Dave Folkens

Why Social Media is a Must in Pharma Marketing

Dave Folkens     Online Marketing, Social Media

social media pharmaSocial media marketing presents challenges for every company in defining the appropriate voice for the brand and how to engage. However, some companies are forced to work within much stricter guidelines such as those in heavily regulated industries. Does that mean social media shouldn’t be part of the marketing and communications mix? No.

Companies that are using fear of regulations or lack of guidance as an excuse to sit on the social media sidelines are missing out on important opportunities to enhance their online presence and connect with their customers. Fear should never be the driving factor for a business.

Pharmaceutical marketing is highly regulated by the FDA and the Division of Drug Marketing and Communications (DDMAC). Pharma marketing is extremely competitive and lacking in clear social media boundaries based on current regulatory guidance.

Yet some healthcare and pharma companies are doing good work in the space, finding ways to connect physicians via secure social networks to improve information sharing for example. In absence of definitive social media policy from the FDA, pharmaceutical companies need to work closely with their legal team along with marketing professionals (whether internal or external) with a strong understanding of social media engagement to ensure that the spirit of the laws are being followed despite a gray area until formal social media guidance is released.

Despite many of the logical concerns about discussing health issues in such a public forum, companies working within guidelines that have long applied to Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) advertising and patient communications can operate effectively. In 2010, of 52 warning and notice of violation letters sent from DDMAC to companies only one was issued in the social media space. Clearly if pharmaceutical companies follow existing marketing guidelines the risks aren’t off the charts.

Pharma companies need to think beyond direct product promotion when using social tools. Johnson & Johnson has created an active social presence that utilizes a blog focused on stories of employees, wellness information, and corporate content. The blog contains robust content and is supplemented with YouTube and Facebook pages.  J&J also connects with with community members via communications staffer Marc Monseau who tweets on behalf of the brand in a more personal voice.

Social Media Regulated Industry

Things to consider when working in a highly regulated market – Healthcare

  • Educate everyone involved on the importance of social media for the company – Begin the process by highlighting the need to be present in the social media world. The pharmaceutical industry has been hesitant about social for years. However, consumers will be talking about you whether you are there or not.
  • Stay in close contact with your legal team – Often times marketers and attorneys approach risk-reward scenarios with differing perspectives, working with your counsel is essential in social media marketing. Think creatively on how to advance your brand goals and provide your legal team with multiple campaigns. Find ways to problem solve with your counsel.
  • Stay on label and create options for sharing risk information in multiple formats – Because the channels for sharing have changed, it doesn’t mean that pharmaceutical companies can omit risk information.
  • Create strong internal guidelines for social media objectives – Prior to beginning any social media program, establish controls and expectations of staff that would be involved in public engagement. Much like our social media checklist, create a list of regulatory boundaries and potential scenarios where legal counsel would be notified of consumer concerns. Once approved,  set frequent reviews of the social media program to identify potential pitfalls around key regulations like patient privacy or adverse events.
  • Tell human stories – The importance of health is a universally shared value. Social media is driven by the inherent desire in people to seek connections. Identify compelling stories that highlight benefits of the medication. Success stories like these should be reviewed and submitted in compliance with established DDMAC process but, once approved, can be shared through social channels to demonstrate real impact in the lives of consumers and enhance public goodwill toward the company.

Are there greater risks in highly regulated industries? Absolutely. Yet there ways to work within the rules and use social media in the pharmaceutical industry effectively and for the benefit of the company and patients.

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  1. Too bad industries like this don’t understand the power of social media for their businesses and don’t know how to tap into it

    • I think some are catching on and I really do understand that it can be tough after working in the industry quite a while. However, it’s like any other new opportunity in that you’ve got to navigate the waters and find solutions rather than saying it can’t be done. Businesses that seek ways to adapt and succeed are going to have a huge edge in the social media world.

  2. Well as for me, social media is a must in every possible online business. Not recognizing it is already a failure. Healthcare and other pharma companies that uses social media surely achieve their maximum goal or at least successful and is keeping it high.

