For those of you who haven’t heard, social media is the hottest new technology to hit the Internet since e-commerce in the late 1990s. While social media has already made its way into today’s lexicon, there is some disagreement over exactly what it is. However, most experts agree that the primary goal of social media is to build relationships and create communities around ideas or issues through the use of a variety of interactive online tools. These so-called Web 2.0 tools include online bulletin boards and forums; chat rooms; user-oriented authoring platforms like Twitter, podcasts, and web logs (blogs); and social networking and video sharing sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Flickr.
Regardless of the social media application or platform technology that is used, “It’s all about communication and engaging others in an ongoing conversation or dialogue,” says Ken Grant, a social media enthusiast and director of sales and marketing of Analtech, a company that sells chromatography reagents to life sciences companies.
WHO USES SOCIAL MEDIA?
Despite its popularity and use among many consumer-oriented Fortune 500 companies, most pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and devices/diagnostic companies have refrained from using social media to engage customers and stakeholders. Instead, most have chosen to stick with a decidedly Web 1.0 model, which tends to keep customer interactions to a bare minimum. Indeed, only a handful of life sciences companies have decided to take the social media plunge, claims Jonathan Richman, director of business development at Bridge Worldwide Inc. and author of the popular “Dose of Digital” blog, which tracks social media usage by life sciences and healthcare companies.
According to Richman, there are only a handful of drug companies on Facebook (the largest social networking website, which recently surpassed 350 million registered users) and the popular video sharing site YouTube, which is owned by Google. Likewise, only a small number of companies have created accounts on Twitter — the highly touted microblogging platform that is expected to surpass 18 million registered users by year’s end. Finally, only a smattering of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, including Johnson and Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, and GE Healthcare, run and maintain blogs — one of the earliest forms of social media. This is remarkable considering that Technorati, a company that tracks blog creation and blogging habits, determined that in 2008 there were over 25 million blogs in the United States, which were visited by more than 77 million viewers!
The industry’s reluctance to engage in social media puzzles John Mack, a veteran pharmaceutical consultant, blogger, and social media enthusiast who publishes the influential Pharma Marketing News newsletter and the Pharma Marketing blog. “Social media has drastically changed the way people communicate over the Internet. It is a two-way dialog that makes discussions and the exchange of information available to masses of people who previously may not have had access,” he said. The industry needs to better understand its benefits and get into the game, Mack added. Analtech’s Grant asserts that life sciences companies have to come to terms with the fact that conversations about them are already taking place online whether or not they are aware of them. “Companies should understand that they must monitor social media channels to better understand what their customers and stakeholders are saying and what they need or want,” he said.
One pharmaceutical company that understands this is Wilmington, DE-based AstraZeneca, which several years ago opened a couple of branded video channels on YouTube and more recently joined Twitter. Earl Whipple, AstraZenecaUS senior director of business and digital media communications, said, “Before we launched our @AstraZenecaUS Twitter account, our company was already the subject of numerous tweets, so it only made sense to join the conversation. We not only want to be part of conversations about AstraZeneca and important health topics, but we also want to listen to what people are saying about the company and the industry.”
WHY LIFE SCIENCES COMPANIES HAVE SHUNNED SOCIAL MEDIA
While many life sciences companies avoid using social media, pharmaceutical marketers and brand managers are well aware of positive business outcomes obtained by other companies that use it. When queried, drug and device manufacturers almost universally indicate that their reluctance about social media is based on the failure of the FDA to issue regulatory guidance or provide input on the appropriate use of this new medium. This is because, in recent years, the FDA’s Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications (DDMAC), which monitors and regulates the marketing and advertising practices of pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and devices companies, has increased it regulatory scrutiny and penalized or sanctioned a growing number of companies for false or misleading promotional activities. Consequently, many drug and devices manufacturers are fearful that engaging in social media without official guidelines and regulations in place may lead to additional penalties and harsher sanctions.
Life sciences companies have also shied away from social media because of FDA regulations that guide adverse event (AE) monitoring and reporting for prescription drugs and devices. By law, companies are required to report all adverse events and side effects of marketed drugs and devices to FDA. The concern is that social media would empower and allow disgruntled consumers to post unsubstantiated or false AE claims to the Internet which, in turn, would trigger an avalanche of unwarranted but mandatory AE investigations at many drug and device manufacturers. Many fear that this possibility has the potential to “swamp” or overwhelm the existing AE reporting systems that are already in place at most companies. However, many of these concerns may go away in the coming months because the FDA — recognizing the inevitability of social media —announced in mid-September 2009 that it will hold public meetings in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 12 and 13, 2009 (this article was written prior to this meeting) seeking input from industry representatives and the public on the use of social media in the life sciences industry. Hopefully, this will eventually provide some regulatory clarity on the use of social media at life sciences companies.
