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Social Media Working Knowledge

Using Social Technology

in Pharma Marketing
Adam Rubin with Scott Friedmann


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Social Media Working Knowledge
Using Social Technology in Pharma Marketing 1

Brand marketers of different product categories have started to embrace social media.
Still, a few industries are conspicuously not taking advantage and have yet to take the
first step: pharmaceuticals is one of them.
While pharma is desperately trying to find new ways to engage consumers, they have yet
to figure out how to use social media. The reason: Pharma marketers fear that user-gen-
erated content will include complaints about injuries caused by their drugs’ side effects
and lead to advocacy of generics. The law requires these ‘adverse events’ to be reported
to the FDA. The FDA’s adverse-event databases are regularly scouted by lawyers looking
for potential class-action suits. Thus, social media is quickly ruled out as an option and
all customer interaction is kept to an absolute bare minimum.
Lately there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the pharmaceutical industry and
social media. There is chatter to be found in forums for web strategists, industry blogs,
health and wellness communities, among many other places. Why is that? There is
something more going on than natural conversation at the intersections of popular topics
(i.e. digital tools and trends, and healthcare in the U.S.).
There is something fascinating about the simultaneous allure and apprehension of the
mix of pharma and social media.
Let’s see what’s going on.

Enter Social Media Mania

Hopefully, social media is well understood. Its methods have been deployed by virtually all
industries and they make powerful ongoing contributions in shaping our world. One need
not look any further than the social media-fuelled victory of the Democratic Party in 2008.
The nature of social media is an open one. Its core is comprised of virtues that are not
always easy to articulate but ring true when heard: social media assumes real benefits from
network effects; the more participants, the merrier. It longs for information to be truly free,
available for all to access, mash up and remix, without having the Net Neutrality-aroma of
Law attached to it.
Social media reminds us that a good idea can come from anyone. It returns meaningful
results when the quality of communication is strong, and is impressively equipped with
sophisticated etiquette systems and languages dialects.
A subtle touchstone of social media is progress.
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Is Social Media Pharma’s Friend or Foe?

Along with war and the economic crisis, healthcare is at the forefront of people’s thoughts.
In the U.S., this is especially true as the members of the baby boom generation of 76 million
people born between 1946 and 1964 quickly approach their golden age.
Naturally, this hot topic brews potently on the Web. The internet swarms with information,
resources, constant discussion and debate concerning wellness and healthcare. There’s
a massive amount of information out there from all the many participating parties, and it’s
rapidly colliding with emerging digital trends, tools and services.
Social media on the web provides patients with the comfort of anonymity, the promise
of sympathy and the opportunity to discover answers. Online social media environments
have quickly become the go-to-place to engage with online support groups and to discuss
medications or treatments with other patients. A vast amount of consumers regularly search
online for health information, often trusting user generated social media content more than
official corporate websites.
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Mini Success Stories

There are many examples of social media that play a positive role within the pharma
For example, on the practitioner front, Sermo is a social network of over 50,000 physicians.
It enables collaboration on multiple levels, and according to its website, it has generated
over 30,000 conversations related to challenging cases, clinical insights and patient care.
On the consumer end, is a healthcare service that helps monitor the safety
of most categories of medications.  It helps identify red flags in the medicinal diets of
registered users and calculates statistics related to product performance and other
consequential information.
At, there’s something for the corporate insiders as well. This community
provides an outlet for industry sales reps to give their uncensored opinions and correct
common misunderstandings. Inaccuracies are handled politely and effectively with
identified company representatives.

Pharma Social Media Fatigue

At best, most (if not, all) of pharma’s online marketing campaigns can be labeled faux social
media. A common example is a video channel on YouTube (or a comparable service). A
pharma company will always configure the channel to feature only approved and editorial
opinions and stories that are, in one way or another, well-aligned with a branded product.
Comments and discussion are always prohibited. To be clear, these are reasonable practices
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and good starting points for firms in an industry that is too large and wealthy to be urged to
do it properly. They are going to where the people are. Good, but it’s not enough.
The virtues of social media ought to be acknowledged and respected, because mere flirtation
with them is only minimally effective in nurturing real progressive change. The real problem,
in short, is that the pharma-social media connection could be so much more powerful and
useful. In the end, everyone would be better off.

Pharma Social Media Hold Up?

