Should pharma abandon social media?

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Zoe Dunn
Zoe Dunn

Not only do I like Brand X, I LOVE it. I LOVE it so much that all I want to do is sing from the rooftops, shout from the mountains, and take out a full-page ad in the New York Times. I tell everyone on my Facebook page that they have to buy Brand X right now. I tweet that Brand X has changed my life, that it will change yours too, that my followers should follow Brand X's hashtag right away! But, most importantly, I set up a Pinterest page to share themes that remind me of Brand X, maybe other brands too.

Hey, Pharma—does this sound like your greatest dream or your worst nightmare? I bet it's the latter. While this kind of brand recognition is critical in the potato chip industry or the mobile phone world, our industry is simply not set up for this kind of promotion. After all, we deal in science, and science is serious business. Personal health is a serious matter, and while it's true that we want to sing from the rooftops when we are well, it's quite the opposite when we are sick. Illness is usually not something to be celebrated, or followed, or promoted.

What are the virtues of using a platform like Facebook (and trust me, Facebook has proven that it is no friend of Pharma) to promote your pharmaceutical brand? Can you really support the resources it will require to continuously provide value to your audience? Most marketers I know are focused on sales, not influence, and it's a pretty “soft” return on investment to turn a connection on Facebook into an Rx. Branded social media is full of pitfalls anyway—with our vague digital guidance (or lack thereof), it's quite a challenge to communicate responsibly in many digital venues (and when you get to mobile, the venue becomes even smaller). When it comes to direct-to-consumer, our overrepresentation of side effects, required for their knowledge and safety, makes consumers feel anxious to begin with.

So let's say you are going the non-branded route: you're the market leader and are willing to put some energy behind maintaining a living, breathing social-media channel. That the return for you is awareness about the condition, or building a community of patients because you know they are all using your product, and adherence is what keeps you up at night. Sounds reasonable to me. So what's the plan? What happens when a new product director takes over in 18 months and social media is not in her plan? This is not an ad in a journal that you can just stop running. This is a community that relies upon the commitment you have made to supporting them. Then what? Quietly disappearing in the middle of the night leads to feelings of overwhelming disappointment—in a matter of minutes, a company can undo all the good work they have done.

There are clear examples of success in using social media to communicate in our industry. For example, Sanofi has done an excellent job of creating a diabetes community. They have invested in building and maintaining that community, even creating a marketing role for a Director of Patient Insights, whose function is to build credibility by being a member instead of an outsider (from her LinkedIn page: “Digital Content Marketing & Community Engagement on behalf of the US Diabetes Patient Centered Unit”). Companies like Wego Health have done a great job of bringing Pharma and key digital influencers (who they call “patient activists”) together to guide the industry toward better communications. But the thinking behind both of these efforts is a long-term play, something few marketers in our industry can sustain.

For example, YouTube was an effective channel for Viagra to communicate to men about the dangers of buying counterfeit Viagra from non-accredited online pharmacies. The high-quality video Pfizer produced was engaging, and the supporting campaign was thorough and well-planned. However, last I checked, that channel was gone, likely falling victim to a new brand regime. A shame, really, that all the work to build trust was not sustainable.

And this is really my issue with social media and Pharma. Before jumping in, you need to truly understand the premise of social media: it's about building relationships. We all know that the industry may never have really deep relationships with its customers, but that doesn't mean there isn't an opportunity. Health is personal and emotional—excellent seeds for starting a relationship. The real problem is with Pharma sustaining any relationship it does create. My recommendation: plan carefully and realistically. Good relationships take time to cultivate, constant attention, and the resources to support them. And good relationships last longer than 18 months.

Zoe Dunn is a principal at Hale Advisors. 

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