Another reason why life sciences companies are leery of social media is a realization that the American public’s confidence and trust in the industry may be at historical lows. This is likely because of the recent spate of drug recalls, safety issues with approved products, and massive layoffs. Pharma Marketing News’ Mack contends that pharma feels it has “few friends” and believes that social media tools will offer disgruntled consumers a convenient vehicle to say bad things and spread false rumors about companies and their products. “Not only are companies afraid of what people may say; they are fearful that they may not be able to control the conversations as they have been able to do in the past when using television and print media advertising,” he said. Moreover, Analtech’s Grant likens the current social media explosion to “the wild west where the rules haven’t been established and anything goes” — yet another reason why the regulatory-obsessed and conservative life sciences industry refuses to embrace social media.
Despite the obvious regulatory concerns and public relations risks, several pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have begun experimenting with social media. It is important to note, however, that many of the people who advocate the use of social media at these companies are marketing and communication professionals who recognize the potential of social media to promote brand awareness and increase sales of their products. Bridge Worldwide’s Richman doesn’t think that using social media strictly for promotional purposes is going to work in today’s antipharma climate. “Companies are going to have a hard time selling brand communities to consumers because people don’t trust pharma, and expecting them to openly discuss things in a forum owned and controlled by a pharma company is a real stretch,” Richman said. Unfortunately, this is usually the “first thing that pharmaceutical marketers want to do in social media if they can get their company’s legal teams to go along with it,” he added. Nevertheless, Richman believes that social media can and ought to be used for nonpromotional purposes to improve operational efficiencies and business outcomes. Shwen Gwee, lead at New Media and Corporate Communications at Massachusetts-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals, agrees. “I believe that once social media is integrated and institutionalized, it will play a vital role not only as a driver of corporate communications and marketing, but in market research, business development, R&D, and for corporate training and development purposes.”
NONPROMOTIONAL USES OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Although much of the discussion about social media has focused on its use as a branding and promotional tool, several nonpromotional uses of social media at life sciences companies have been suggested by social media-savvy industry experts. These include: 1) adverse event monitoring and reporting, 2) patient recruitment for clinical trials, 3) patient education and public outreach, and 4) corporate recruitment and employee retention.
PHARMACOVIGILANCE AND AEs
The use of social media for AE monitoring and reporting is one of the most controversial applications that has been suggested. On the surface, social networking sites like Facebook, corporate blogs, and Twitter would be ideal platforms for AE monitoring because of their real-time reporting capabilities and the breadth of the audiences they can reach. If designed in a regulatory-compliant way (and managed appropriately), these monitoring and reporting platforms would likely allow drug and devices companies to quickly collect and analyze large amounts of data to determine whether or not previously approved drugs may have safety or tolerability concerns that must be addressed. Further, the wide reach of social media may allow companies to monitor AEs on a global scale, which could provide early warning signals about tolerability or safety issues with certain products. This would permit companies to more quickly determine whether or not label changes, product recalls, or additional postmarketing clinical trials may be appropriate for the products in question.
Naysayers contend that using social media for adverse events monitoring and reporting would be costly, operationally onerous to implement, and tantamount to opening a “can of worms.” However, from a regulatory standpoint, companies with approved products already have adverse events monitoring and reporting systems in place designed to accommodate AEs received by a variety of new technologies, including email, voicemail, cell phone texting, and via company-sponsored websites. Modifying existing AE monitoring and reporting systems to include social media platforms doesn’t seem like that much of a “stretch” to many outside observers.
While bogus adverse event reporting and incorrect medical advice offered by consumers are real concerns with social media, this doesn’t appear to be the case at Johnson and Johnson, a life sciences industry social media pioneer. Mark Monseau, J&J’s director of media relations who oversees two corporate blogs (Kilmerblog.com and JNJBtw) and a Twitter account (@JNJCom), said that “negative comments about the company were a real concern of ours when we launched the Kilmer blog several years ago. So far, this hasn’t been a problem for us.” Also, a recent survey conducted by Nielsen BuzzMetrics revealed that only one reportable AE was found among 500 messages that were posted to popular Google- and Yahoo-related websites. While not conclusive, this suggests that the frequency of AE reporting and the likelihood that people will misuse or abuse life sciences company-sponsored social media platforms and websites may be less than anticipated.
Like it or not, AEs are a fact of life in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and devices/diagnostics business, and the quicker they are reported and managed, the better it is for a company and consumers. Analtech’s Grant contends that the real-time features of many social media tools offer an advantage if problems with a product should arise. He said, “If something comes up, the real-time features of social media allow you to jump out ahead of it and minimize any potential downstream damage.” Likewise, Pharma Marketing News’ Mack suggests that real time social media platforms like Twitter and easily updatable social networking sites like Facebook would be ideal for physician, consumer, and patient safety alerts. This idea seems to be gaining support at life sciences companies based on a 2009 Pharma Marketing News survey that revealed that roughly 36% of pharmaceutical and biotechnology company respondents favored using social media for product safety alerts. A smaller percentage of survey respondents felt that social media could effectively be used for AE monitoring and reporting. Finally, UCB, a Belgian biopharmaceutical company, recently announced an alliance with PatientsLikeMe.com, an online patient community and social networking site, to create a social media-driven pharmacovigilance and AE monitoring and reporting network.