The big pharmaceutical companies are permanent subjects of intense scrutiny and criticism.
This can be attributed to their immense profits, controversial marketing practices and
traditional corporate paranoia. As members of such a large and complex ecosystem, there
are as many toes to avoid stepping on as there are policies to appease. And let’s not forget
about the customers’ lives on the line – that’s a lot of risk to bear.
The firms are accustomed to proactively protecting themselves from certain types of
exposure that could damage their corporate/brand reputations, legal standings or financial
opportunities. On the surface, partitioning off a section of the marketing mix to social media
would cause a disruption in the conventional comfort they have grown to rely on since
direct-to-consumer advertising was legalized in the U.S. in 1985. This leads them to be very
cautious when approaching social media. Changing the direction of this heavy tide requires
brave and deliberate action.
Interestingly, regulation isn’t as much of a concern as many believe it to be. The FDA does
not prohibit the usage of the Internet in pharma’s marketing activities. In fact, they would
likely be proud supporters. The FDA is quite fond of detailed communication. It requires
drug manufacturers to provide all pertinent information concerning an advertised drug. In
an effort to curb ethical concerns regarding direct-to-consumer advertising, the FDA takes
special care to ensure that products are presented to consumers while minimizing over-pre-
scriptions and incorrect self-diagnosis.
Is there hope? Indeed there is! Successful social media strategy requires good planning;
good planning takes into account multiple internal departments, motives and strategies;
good planning requires strength and foresight to break out of a mold and define new
territory. This will undoubtedly involve intense adjustment and a temporary loss of footing
as comfort zones re-adjust. Real change is likely to happen only when a solid appreciation
for its presence is cultivated.
Clearly, pharma is fraught with certain complications that are absent from other industries,
slowing its access to the on-ramp to social media stardom. With a strong initiative to shift
attitudes and a plan to adjust internal compliance and regulatory frameworks, pharma can
finally get involved in true conversational marketing. Leveraging the power of the mass mind
through technological innovations is practical, logical and in some ways critical.
When opening conversations through social media, there is a natural concern over the discussion
of adverse events, competing brands and erroneous information. These apprehensions can
be quickly dismissed, since the dialog will happen with or without cooperation from pharma.
They might as well participate, if not outright manage, the interaction space.
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Taking Baby Steps

While many organizations find social media and social networks to be powerful marketing
tools, pharma is particularly poised to take advantage of the benefits, if it can find its way.
There are a lot of reasons to explain why it might get lost, but it is important for everyone
that steps are taken soon to bridge the gap. One company is attempting to take a bigger
step. Johnson & Johnson has acquired, a community site for
parents of kids with diabetes. The site features public discussion forums and even accepts
ads from competitors. A bold move, indeed. Johnson & Johnson is leading, and joining, a
global, open conversation.
Pharma companies can leverage social media in three ways. First, it is an excellent source
of online social ethnography (observational research). It is now possible to collect such data
without violating regulatory boundaries from both internal (corporate policy) and external
(FDA) perspectives. Measurement and intelligence companies such as Nielsen BuzzMetrics,
Cymfony, Facebook Lexicon and Socialmention have developed tools that provide detailed
information about what consumers and medical professionals think about medications
and related issues. Additionally, there are many ways to design effective listening models
through strategic and well-executed social media campaigns.
BackType is a great example of a social media tool/service that serves as a ‘conversa-
tional search engine’. It not only monitors blog posts, but also tracks the detractors who
devalue reputations through negative comments. It acts as a reputation monitoring system
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Using Social Technology in Pharma Marketing 6

