Magazine Article | September 12, 2011

Social Media And Pharma – An Untapped Value Proposition For The Life Sciences Industry

Source: Life Science Leader

By Rosemarie Truman

We are all aware that the life sciences industry is strongly focused on increasing and enhancing capabilities relating to developing products/solutions that, ultimately, gain market acceptance and achieve successful commercialization. As we await regulatory guidance for social media, we are left wondering: can social media provide the desired value the industry is striving to achieve?

The Value Proposition Of Social Media
Now, imagine that you could possibly reach the 535 million people using Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn; this is 7.7% of the world’s population. If you take this a step further and only count people aged 10 to 64, you can reach 10% of the globe. Think about this: a startling 96% of those who were born between 1980 and 2000 have joined a social network. The United States now has the highest adoption of social media, with 46% of the population. If you then consider the 3.5 billion drugs dispensed per year in the United States (12 prescriptions per person per year, on average), the social media statistic becomes even more remarkable, indicating that by influencing only three channels of social media, it is theoretically possible to influence an entire population via social media. It is a fact: social media is going to persist, with or without you.

Since many articles have come out recently with regard to the risk of using social media in life sciences, the industry is acutely aware of the risk in engaging an audience in a heavily regulated industry. This lack of engagement/communication is justified, as pharmaceutical companies are often reminded of the heavy ramifications of a marketing misstep. In a high-profile case in 2010, Novartis was fined a hefty $422.5 million for off-label drug marketing. While charges in this case were not specifically targeted toward social media marketing, and off-label marketing is impermissible in any case, the social media world presents new challenges and heavier burdens to bear – and companies are taking note.

The FDA has issued no clear policy on social media activity, but has discouraged usage. The latest news reports are that the FDA has again postponed the release of its first draft guidance for social media. In a highly regulated industry, this lack of guidance has many pharma companies tiptoeing in the social media space, or avoiding it altogether.

The Risks Of Social Media
When used intelligently, social media can add significant value to the life sciences industry. The benefits for utilizing social media strengthen and widen your company’s presence in avenues that traditional direct-to-consumer advertising and promotional efforts (e.g. mailers) cannot. When before has a customer/patient been able to have a real conversation with an extraordinary number of customers/patients that are “just like them”?

There are five main reasons to develop and maintain a social media voice for life sciences organizations: to listen, to engage, to add value, to advertise/promote/shape demand, and to create a community.

First, while all are essential to gain value from social media, listening is, possibly, most critical for life sciences companies, and it is also the least risky. These days, consumers often purchase based on social media influencers. Additionally, there are Twitter profiles, such as @SideEffectsSpy and @eyeonfda, which serve as unregulated pharma watchdogs, while community sites like and continuously share views about pharmaceutical products before companies have time to react. Keeping an eye on your company’s mentions allows you to respond in a timely and appropriate manner. Life sciences companies can find out exactly what the concerns of patient advocate groups are so that this can then be incorporated into further patient engagement. Whatever your company’s involvement, proactively listening should be part of your social media strategy. Read blogs, follow relevant Twitter profiles, and check Facebook. Consumers, associations, and the media are talking – do you know what they are saying about you? More important, do you know what their sentiment is overall? Is it positive? Negative?

Second, let’s cover engagement. Consumers are interacting with each other, but what about companies? Some pharma companies seem to be interacting more frequently, and not just watching from the sidelines. Companies like Novo Nordisk, the first pharma company to create a product promotional campaign via Twitter; Johnson and Johnson, the first pharma to blog and, additionally, launch an online health education channel of videos; and, more recently, AstraZeneca, the first to hold a sponsored pharma Twitter chat, are paving the social media path for pharma companies. Conferences such as BioConference Live ( have gone entirely virtual, with online-only speaker sessions and trade shows, while relying heavily on social media to market their events. Even the FDA is no exception, participating in social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook.

Once listening and engaging is performed, it becomes easy to do the rest: to add value, to advertise/promote/shape demand and to create a community.

