I’m old enough to remember a time when everybody in pharma suddenly had to have a website for their brand—not for any strategic reason, but because it was the thing to do. Eventually, we figured out how to measure the utility, and have made great strides. And just in time, as a survey by About.com suggests that 65% of consumers go online to research their prescription before filling it.

Today, everybody I talk to is interested in getting into social media. It feels the same as it did in the internet boom. Recently I had a potential client with a very limited budget call me and suggest that she wanted to evaluate social media for her brand. Even though in the same phone call we discussed the fact that resources would be tight in implementing core sales tools for their sales force!

For me, the intersection of pharma and social media is like my dating days in high school: I am groping around blindly, not knowing what I’m touching; I’m pretty sure I’m going to get slapped but I don’t know when; and, pretty much, even if I’m successful in my quest, I am not really sure how good it will be.

Just like when I was an over-eager teen, that DOESN’T mean I don’t want to leverage social media. It just means that as a much older and wiser adult, entrusted with a fiduciary responsibility for my clients’ monies, I want to do so in a strategic way.  Let’s look at the facts a bit. Pharma is still dominantly about brands for patients over 55. Let’s take that mainstay for pharma DTC: the network evening news. The median age of its viewers? 61. The number of viewers per evening? Twenty-three million. (That means that 11.5 million of those very valuable viewers tuning in each night are over 61). In contrast, about 12% of the average monthly visitors for Facebook are over 50.

Approximately 10.9 million people over 50 visit Facebook monthly. If you believe that frequency of a persuasive message to the right audience drives buying behavior (and I do), Facebook can’t compete with Katie, Charlie and Brian.

So, if I were you, I would suggest addressing social media in a very strategic way. Evaluate the needs of your brand to reach out to consumers and patients, and see social media as a tool that can help you enormously in these ways:

  • If the brand has a younger demographic than traditional, “chronic” meds
  • If the condition is one that consumers and patients want to identify with publicly as a contributor, or privately as a consumer of content
  • If you can leverage social media to educate the patient in a cost-effective way
  • If you can successfully facilitate better customer service for your patients
  • And, frankly, because creativity is important, consider social media if you can figure out a cool way to encourage customer acquisition by exposing the right consumer or patient to a viral message inexpensively. After all, 100 million videos are viewed on YouTube every day.  

We have to remember in everything we do that social media is “social.” That means that a brand can’t expect to be successful in the space unless it’s willing to listen.

As this piece is being written, FDA is conducting hearings on social media for pharma. The question for me is bigger than “whether” or “how.” At the end of the day, our efforts in social media need to benefit both our patients AND our brands… or we won’t be successful.

Jay Carter is senior vice president, client services, at AbelsonTaylor