There is no need for pessimism about the ability of pharmaceutical companies to use social media in their online marketing mix. The common belief is there are too many regulatory hurdles around reporting adverse events, presenting fair balance efficacy information, and avoiding endorsement of off-label usage. While it certainly isn’t as simple for pharma as it is for CPG, technology or entertainment marketers, many drug companies are beginning to use social media very effectively, and there are easy ways to get started, requiring only small modifications to current regulatory processes. This discussion focuses on consumers, but most also applies to physicians.
Over 80% of Internet consumers search online for health information, trusting peer-generated social media content more than pharma company websites and what their physicians say. It has become commonplace to use online support groups to discuss medications or treatments with other patients.
Drug firms must communicate via social networks because it’s a primary way consumers prefer to make health decisions. Marketing via social media can make pharmaceutical marketing more effective because it creates better-informed patients, who’ll make smarter decisions, become more compliant, and advocate an effective treatment to their social contacts.
How to Start
There are four steps to getting started with social media marketing, and marketers quickly learn the importance of responding to what consumers are saying. It all begins with monitoring, followed by increasing depths of participation and open, two-way dialogue.
Step 1: Monitor & Learn
First, monitor the online conversations taking place on blogs, social networks, video sites, bulletin boards, etc. about your product, its competitors, the disease state, non-drug treatments, etc. to understand what consumers are discussing. Learn about patients’ product experiences, any questions they have, what they are confused about and if they raise new issues you weren’t aware of. Take the learnings from these monitoring efforts, and map out specific objectives for your social media marketing initiatives.
Example: Review patient commentary about your drug and its competitors on https://medsafetyalert.iguard.org/help/patients/.
Step 2: Join & Educate Existing Communities
Join the conversation in existing patient or pharmaceutical industry communities. If there are inaccurate or confused postings, designate a company representative to identify him/herself and provide medically-approved, accurate information currently missing from the discussion. This gives marketers first-hand experience with members’ interest areas, passion and receptivity to open dialogue.
Example: Monitor www.cafepharma.com, where industry sales reps give their uncensored opinions, then post information that corrects common misunderstandings.
Step 3: Create Unbranded Content Community
Focus on a disease state, not a specific product, which minimizes regulatory restrictions, and provides valuable learnings for subsequent branded social marketing. Create disease education content (e.g., video) to establish greater corporate credibility and provide real value for patients. The best approach is to create a channel or community on an existing social site that already has a very large audience, like YouTube, but some companies prefer to build their own separate disease-focused community. Do not block comments from visitors, as YouTube allows, because you lose the honest community feedback.
Example: Create an unbranded YouTube health channel like J&J, who posted a series of disease condition videos, without a product mention http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJcp2wTeQZg.
Step 4: Create Branded Content Community
Branded social media resources on product sites or existing social sites must comply with all regulatory requirements around Fair Balance, adverse events and off-label usage. Since all consumer commentary must be reviewed before posting, start by posting specific questions and invite consumers to answer. This reduces the likelihood of problematic comments and enables quicker review for posting. Don’t start by inviting open-ended commentary because it can require more regulatory staff, which often isn’t available, and create long lag times between submission and posting, which discourages participation. Some studies indicate online consumers generate few adverse event reports, so the industry may evolve to a more open community dialogue more quickly if the regulatory review workload indeed proves easily manageable.
Example: Create a Q&A exchange before progressing to a more open feedback forum, like GSK’s blog and forum for alli, its OTC weight-loss drug http://www.myalli.com/.
Can pharma companies use social media in their marketing? Of course they can. All regulatory requirements can be met, and the pharma industry can engage in a productive conversation with its consumers.
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