Should pharma be social? Patients respond

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Ross Fetterolf
Ross Fetterolf

Zoe Dunn's recent article, “Should pharma abandon social media?” raised some compelling points that called into question pharma's approach to patient engagement through social media. Can social media provide a demonstrable ROI? Is pharma willing to commit to a long-term relationship, a critical underpinning of social media engagements?

Rather than leaving these questions to hang over our heads like precariously strung ornaments over the holidays, we decided to fire up Truvio, the influencer-powered insight platform recently launched by Wego Health, and ask a panel of influential patients to share their thoughts on this topic.

Getting patient influencers to weigh in

We started by selecting a diverse group of Health Activists from Wego Health's network, including patients who have experience in conditions where pharma social media efforts have been robust (e.g., diabetes and multiple sclerosis) as well as conditions where pharma hasn't been as social (e.g., HIV and advanced cancer).

We shared a range of pharma social media examples, both owned and sponsored, through the Truvio mobile research platform, and asked participants to provide their insights regarding these initiatives.  We wanted to know if they felt that pharma's efforts created value. 

In other words, despite some of the real limitations that Zoe articulated, did people feel that the experience they create and the information portrayed would have an impact on their behavior?  Specifically, we used a well-accepted industry metric for measuring success—“Likelihood to discuss a condition or product with a doctor as a result of the information consumed.”

Social media motivates doctor conversations

Overwhelmingly, the patient influencers surveyed said that interacting with social media resources would motivate them and members of their community to discuss conditions and products with others, especially a healthcare professional; 72% felt that social media resources would motivate these discussions.

In addition to asking the panel to rank the effectiveness of various pharma social media approaches, we also asked them to share any advice they might have for the pharmaceutical industry regarding how to deliver social media programs that are engaging, effective and relevant.

The Truvio platform captured their voice-responses and provided us with tips that were shared among many of the respondents.  We have taken the top 10 recommendations and synthesized them in to the list below for your convenience.

Patient influencer's top 10 tips for pharma social media

1) Actively collaborate with patients: Even pharma-sponsored communities should have patients moderating, managing, and actively contributing content.

2) Avoid hip & trendy: Health is serious business—being hip or trendy with your communication can send the wrong message about a company's understanding of the impact a disease has on a patient's life.

3) Embody transparency: Transparency doesn't mean including your logo in a 6-point font at the bottom of the “About” section of your website.

4) Find balance between public and private sharing: If you want to encourage meaningful interactions among members of the community, then offer the opportunity for people to share information privately.

5) Shape strategy around patient needs: Active and influential patients should be involved in the planning and strategy of communities because they have an intimate understanding of the community's needs.

6) Allow anonymity: Some people just aren't comfortable broadcasting their health status to the world (especially in delicate conditions like HIV or diabetes). Allowing anonymity removes barriers for engagement.

7) Target your audience: Are the people you are communicating with technology savvy? Where are they in their disease journey? What is their level of health literacy? With syndicated studies from Pew Internet and Manhattan Research, or platforms like Verilogue and Truvio, there is no longer an excuse for not knowing your audience.

8) Appoint experienced owners: While pharma's social media “rock stars” may know how to effectively use the best tech tools available, those involved in the development and management of disease-related communities should also have a deep understanding of the disease and products.

9) Enable content discovery: Quality health content is already hard enough to find, and while social media can be good for engagement and sharing, it tends to fall short in the area of “discovery” and “search.”  Create ways that make it easy for people to find content you have posted.

10) Reference information: Although the practice of referencing content sources is a requirement for almost all pharma communications, it appears that it's a less common practice when it comes to pharma's social media initiatives.

Could patient-powered collaboration solve pharma's long-term commitment issues?

Having patients play a key role in the community came across as the single most important piece of advice that the influencers had for pharma. Specifically, community opinion leaders felt that pharma should consult with patients prior to developing healthcare communities, and that patients should play a more meaningful role in the management and moderation of those communities.  If these two things are done well, then the patients will also become the community's biggest ambassadors, ensuring that people are aware of its existence and trust its intentions.

A win-win for patients and pharma

Creating a more formal alliance with the patient community could help address one of Zoe's biggest criticisms of pharma's social media efforts—their lack of long-term commitment.  If the patient community has some stake in the social media effort, even if in limited capacity during the time a client is sponsoring it, then when the time comes—inevitably—that the pharma company no longer allocates resources to support the community (for completely rational and understandable reasons), they can hand the keys and control over to the community for whom they built it. Wouldn't that be the right thing to do anyway?

We shared our findings with Zoe, and she responded: “Love the patient connection—what an opportunity for the industry to start building real relationships. I look forward to hearing about which companies embrace this in 2014.”

To see other findings from the Truvio voice-response research, including what types of social media efforts patient influencers find to be most effective at delivering value, visit to download a free report.

Ross Fetterolf is SVP of innovation, Wego Health, and Fabio Gratton is chief business officer, Vocalize.
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