If you’ve followed my writing and speaking over the years, you know I’ve been a big proponent of social media as a vehicle for communications, network-building, and new business approaches. And I absolutely believe – more than ever – in the power and utility of digital networked communications
I was among the first in the pharma universe to begin blogging and tweeting pharma/healthcare topics. The first time I used Twitter at an industry conference, I wondered if I might be discovered and tossed out!
In fact, I even put together the first published list of pharma folks and companies active in social media – which, at the time, was a pretty small group! That number has since grown considerably, which is a very good thing.
As the industry has evolved, however, I can’t help but ask the question – is it time to give up on the idea of commercial prescription pharma interactively participating in the open, public social media space using current platforms? (please note the careful choice of words before having a knee-jerk reaction).
I’m not giving an answer – I’m asking a question. Here are the streams of thought feeding into this inquiry:
1. The FDA has shown zero readiness to give guidance about the use of on-line media in pharma communications. They are ready, however, to send warning letters about perceived violations in an ad-hoc fashion. This seriously inhibits pharma companies from getting involved. Regulatory fear does not go along well with open, public discussion.
2. The nature of current social media approaches and tools demands real-time interactive response and dialogue, out in the wilds of digital space. Pharma does not and cannot communicate that way.
- Facebook demands interactivity and informal 2-way communication. Pharma companies are forced to come up with all kinds of work-arounds to make Facebook something other than it is, in order to participate. It’s like trying to enter a canoe into a speedboat race.
- Twitter demands short bursts of communication. Pharma communications (prescription brands) demand fair balance, context, long explanation, disclaimers, and all kinds of monitoring/reporting. Would a congressman reading a speech from a teleprompter fit nicely at a cocktail party?
- LinkedIn is all about the individual professional. Nice platform for recruiting, even in pharma. But my experience with pharma folks (I have years of it) on LinkedIn is that interactivity is almost nil. Pharma professionals live and work in an atmosphere of non-openness. You can sow seed on a gravel driveway, but don’t expect much of a harvest.
- YouTube is one place where pharma companies can participate on a social platform, as long as you strip it down to, essentially, one-way broadcast and storytelling. It’s not social, but it is media.
3. Pharma companies tend to rotate commercial professionals (sales, training, marketing, etc.) through their job roles every 1-3 years. This means a constant default to short-term thinking. However, successful involvement in public social platforms demands long-term commitment and readiness to innovate. As soon as a little bit of expertise begins to accumulate, it’s time to move on to the next rung up the ladder (personally, I think that this, and the bondage of short-term quarterly profit reporting, are the two biggest hidden killers of pharma companies making true inroads in social networking).
4. Social media is moving rapidly to point-to-point on-demand mobile communications (including real-time UGC of all sorts, location data, commerce, and fragmented data streams). Pharma is all about centralized, one-way, controlled communications. Black, meet white.
We could go on, but the point is this: Public, interactive, real-time social media platforms and commercial pharma communications simply don’t mesh well. At all. And I don’t see that changing any time soon. Stuff you can easily say about other industries really isn’t going to translate well to pharma (as much as I like Chris Brogan, he’s out of his league on this post).
Is that a death knell for social media usage across all areas of pharma? Not at all. Non-branded communications can occur on existing public platforms, albeit often with a good dose of restrictions and care. Non-public networks (private communities) are a fruitful area of valuable involvement. Private, internal social networks (Yammer and the like) are potentially hugely useful apps for digital networked communications. One-way storytelling, while not fully social, can still add value, even in the public sphere (if done very carefully). Mobile apps that provide information or services are great – though again, they are using social-ish platforms in a less-than-fully-social fashion.
Also, the maturation of a platform like Google Plus could lead to more controlled communications to distinct, defined groups – and that is where the future could well be brighter.
Commercial, prescription pharma communications happen within thickly-walled gardens. The open, public social web is anything but that – and it’s not going to change for the pharma industry. Current platforms make it very difficult to marry the two. The future may well lie in walled social gardens, but existing approaches are still maturing through the wild west stage. Maybe we should expend less concern about “getting on Facebook” or Twitter, and architecting a social strategy that fits the industry – rather than trying to fit this square industry peg into a round, shape-shifting hole.
What do you think? Agree or disagree? Add your comment!
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Jane Bozarth says
Hi, Steve. Very well said. I hear similar concerns from those in other medical-related areas. I wonder — and I’m just wondering out loud — whether it is not whether pharma can use social media, but the kinds of things it can use it for, the kinds of discussions and activities it lends itself to? I am thinking of the Mayo Clinic’s recent announcement http://socialmedia.mayoclinic.org/ . Again, not my field– just throwing it out there.
