Is it time for pharma to give up the social media ghost?

Social media has been a big focus for pharma marketers for a while now. By my count, at least 30-45% of ePharma’s agenda from the 2014 NY conference was focused on the subject, and there is a whole cottage industry of other conferences specifically for social media fin the pharma industry. If you spend any time following pharma folks on Twitter, you can find tons of tweets on the subject and create whole feeds for hashtags like #socpharm, #hcsm, #pharmsm, etc.

I say it’s time to move on.

You read correctly. Before some of you go indiscriminately crazy and lambaste me in the comments for the mere suggestions that social isn’t important, let me offer some points of clarification. As it relates to corporate communications, I think using social media is a no brainer. For J&J, Pfizer, AZ, et. al., using social channels effectively is essential for reputation management, stockholder news, crisis management, etc. It’s the cost of doing business in the digital world we live in. Additionally, using social platforms to seed content is just fine, as long as you’re not expecting huge results. I’m a firm believer in a distributed content strategy, but 99% of the time, pharm brands place content in social platforms with the comments sections (or anything else even remotely ‘social’) disabled.

I believe the whole use of the medium needs to be seriously rethought. Simply put, there are serious challenges for using (and I mean really using) social media for a pharma brand. For instance:

Fostering dialogue and conversations isn’t the business that pharma brands are in

  • The marketing teams assigned to those brands aren’t built to sustain the kinds of relationships necessary to succeed

  • PR and marketing rarely coordinate within a given brand

  • The regulatory organizations (FDA or otherwise) will only let you discuss what’s exactly in the product’s label, and

  • Users, by all indications, aren’t interested in pharma infringing on their timelines and feeds

Defining social media

The term “social media” has been hijacked by the pharma industry, and thus, needs to be properly re-defined in order to better comprehend my argument. Social media, as defined by Wikipedia, is “…interaction among people in which they create, share, and/or exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks.” If you read this carefully, you begin to understand my point. Pharma does almost none of these things. While the creation of content is part and parcel to the pharma marketing regimen, I would argue that the minute your regulatory team requires you shut off sharing or comments features, the social media aspects of your programs cease to exist. If social media is about the collaboration of ideas and the sharing of communication, is it really a social program any more if the direction of those communications is entirely one-way?

Hey hey, ho ho. The FDA is slow slow slow

In 2009 the FDA held hearings to gather input from industry about what it should consider when eventually releasing guidance on social media marketing. From that moment, I’ve heard the FDA being used as a prop for why brands couldn’t or shouldn’t engage in social channels. The reasoning was that brands wanted to clearly understand what the guidance would be, or the fear of launching something that would eventually be deemed non-compliant thereby incurring a warning letter. I think those and the myriad of other excuses assigned to the FDA were false-flags hiding a deeper issue. If the business case for social utilization were solid, and most would have you believe that it is, then clarification from FDA should open the flood gates for social media programs. But social media just isn’t really understood by brand marketers, and more importantly, the more one examines the business case for it, the less sense it actually makes for pharma products.

Don’t believe me? I can prove it.

The second week of January 2014, the FDA released draft “Guidance for Industry Fulfilling Regulatory Requirements for Postmarketing Submissions of Interactive Promotional Media for Prescription Human and Animal Drugs and Biologics.” Despite being woefully behind schedule in releasing the full social media guidance it promised, this was at least something from the FDA that clarified its position in some small part. Most notable of the guidance was that FDA finally provided clarity about one of the aspects of social media that the industry has been clamoring for the most: working with bloggers and content creators to disseminate branded information.

You would think, given that it’s been more than 90 days later, we’d have seen movement towards these kinds of programs. After all, we were told guidance, any guidance, was necessary so brands could finally move forward with social media without running afoul of the FDA. As of this posting, there has been nothing even remotely “social” being done. As part of running the Social Media Wiki, I have a number of bots and alerts to let me know when a whole host of pharma products get discussed online. I may be slow to output updates to the wiki, but the data coming in is timely. It is possible that I missed something, but I doubt it.

It’s time we had “the talk”

I hate to break the news, but social communications is not the business that pharma is in. If every reply, response, or retweet has to take 24 hours (or more) to run through a legal team before going live, I think we’ve gone well beyond any reasonable concept of conversation or dialogue. I think it’s also reasonable to assume if a patient has a question about a pharma product they don’t want to wait 24-72 hours for a response. But even if the lag time were lesser, would it even matter?

When you actually ask patients if they find pharma’s participation in social to be effective, the answer is a resounding “no.” According to a Deloitte study in 2012, despite almost 65% of respondents saying that they use the internet for health information, only 5% said that social networking sites from pharma were trustworthy and credible. 5%. Even if pharma were able to engage in anything close to real time, patients just simply won’t believe the information being provided. Perhaps even more damaging, according to Manhattan Research (ePharma consumer 2013) when asked how they’d like to engage with a pharma brand, only 10% indicated they’d watch a YouTube video and 11% said they’d ‘Like’ a Facebook page. (Other channels, like Twitter ranked even lower) Given those abysmal numbers, should pharma even bother?

Not every brand can grow up to be Zappos. That’s ok. There are plenty of non-pharma resources out there for patients that provide beneficial real-time interactions. In all likelihood, patients will get the info they need from message boards, online resources from their insurance provider, or increasingly, their physician via email or text. The real-time interactions that would benefit patients are more closely aligned with the roles played by the physician, pharmacists or insurance providers are playing online. Those industries are getting better and better at using social channels to help patients while pharma falls further and further behind. So instead, perhaps it’s time to more properly focus on what maximizing the value that pharma CAN provide.

Software As A Service: The Real “Pill +”

At its essence, pharma provides medicines that patients utilize to combat illness. The business is one of product development, engineering, distribution, and use. I don’t care what pill, injectable, brand, or biologic you’re marketing, your #1 problem is usually compliance. Almost every pharma product except Viagra or contraception has a compliance drop off curve that plummets somewhere around the 90 day mark. (There are of course variances, but this is pretty typical). According to a report by Harris Interactive, roughly half of all prescriptions for drugs to be taken on an ongoing basis are either not completed or are never filled in the first place.

The information on how to take a medication is widely available. Patients receive a package insert with their medication detailing the information about what they’ve been prescribed and how to take it. Their doctor probably spent some time walking them through what they need to know as well. For its part, pharma has been very successful educating patients about these topics. Say what you will about the for pharma (and I have), they still do the yeoman’s work of providing information to patients, detailing information about what a product does, how to take it, and what side effects it may cause. If a patient does have a question about a product, chances are the information, (or rather, the information pharma is allowed to share), is detailed rather well on its website.

So if compliance is the problem, software services (like mobile tools) not social media, are the most likely solutions. Compared to the abysmal numbers for social media, according to Kantar Health study, 90% of patients would like an app or online service to help them manage their condition or track taking their medications, provided it was recommended by their physician. Pharma is very good at developing and distributing the molecules and biologics to help patients, but has an enormous opportunity to develop technologies and services in a parallel path that assist the patient when taking their medicine. At its core, the pharma industry is rooted in science and technology, developing the software and services to accentuate a product isn’t that far outside of it’s cultural wheelhouse.

Perhaps, given the desire by patients for services, not social conversations, pharma should refocus its efforts on creating the technologies and tools that give patients what they need to manage their conditions, and leave the chatting to someone else.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at the most promising areas for pharma to focus it’s efforts in software and services. In the mean time, drop me a comment and tell me what you think.

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