Social media's strengths as source of info

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Social media's strengths as source of info
Social media's strengths as source of info

FDA issues may deter drugmakers from engaging in social media, but that's no excuse to ignore what audiences are saying on these platforms, say pharma and device firms.

“You cannot put your head in the ground like an ostrich and pretend dialogue is not happening, because it is,” said Pat Choumitsky, senior manager, consumer marketing, UCB Pharma, at the Pharmaceutical Marketing Research Group (PMRG) 2012 Annual National Conference in Orlando in March.

This trend was a major topic  at the conference. New methods of collecting input are in their “ascendance,” as one speaker put it—and researchers are using them as a way to satisfy customer demand for insight.

Social media's benefits go past conventional research. “Unlike traditional MR, which offers a one-shot opportunity to find out what patients are thinking about a marketing program, [social media] allowed us to ask deeper and deeper questions to understand what the motivators are,” said Choumitsky.

By monitoring blogs, message boards and YouTube, device firm Medtronic found that patients wanted to know the opinions of others who had undergone treatment with neuromodulation therapy (an area where Medtronic has a commercial stake), as well as getting information from discussions with their physicians. The firm did nothing to propagate discussions, said Jill Glathar, a VP at National Analysts Worldwide, who helped conduct the research.

Sanofi also harnesses social media in this capacity.  “We had an instance where a patient double-dosed on [diabetes drug] Lantus,” said Todd Francis, VP and head of commercial support and enterprise marketing, Sanofi US. “Our passive listening and ability to form a partnership allowed us to engage that patient so she could seek immediate treatment.”

Social media values authentic two-way communication, but this doesn't always sit well with FDA-regulated companies. Case in point: In March Janssen shut down its “Psoriasis 360” Facebook page. The firm was the latest among several drugmakers to do so following the social network's decision to enforce rules requiring corporate-run pages to allow comments.

Janssen's move was “like setting up a Twitter account and shutting it down because people are sending [in] comments. There's a disconnect,” said another speaker at the conference, Mark Bard, co-founder of the Digital Health Coalition.

Pharma is hesitant to embrace the interactivity of Facebook and Twitter for fear of being seen as fostering off-label discussion of products or of being exposed to adverse event reporting requirements—two enforcement areas for the FDA, said Arnie Friede, a former lawyer for the agency.

Industry needs to differentiate as to when a company becomes responsible for certain activities, said Friede: “[Is] providing a platform enough to convert something into advertising? Is listening in to someone else's platform different? How do we differentiate those circumstances?”

Listening and speaking confer different obligations, but just listening does not absolve the firm of the responsibility to report adverse events. UCB's Choumitsky said the firm works with a number of firms that “scrape” conversations patients are having online and identifies keywords that could raise issues. “We pull those down and review them” for anything considered risky or an adverse event, she said.

The bottom line: marketers are still trying to understand the role that market research can play in the social media space. “We continue to struggle at Sanofi with, what is digital?” acknowledged Francis. Social media, he said, is “forcing us to rethink how we approach research.”
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