CLINICAL TRIAL RECRUITMENT AND MANAGEMENT
In recent years, it has become increasingly challenging for companies with drugs in clinical development to identify and recruit qualified subjects to participate in human clinical trials. Clinical trial recruitment, previously mainly restricted to the United States and Western Europe, has been forced to expand and is now conducted on a global basis. Traditional subject recruitment tools include print, television, and radio ads, and in some instances, websites — all of which are costly, labor-intensive, and limited in their reach and effectiveness. Because of their global reach, social media platforms like Facebook (with over 300 million registered users), LinkedIn (with members in over 140 different countries), and Twitter, which is growing rapidly, would be ideal vehicles for recruiting clinical trial participants. Further, informational and instructional videos on YouTube and other video-sharing websites could aid recruitment efforts and also help patients manage, prepare, and store test medications being evaluated in the clinical trials. Finally, because of the real-time capabilities of social media platforms, they could be used by clinical trials personnel to better manage trial operations, logistics, and internal communications. For example, Twitter could be used to remind clinical trial participants to take their medicines, alert them about upcoming hospital or clinic visits, and keep them abreast of medical protocol and study design changes.
PATIENT EDUCATION AND PUBLIC OUTREACH
Many companies already maintain branded websites and product fan pages on Facebook and other social networking websites. While these sites may be helpful to patients who use a particular brand, they may not address all of the needs or questions of patients who suffer from a specific condition or disease. To that end, life sciences companies could — in a nonpromotional way —utilize Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and disease-specific blogs and online communities to better educate, provide support, and actively engage the public in conversations about specific diseases, treatment options, wellness care, and promising new medicines and treatments. Also, social media could be employed to help companies promote charitable events and fund-raising efforts, publicize community outreach programs, and showcase efforts aimed at improving the public’s understanding of health, science, and medicine. That said, J&J’s Monseau contends, “Whether or not social media communications are branded or unbranded is going to differ from brand to brand and company to company. The important thing is that many life sciences companies are beginning to realize they must engage consumers and become part of the conversation.” Similar sentiments were expressed by AstraZeneca’s Whipple, who said, “Our goal is to engage with consumers and physicians by providing relevant information, education, and answers to questions online where they are actively looking for information.”
CORPORATE RECRUITMENT AND EMPLOYEE RETENTION
Recruiters and human resource professionals have long known that online social networking websites are a great and easily accessible source of qualified job candidates. Not surprisingly, Fortune 500 companies like Best Buy, FedEx, and IBM already know this and use social media as part of their standard employee recruitment and retention programs. Unlike these companies, many life sciences companies are either unaware or have resisted using social media for corporate recruiting and employee retention purposes. However, a growing number of small biotechnology companies regularly use Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to identify and recruit prospective new employees. While employee retention is no longer the priority that it once was, a few companies like Best Buy and FedEx still recognize that satisfied employees are their most ardent advocates and greatest assets. To that end, several of these companies empower their employees by providing access and allowing them to visit and post on Facebook, Twitter, and their own corporate blogs. Other companies that don’t maintain public blogs allow employees to post to internal blogs to make announcements, discuss ideas, and sometimes even to gripe about company policies. Pharma Marketing News’ Mack believes that “greater access to social media is necessary in the life sciences industry — not only for employee retention purposes but to personalize the faces of these companies and help improve their public images.”
THE FUTURE OF SOCIAL MEDIA IN PHARMA
While life sciences companies continue to struggle to understand social media, there is a growing consensus among many in the industry that, like it or not, social media is here to stay. And, while some continue to refuse to acknowledge its growing importance, others like AstraZeneca’s Whipple believe that life sciences companies have a “responsibility to monitor and engage people in the social media space.” Despite this, many industry experts contend there will be little support for social media in the life sciences industry until the FDA crafts regulations to guide its use. Analtech’s Grant believes that companies ought to take a more active role and not wait for the FDA to craft the guidelines for them. “If life sciences companies help to craft and set the rules, they will be able to more easily live with them and be better off in the future,” he said.
Regardless of whether or not the FDA crafts guidance on the topic, social media, by its very nature, will continue to evolve and change over time. “The conversation we are having today will undoubtedly be different from the one we will have tomorrow,” cautions Grant. “And, if we wait for a government agency to craft guidance, the opportunity likely will pass us by.” Finally, Mack aptly described the life sciences industry’s uncertainty and indecisiveness about social media when he said, “Pharma doesn’t want to be left out of the picture; but the picture hasn’t been clearly painted yet, and many aren’t quite sure what they are being left out of!”