Who Responds To The Responders?

This one is for you, Dan.

As I thought it might, my last post about social media stirred quite a bit of discussion. As such, I thought it would be useful to perhaps dedicate another post as a means of both clarifying my position, and providing some counter-points to the various responses that have been generated around the web.

To recap, my original post wasn’t meant to suggest that pharma should completely abandon social media, but rather that the interest in social engagements is over-calibrated when weighed against the potential business impact for a given brand.  There are two points that encapsulate my thoughts on how social most typically makes sense for pharma. First, for corporate communications, investor relations, and (hat tip to Craig DeLarge) corporate level customer service, social media makes a ton of sense. Second, placing content inside a given social platform, but turning comments off, relinquishes any hold on the notion of that program being even remotely “social.” While placing content in channels like YouTube can be a highly effective tactic, it ceases to be social without conversational interaction.

Those specifics being stated, a healthy debate has arisen to my point of view on this. That’s good. The industry needs more thorough discussion of the why and how communications should be rightly used to better inform all of us. But from my perspective, the counter arguments being posited just don’t hold much water.

Unbranded social media engagements provide real business impact
(Messrs. Mack and Spong)
There’s really only two situations where an unbranded program makes strategic sense for a pharma product; pre-launch, when the market needs to be seeded for a particular indication, and post-launch when a new disease category needs to be better understood by patients. I would argue that the latter makes less sense than the former, but I can see the rationale and so I’ll include it in the debate.

From a pre-market standpoint, let’s assume XPharmaCo sets up an unbranded twitter account to drive awareness of a particular website as a means of seeding disease education to patients and prime the market for a brand that will launch sometime in the next 3 months. At it’s core, the twitter feed is acting almost exactly like a paid search ad, albeit inside of Twitter’s feed and with similar targeting features. Any responses to questions from users would either be pre-written or take 24-72 hours (I’m being optimistic) for a brand rep to respond as the legal team would need to review and approve the intended response copy. Clunky. Guess what? That dynamic isn’t going to change.  In addition, in this scenario, Twitter is only the conduit to information housed on the web. The website is the conversion driver for potential patient discussions with a physician. So in this case, a social program is not providing any more value than a paid search campaign would. Important, but (as has been my experience) driving a fraction of the visits more typical awareness campaigns might. Not the social engagements we’re after for this discussion.

So maybe Twitter isn’t the best example. Let’s try another platform, namely Facebook. To illustrate my position, I chose one of the more active Facebook pages, UCB’s Crohn’s & Me to act as a barometer. C&M was chosen because it met the requirements that I think most of us would identify as being necessary for a successfully run social media channel. It has around 11,000 followers, posts content about 5-6 times a month (on average), and gets a fair to better-than average engagement rate per post. In addition, it has comments turned on and all of the content on the page is sharable. The content is also derived from a  robust monthly print publication of the same name. Knowing what I do about the typical crohn’s patient, a page like this would seem to make sense from a strategic standpoint, since the crohn’s audience tends to be younger, socially active, and not shy about identifying publically with their condition.

You would think that if unbranded content and social media engagement are key drivers of brand preference, the Crohn’s & Me Facebook page would be the perfect case study. In reality, it ends up proving my point. Cimzia, the crohn’s disease product from UCB pharma has had basically the same 11% market share (US) for the past 3 years (it has fluctuated between 13% and 9% but the mean market share over that time frame is 11%. It ended Dec ’13 at 11% and started Dec ’11 at 11%). Humira and Remicade have traded market leadership several times during that same time period despite having no major social media forums even remotely as active or engaging as Cimzia’s. If social media programs and unbranded content are major keys to driving business (as has been argued by many), why haven’t they done so for Cimzia?

Social is less expensive
(“Pascale” – Comments, original post)
Here’s where a fundamental misunderstanding of what marketing programs cost comes into very much into play. There’s a perceived notion that because social media platforms are low cost or no cost, that social is more cost effective than a mobile application or SaaS-type products. Not so. While your mileage may vary from project to project and partner to partner, let’s make some assumptions to illustrate why these cost assumptions aren’t true.