  3. I was reading a social media case study the other night on medical professionals such as doctors and dentists using Facebook and Twitter to connect with their current and potential future clients. They too have to walk a fine line due to regulations and patient privacy laws but there are many out there who are doing a fantastic job. I do not recall the link but there is a dentist who acquired 300 new patients in 4 months from using Facebook along with a blog and a few other things. You are correct; the fear is what’s holding them back and they do need to be careful but they pharm companies are missing out. So many regulations have gone into effect or will soon go into effect that restrict advertising and marketing online…maybe the gov’t should also be focusing on things that will benefit companies too rather than just things that hinder 🙂

    • Social media can be a fantastic marketing tool for independent healthcare professionals like the dentist you mention. I’ve also seen some great case studies especially on a local level. Customers enjoy having a sense of connection with their healthcare providers. It can help customers avoid feeling like just a number to the business.

  4. Excellent!

    Working in med/big pharma SMM can be a massive challenge – and only the hardiest consultants should go there….triple the time and budget you think will be required. Working with R/D and startups can be tremendously rewarding and exciting.

    A few things I’ve encountered:

    For those with field reps, there can be endless reputation management battles from fired drug reps trolling anonymously on highly ranked forums such as cafepharma, and most content you want to create/curate will end up deep in the legal department’s in-box. I have learned some secrets to managing this issue – but it’s a pitch battle.

    I think the most important single thing SEM firms can do is find the internal champion at the pharma co (sometimes not your primary contact!) and work to make that person a hero. Sell them on the SEM toolset as a sure fire way to job security and visibility in the company and deliver continual information about progress that they can take to meetings.

    Also essential is that you make sure that the pharma company doesn’t put you in their “I.T.” bucket. Turf wars between IT and marketing/pr will take the wind out of many initiatives you come up with.

    I’m sure each pharma firms is different – and they are definitely a challenge. But to see that first a-ha moment from their VP or CEO is what it’s all about.

    • Really great point on finding the internal champion Scott. When working with new initiatives and anything that carries potential risk it’s a great help to have that advocate working to educate from the inside out.

  5. Although social media marketing in the Pharma industry does come with strict regulations, an easy way to avoid any potential challenges is to utilize social media as a listening tool. Social media for the Pharma/Healthcare industry can be used as a method for monitoring and analyzing long-term trends. It can also act as an early warning tool.

    We’ve actually already put together an information sheet on how social media measurement can be used in the Pharma industry. I’d love to know your thoughts: http://bit.ly/fzS7Ly

  6. Nice article, Dave, and good comments so far. I agree with Andrew that brands like pharma may not be able to interact on social media the same way as other brands, they can still gain from listening to what people are saying.
    Good point about having guidelines in place, too. Did you see the Pfizer Canada social media response flow chart that came out this month? I included it in a video we made about pharma and social media (surprise inside! ) : http://bit.ly/dGAloc
    I’d be really interested in getting your feedback 🙂

    Michelle @Synthesio

  7. As a former employee of Johnson & Johnson, I have seen from the inside some of the incredible opportunities, and challenges, that pharma companies can be presented with. Legislation and FDA compliance should not necessarily be a barrier to entry though and (just like the rest of the world at large) social media is a massive opportunity that even pharma companies should be able to figure out how to harness and make work for them.

  8. I couldn’t agree more with this post. The first point “Consumers are talking whether you are there or not” is the most salient. Pharma has been opening up a lot even in the past year from my experience. There is so much information out there and so many opportunities, the few risks are worth the reward.

    We actually just released a new White Paper on Social Media for Pharma available for free download at: http://bit.ly/fbLhrz

  9. Avatar Jason Romain says

    Great article… Social Media can’t be ignored by any industry. 

    Thanks for sharing Dave, you should be speaking at our upcoming online event on social media in Pharma ( https://www.socialmediainpharma.com/ )

  10. Very well-said. Thank you for sharing.

  11. When working with new initiatives and anything that carries potential risk it’s a great help to have that advocate working to educate from the inside out.