And, while there is regulation in every industry, and the FDA has not offered new guidance, many industries are able to harness the value and mitigate the risk of social media. There are, of course, going to be risks and rewards whenever pharma ventures into new marketing channels, particularly channels that have such far-reaching implications among consumers, competitors, industry professionals, and, perhaps most influential, media outlets.  With all the value of social media presented, perhaps a proverbial cautionary tale should also be heeded. In other words, proper precaution that would be provided on a label must still be provided in the social media space. Product pros and cons are one idiosyncrasy of the drug industry that must be considered in marketing communications. Just last year, Novartis pulled a Facebook widget that was used to promote its leukemia drug, Tasigna, after receiving a letter from the FDA — the first letter the FDA has issued regarding a Facebook marketing effort — that the widget violated federal regulations by not adequately alerting users to the drug’s risks. Avoiding these types of FDA letters can be mitigated when ground rules are adhered to: Do not claim a product is what it is not, and ensure value and risks are fairly presented. But, these have been the rules all along, so the rules have not changed.
A Social Media Road Map
Is there a new role that must be included in discovery, clinical trials, and post-market surveillance? Perhaps there is a social monitor to understand:
a) Discovery: Is there a need for a product that could be developed?

b) Clinical Trials: Is our answer to the need safe, effective, and differentiated?

c) Post-Market: Are we still offering the best product on the market? How are people talking about our drug? What is the sentiment: positive, negative, or neutral? Is it better than peers?

Which topics, then, are appropriate to communicate in the social media spectrum? Life sciences companies should use social media channels to:
a) Research: Identify whether or not there is a need for the drug, and if a better drug has been created (e.g. less toxic, worked faster, had fewer side effects, etc.), would it be adopted? Where would it be adopted, etc.?

b) Development: Further the process by:

  • Recruiting patients
  • Creating a community for those in clinical trials, understand their concerns, watch them interact
  • Interacting with disease support groups to understand needs and the maturity of needs, including items such as: packaging, performance, ease of use, assurances, life cycle costs, social acceptance, price and availability

c) Commercialization: Implement commercialization practices by:

  • Marketing the drug
  • Performing post-market surveillance

The road map to social media success for pharma means developing a strategy, a personality, and investing time, resources, and value creation in a social media presence.

a) Build a foundation. Companies need to establish their initial presence. By building a consistent look and feel, companies can gain awareness and develop their voice.

b) Listen and participate. Take time to learn what is currently being discussed in the industry and understand the discussions taking place. Then, participate in a way the community will find relevant. Start discussions, and join ones already in progress. Post pictures, videos, comments, and questions.

c) Gain followers by adding value. Become an esteemed contributor by adding value to existing communities. Gain followers virally by becoming friends with others in your industry across multiple channels. Want to add significant and valuable content? Be the expert – blog consistently on topics affecting your company and your industry.

d) Generate buzz and provide the community an opportunity to share authentic stories of people getting better by using your drugs. Sponsor social media third-party channels. The life sciences industry generates and responds to buzz by sharing stories, which includes heavy blogging, tweeting, and thoughtfully responding to others’ shared stories.

e) Monitor channels. Announce new company activities, products/services, and relationships. Constantly innovate, entertain, and be relevant. Monitor your “share of voice” vs. “share of wallet” to achieve long-term positive perception.

While social media presence in life sciences remains a gray area — especially as we are forced to wait on regulatory agency guidance ­— the risks are higher. Still, effectively developing your brand and engaging your audience has numerous benefits. Additionally, your marketing and legal teams can work together to ensure a successful and suitable social media presence. However, as we stay tuned for further guidance, simply ignoring the potential and reach of social media to stay on the safe side may create the adverse effects you are trying to avoid.

About The Author
Rosemarie Truman is the president and CEO of RHT Consulting, a provider of strategy consulting services in the life sciences industry. She has 19 years of global strategy and transformation experience working with C-suites and boards of directors as well as senior leadership teams.