Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Another Kind of Healthcare Revolution

Pharma Guy ‘s recent post about his experience on a social media panel struck a chord. While the panel was certain that social media would change the consumer communication landscape, it also concluded that for social media to experience dramatic uptake in the pharma world, marketing as a whole would have to make sweeping changes.

Similar thoughts had recently been percolating in my head. Certainly, there are a number of ways that the traditional marketing framework in which we operate (AIDA) should change to leverage the power of social media. Shifting our objectives from generating awareness to creating talk-worthy programs is one example.

The most necessary change however, is that marketing departments have to reorient themselves from being responsible for creating messages to receiving them. A company’s ability to respond to a crisis has been proven time and again to increasingly shaping the public’s perception of it. Consider Domino’s swift and effective response to the unfortunate employee escapades on YouTube (see Mark’s 4/16 post).

Currently, social media is the sole providence of corporate communications, which for many pharma companies exists in a completely separate silo from marketing. In fact, Mark and I have visited a few companies where the people with whom we met were flabbergasted to learn from us that their corporate communications people already had made some forays into social media.

What’s needed is some sort of “Customer Advocacy Department” within Marketing. It should include people skilled in marketing, medical, communications, alliance development and customer service. This department would be responsible for monitoring, responding and engaging with the online communities that are so crucial to shaping a brand’s digital footprint.

This idea has its genesis in a Customer Advocacy Department I was part of at Pfizer in the late ‘90s. While the idea was solid, our department’s mission was vague – the staffing was wrong and the group was kept separate from Marketing. Perhaps the concept was also a bit ahead of its time. Our department did, however, accomplish some important work, particularly in the area of health literacy.

Pharmaceutical marketing departments have traditionally altered their composition to meet the changing communication opportunities. When the DTC regulations changed in 1997, Consumer Marketing departments started springing up everywhere.

With the growth of social media, particularly in the older demographics that are the heaviest users of pharmaceutical products, the need for departments that are “programmed to receive” will grow exponentially. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, "Nearly all of the recent growth in social networking has come among older people." Yesterday’s New York Times had an article about the positive role social networking sites play in the lives of home-bound seniors.

In it, Joseph F. Coughlin, Director of the Age Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says, “The new future of old age is about staying in society, staying in the workplace and staying very connected. And technology is going to be a very big part of that, because the new reality is, increasingly, a virtual reality.”

Despite the growth in social media, it may take the issuance of social media guidelines by the FDA to kick pharmaceutical social media usage into high gear (as it did for DTC advertising). However, business (and more importantly someone’s health) slips away a little every day that the promise of social media is ignored.

I can’t tell you how many times I have read posts on message boards like, “Wow, after reading about all the side effects everyone here has had with Drug X, I am stopping my medicine now!”

A Customer Advocacy Department – if such a thing existed today– is where these patients could obtain some useful balance and perhaps not delay going off their medicines until speaking with their healthcare professionals. Maybe listening and responding to customer concerns can help flatten out those precipitous drops in adherence every drug experiences, particularly after 3 months. What about reconfiguring our databases to be programmed to receive email rather than to simply send out the latest blast?

Maybe social media is the compliance tool that we have all been waiting for?



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