because it allows one to search comments that mention any specific brands; it also allows
one to search comments left by particular people. If “JohnDoe123” is constantly criticizing
your company, BackType will provide relevant and customizable alerts. Marketers can use
BackType to discover if public contributors are genuine customers with valid opinions or
malicious perpetrators. This can help prevent abuse in social media campaigns and ought to
give internal policy enforcers some relief. There are continuously evolving tools in the social
sphere that can be deployed as tactical measures in pharma’s social media endeavors.
The second opportunity for pharma is to truly ‘go where the people are’. It is important
to reach out to the consumer where they already are, where they already feel safe in their
search for health information. The key values that are emphasized here are transparency
and contextual relevancy. Simply put, be honest and clear, and speak to issues with
understanding and objectivity. It is only through nurturing these values that pharma can
become a credible participant in online conversations and networks. Certainly, it will require
a decent level of courage and stamina to tolerate negative commentary; internal policies
will have to adapt to include greater flexibility that will enable employees to respond quickly
and appropriately.
Cephalon is a good example of a company that is communicating in a relatively transparent
fashion with its stakeholders. It has launched the website, which features
blogs written by parents, psychologists and others who have tips for people caring for
children with ADHD. Other examples include GSK setting up of a blog alliConnect to support
its over-the-counter weight-loss aid alli, which is a lower-dose version of their prescription
drug, Xenical.
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The third opportunity for pharma is to develop physician social networks around brands.
By hosting a smart, useful and robust community, it becomes possible to build a potential
marketing platform. Pfizer is teaming up with Sermo to create a social networking site.
Pfizer can now have access to Sermo’s 31,000 licensed physicians and can interact with
them directly. All users in the network remain anonymous and any Pfizer doctors who ask
and answer questions are identified as being from Pfizer.
The average face time of a pharma rep is around 2 minutes and most reps carry a laptop
or tablet around with a Sales Force Automation / Customer Relationship Management app
with Sample Management and Call Detailing which they desperately try to get in front of
the MD or practice member. Imagine if it is linked to a physicians’ social networking site,
while conforming to the strict requirements of PDMA and 21 CFR Part 11. According to a
study done by healthcare research firm Manhattan Research, physicians who participate in
online social networks are writing 24 more prescriptions per week than physicians who do
not. This is an untapped opportunity for pharma, as long as it can explore creative ways to
incorporate this channel into its brand strategies.
There are interesting results waiting to be discovered if we can bring heightened digital
socialization to the knowledge base of medical research and health information. An organized
collective database of online bookmarks related to particular disorders or diseases could be
particularly useful. Medical journals and publications could be accessed through Delicious
bookmarking services or Google Reader and related products. Distributing meaningful
information to consumers would be made much easier, with far greater opportunities for
personalization, in turn supporting more positive experiences.
We are enjoying a phase of intense experimentation on the Web, with unprecedented
openness and access. Portals can be generated around aggregated public content, with
fascinating possibilities to visualize content that include – and reach far beyond – tag clouds
and other familiar features. Technologists are collaborating in interesting unions every day,
producing innovative tools and services that manipulate and harness data for positive
results. Once we apply Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, YouTube, StumbleUpon, and other
popular utilities and services, the permutations are virtually endless.
Perhaps we will derive meaningful streams of information that would inevitably self-organize
and align itself with the global mind. Perhaps we’ll recognize significant patterns and trends
that will have a valuable impact on a certain topic. To take it a step further, by opening up
research data and providing custom interactive and social applications, we can enhance
pharma’s horsepower with a public sandbox driven by organic solutions. The opportunities
are out there.
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We are navigating a maze with no clear rules or guidelines. At this time, there is no FDA
guideline or regulation that specifically covers the content of online discussion in a way
that is different from the reporting of adverse events or information derived from any other
source. Current FDA guidelines stipulate four parameters for submitting information about
adverse experiences: The pharmaceutical company should have knowledge of
1. An identifiable patient;
2. An identifiable reporter;
3. A specific drug or biologic involved in the event; and
4. An adverse event or fatal outcome.
Any pharmaceutical company considering an entry into the social media space must address
the discussion of adverse events. Since there has not been significant activity in the space,
we do not know if consumers have a propensity to share adverse experiences online. Does
social media monitoring trigger the reporting requirements for adverse effects? There is still
no definitive answer.
The pharmaceutical industry is and will continue to be one of the most highly-regulated
industries, and justifiably so. We are dealing with people’s health, and sometimes, even life
and death. In time, the FDA, OIG and DDMAC will evolve their policies to adapt to the times
and provide better, clearer and more comprehensive guidelines for pharma companies,
enabling them to use social media responsibly and for the benefit of consumers. In the
meantime, expect many more pharma companies to start experimenting with social media
by taking baby steps up the on-ramp.
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Using Social Technology in Pharma Marketing 9

Adam Rubin Idea Couture

Adam is an Experience Architect Idea Couture Inc. is a strategic innovation, experience
at Idea Couture. As a passionate design and social technologies firm. The company
integrator of strategy, technology brings together multi-disciplinary thinkers to fill a void
and design, he bridges gaps in the marketplace between strategic consultants,
between disciplines and synthesizes interactive agencies and design firms. Because of our
complex factors into meaningful extensive experience at the cutting edge of the
experiences; in recent months, his energies have been increasingly connected world, we understand the
dedicated to the intricate world of healthcare, as subtleties of how social technologies are changing
well as emerging opportunities in mobile. Adam holds the business landscape.
an MBA from the Rotman School of Management at
IC engages in innovation programs and leverages
the University of Toronto.
deep customer insights and social technologies to
radically challenge the status quo and create new
Scott Friedmann
business ideas that lead to economic value creation.
Scott is VP Partner at Idea Couture,
Driven by a singular passion for understanding
where he oversees the firm’s
customer unmet needs and social technologies, our
multi-disciplinary teams in the
multi-disciplinary innovation process, a.k.a. Noodleplay,
development of innovative
uncovers valuable consumer and market insights
solutions for Fortune 500 clients.
and inspires lasting, humanizing solutions.
He is a dynamic executive-level
thinker who operates at the intersection of business Learn more about Idea Couture’s innovation process
model innovation, social media and service design. at
Scott holds an HBA from the Ivey Business School at
Copyright © 2009 Idea Couture Inc. All rights reserved.
the University of Western Ontario and a Masters
in Management of Hospitality from Cornell University. Idea Couture, its logo, and D-School + B-School are
trademarks of Idea Couture Inc.