For around $250,000 a brand can create a web based application, mobile app, or on-demand service. That fee would get you something fairly robust in features, very well designed, and tested for optimal user experience. I’m picking that particular number because it’s not unreasonable, and in my experiences it’s indicative of the mean expenditure for a given digital project. (Editors note: save the pitchforks and torches. I know things could be much cheaper or much more expensive, but if you know what you’re doing this is a fair budget number to work with as an example, especially in the pharma-regulated environment.)

Now let’s look at social. Let’s assume that the cost for a platform is free and the content is going to be generated by a single individual who will manage the channel for 1 year. Let’s also assume that this person’s full time job is this project and they’ll serve as the ‘social media community manager’ for your brand. If you were going to do social right (or outside of pharma) this is pretty much what you’d do (although the team would most likely be larger).

If you hire an agency to manage your channel, the person assigned is most likely going to be at the senior account executive level. I chose that role as they’d be seasoned enough to handle the gig, but junior enough not to have an expensive billing rate. (For the sake of argument we’ll say this is one person. Most likely it would be several people spread out over the course of the year.) Let’s also assume that this person has a billing rate of $150.00 per hour (as every person I know in PR cringes). At 40 hours per week, after 1 year of writing content, taking the content through legal, posting the content, and responding to fans/followers, the aggregated costs for managing a brand’s social channel would be $312,000.

Even if you were to bring in a person in house to work on the brand channel, that person still would receive a salary, benefits, vacation time, 401k, and (potentially) stock, etc.

There’s also the multiplying factor that, once built, the costs for maintaining and updating a piece of software are typically lower than the initial development costs, where as there are no efficiencies to be leveraged with social. It costs what is costs to produce content and as long as the page/site/channel is live, these costs will be incurred. Software can also scale. If a brand is smart during the planning phase, another brand in the organization can leverage what’s already been built. Content doesn’t scale. So whatever work is done for brand X doesn’t translate for brand Y.

I realize costs shouldn’t be the determining factor in whether or not something should be done, but it does play a significant role, and a more realistic understanding of what drives them is essential. To that end, you can understand why social is hardly inexpensive.

Social is participation is essential for product differentiation
(Mr. Spong)
While I’ve heard this line of reasoning before, the flaws in the logic are enormous. The positioning in Mr. Spong’s rebuttal aren’t helping the argument either. I’ll try to take them point-by-point.

The idea that drugs are almost all the same efficacy-wise is at best hyperbolic as very few drugs on the market are clinically identical. Even if they did have the same clinical end points, patients react differently to each product and physicians routinely switch products for better tolerance. Additionally, most of the products on the market for pharma are not OTC-like in nature, meaning patient preference doesn’t drive product choice to a meaningful degree. If a patient suffers from blood clots, cancer, heart disease, cognitive disorders, or any other serious condition, the fact that a particular brand may have a Facebook or Twitter campaign is going to account for exactly zero in terms of the decision making process between them and their physician. A patient will want the best, most affordable drug possible, that will treat them most effectively. Full stop.

Compounding the point that ‘social is a differentiator,’ is that the pharma-economics of the world today dictate that access, reimbursement, insurance coverage, doctor and insurer mandates, and product availability, all weigh heavily into the final product decision. Simply holding up social media as a major socio-economic motivator for patients severely undermines the strategic credibility of anyone who does so.

(Editors note, when linking to data in an attempt to validate a point, that data should in some way correlate to said point. The research linked to on Mr. Spong’s post refers to email, websites, co-pay cards, referrals and rewards, and product trackers. Even by the loosest definition these would not be regarded as social.)

To sum up
I ended up writing more on this topic than I intended to, but the debate is always good. As always, drop me a note in the comments to share your perspective, and if you have some data our examples to back up your points, even better.

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