Saturday, March 20, 2010

How a Pharma (Or Any Highly Regulated Business) Can Evolve Into a Social Media Leader In 5 Easy Steps

With marketing budgets tighter than ever, pharmaceutical companies are hungry for new ways to reach and engage highly qualified prospects at a fraction of the cost traditional media. Social media is just one new weapon in the pharmaceutical marketer’s arsenal. Used with the proper strategic rigor, it can help to amplify exponentially the good will generated from a company’s other marketing and public relations -based initiatives, providing much more bang for the buck.

By simply dipping the toes of its digital footprint into the online communities where both doctors and patients congregate (and data shows they are congregating more and more), a business can be a fly on the wall and gain invaluable information about what patients, healthcare providers and caregivers are discussing in terms of the disease state, treatments – even their experiences with customer service.

A lot of what’s being said on blogs and forums is positive and a lot of it is neutral. But what usually stands out most is a very vocal minority that knows how to use social media to vent its displeasure. (Think... um...Tea Party.) This is what makes the news.

It’s also what makes pharma companies nervous about using social media.

Case in point: just a few weeks ago, Sanofi Aventis had (an unofficial) Facebook page overrun by an organization of former breast cancer patients (the “Taxotears”) who suffered permanent hair loss (alopecia) due to their use of Sanofi’s chemo drug, Taxotere. The patients posted photos of their bald heads and accused Sanofi  of not properly warning them of the possibility of alopecia as a side effect of treatment with Taxotere. The warning is indeed printed on the brand's materials, but it seems doctors may not be making enough of a point about it when discussing possible side effects with prospective patients. It will be interesting to see how Sanofi responds to the situation. In this situation, considering that the page is counterfeit and infringing on Sanofi's logo, I might suggest dispensing with the usual social media rules of engagement and have Facebook pull the plug on the page.

It’s adverse events like this that make pharma companies nervous about the use of social media. But if a company is properly prepared to anticipate such events and has a procedure in place, social media is the best way to turn a negative discussion into a positive one.

We always talk about pharma’s squeamishness about social media – the regulatory issues, and so on.  But when you think about it, what industry is better prepared to deal with these things than pharma, itself?  After all, pharmaceutical marketers have a couple of decades under their belts of working within rigid FDA guidelines. 

In social media, transparency and authenticity is key. Companies can’t make false or inaccurate claims or hide their mistakes or products’ shortcomings. Unlike those in other industries that can play around with semantics, pharma companies have long been held accountable for their actions and know what it takes to abide by a firm set of rules. So what industry is better prepared for social media than pharma? It just takes some smart planning, good strategic thinking and a little courage. Here are a few suggestions for venturing more deeply into the unchartered waters of social media (with water wings):

1. Who does what? Decide who on the team will be responsible for what: monitoring conversations, engaging in the dialogue, handling MLR, etc. Without clear assignments, mistakes can happen. (Even with them, mistakes will happen.) The important thing is to expect the unexpected and have the right people in place to handle it. This means everyone will have to take on a little extra responsibility beyond their original job descriptions.

2. Socialize social media. To get everyone in the company more comfortable with the inevitable, have them create their own Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.  Just make sure that they don't use them as vehicles for delivering the company's point of view. These are purely for personal use only.  After everyone gets a little more comfortable, create a corporate Facebook page for employees to use. Get the hang of moderating the discussion. Open a corporate Twitter feed and practice using it as a tool to engage the community – not as just another PR outlet. Create a company blog and have members of every department contribute to it. But before doing any of these things, develop an editorial calendar that strategically fits your marketing plan. Then adhere to it.

3. Create a fast lane to legal. Like any one-to-one conversation, social media happens in real time. When someone says something worthy of a response – or even more importantly – a correction, you don’t have the luxury of time.  So a process designed for reviewing bigger and more complicated materials over a much greater length of time simply won’t cut it.  By the time the material is deemed kosher, it could be too late to engage in the conversation. Create an HOV lane to your legal department. 

4. Make monthly “digital house calls.”  Have your company's medical experts openly drop in on the most respected and heavily frequented disease state-related forums to answer questions and correct any misinformation they find. They should be clear that they are there on behalf of their company, and they should clearly substantiate all of their information. While they’re at it, they should also look at any Wikipedia entries about your brand and the disease state it covers, and politely correct any inaccurate Wiki information or discussion posts. But the corrections should be made only in the "Discussion Bar" notes, NOT in the Wiki, itself. Leave good source material and the active Wiki community will make the change for you.

5. Create a spokes-patient. Have him or her write a weekly blog about their personal patient journey experience and regularly post entries for a video diary on YouTube. They can also (with full disclosure) correct misinformation like the (and with the help of) the experts in the previous suggestion. Your spokesperson could also write emails for a retention program, leading the patients by example. This concept could carry into above the line media, as well.

It’s all about tiny steps. But even a tiny step is one in the right direction.

By the time the FDA gets around to establishing social media guidelines for the entire industry, your pharma company will have smartly and carefully established itself as a leader in social media.


and Share


  1. Mark, you said: "It’s adverse events like this that make pharma companies nervous about the use of social media. But if a company is properly prepared to anticipate such events and has a procedure in place, social media is the best way to turn a negative discussion into a positive one."

    It's hard to argue with this viewpoint, and perhaps many of these companies should just simply be reminded of the old adage: Plan your work, and work your plan.

  2. JT, I never heard that, but nice way to put it.

    Anonymous, you may have a point.

  3. Hi there. Just a point of clarification regarding our complaint against sanofi aventis and the drug taxotere. We were never warned about the possibility of PERMANENT hair loss. After some people complained of permanent loss, they added the phrase, "hair GENERALLY grows back." Not exactly a strong warning, eh? And they have done nothing to educate doctors nor are they collecting data that will inform us how high the risk really is. We simply want patients to be fully informed as they make their treatment choices.

    We were hoping to engage the company in a dialog about our concerns but it seems they aren't interested.

    I'm gald to see our social campaign is gaining some attenion:) Thanks for commenting on it.