential to ask rudimentary questions, like whom you want to communicate with and why; the threats and opportunities of engaging; and how a new social media campaign can be integrated with existing programs.

We would also encourage our clients to think outside the social media box and identify other online mechanisms for communication, where lack of control is not such an issue, Warne says. In fact, tactical solutions such as webcasts and podcasts, have been implemented code-compliantly for years. So we should continue to explore the value of these activities.

Value, of course, is another consideration. For all the conversation social media has inspired in the pharma sector, not much of it has been devoted to return on investment. That is, can anyone prove that e-channels and social media are fiscally wise to pursue? Dayton says that, while metrics to analyze this are still being developed, the answer would seem to be a definite yes. In the short term, social media should allow pharmas to save money in terms of market research, call centers and hotlines, and awareness campaigns via Facebook or Twitter rather than print media, TV, or radio. And in the long term, its the opportunity to become a customers trusted brand; to open a dialogue, assuage fears, inform about side effects, and connect with patients in a more personalized way.

The real opportunity is getting more people into your loyal customer base, Dayton says. Its the classic 80-20 rule: Twenty percent of your customers bring in 80 percent of your revenue. As long as you keep growing that 20 percent, your 80 percent keeps getting bigger.

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