Steve Woodruff says
Jane, there is a communications cultural clash that is so deeply embedded in pharma (in relation to open social sharing), that I really wonder if the gap can be bridged. Less so in some areas of healthcare, but very extreme in commercial prescription pharma.
Mighty Casey says
Steve, you’ve hit the nail on the head in both your post, and your reply to Jane. The communications culture clash prevalent in all large-scale enterprise is particularly embedded in pharma (and other highly-regulated industries), and given the very hierarchical org structure at every commercial pharma company it will take some serious cultural shift to effect any change there.
Richard Meyer says
Steve: You raise some really good points but at the heart of this is the not the actual implementation of social media but a change in mindset from just outbound marketing to one of conversational marketing. At a time when more and more consumers are becoming consumers of healthcare I find it ironic that DTC marketing is becoming more and more irrelevant because either drug companies are not willing to take risks or because they don’t have the marketing expertise. Some companies are making some inroads though because they understand the need to extend their marketing reach (Sanofi comes to mind). Over the last couple of years what has scared me the most is that I have seen a lot of talented people leave DTC marketing because they have had enough. What remains is often people who don’t stand up for what they believe is right for their patients and this is how bad decisions get made. The industry right now is at a crossroads with its marketing..it will either evolve or become more irrelevant.
Steve Woodruff says
Richard – I agree. It’s mindset and corporate culture. It’s one-way versus conversational communication. I just don’t see anything in the current alchemy that leads me to believe it’s going to change (substantially).
Richard Meyer says
Watch out Steve you might become a contrarian like me ! Seth Godin in his book Linchpin talks about the fear of people who want to change and become Linchpins but they can’t because they are fearful of losing their jobs. When I once dare suggested that doctors were not the primary marketing target for Cialis I was literally threatened and raked across the coals but my team leader backed me up and said I made the right choice. I think there are a lot of people who really want change but their voices are being shouted down by the inner circle who just want to keep paychecks coming in
Great post Steve. But I wouldn’t give up yet. I believe that the concept that Google+ has come up with, i.e. circles that allow for a bit of privacy and selection, may open the door for the sort of engagement that you refer to that takes place in ‘walled gardens.’ Only time will tell (plus, it needs to open itself up).
Steve Woodruff says
Liz, I just struggle with differing starting points and guideposts. Social media STARTS with transparent disclosure and evolving public communication. It has minimal guideposts,and even those are user-generated and ever-shifting. (Branded) Pharma STARTS with limited, controlled disclosure, hedged about by endless Danger! and Warning! signs based on mostly legacy (& top-down imposed) considerations. It really is a mismatch.
Richard Meyer says
Liz: The problem is that by the time biopharma adapts to social media marketing will the social media marketing train have moved far down the track ? Social media marketing is evolving and changing as Facebook updates its platform and new platforms come on line. What has made me so frustrated is that even if you aren’t ready to do it you should be adding people who know how to do it and start building capabilities. So far that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Dennis Urbaniak says
You have had some great posts this week and today is certainly another one. In my opinion this challenge really speaks to a broader challenge for pharma companies to push the boundaries in terms of their total commercial model across all channels. I think the social media focus is a good one because it is one of the most clear examples to see the conflict between the past “success” and the needs and demands of our customers today and in the future. I feel strongly that we need to be pushing aggressively for a fundamental evolution in our total approach that incorporates research, customer service, analytics, PR/communications, sales, and marketing. While I fully appreciate the strong and often deserved skepticsm about our ability as an industry to truly make this change, the opportunity some of us in the industry today have to actually drive this change in light of massive shifts in our external environment is a true opportunity of a lifetime. Obviously specific examples of change need to be delivered but this still keeps me extremely optimistic as I have never seen such a clear chance to make a real difference. Thanks for raising the point and for keeping the challenge out there, we need people like you to help us stay focused on what is really important.
Steve Woodruff says
Dennis, as you know, I’m right in the boat with you about the huge changes that really need to be driven in the commercial pharma model. The real issue goes WAY beyond having a Twitter account. It’s a major mindset shift; as you put it, “a fundamental evolution in our total approach.” And one reason you fully “get” this is because you’re not an 18-month-and-gone brand manager. You and some others are looking way down the road…and that’s what it’s going to take.
Richard Meyer says
Dennis: You are spot on the bullseye when you say that there has never been a bigger time to really make a difference. However I would ask who are the people who are going to make a difference when there are so many talented people leaving the industry ? Like I said over the past two years I have seen some very talented people leave because they have had enough. Also remember that in most big pharma companies today it’s not the talented people that get to stay it’s the people who do the best job of sucking up and doing what is politically correct as opposed to standing up for the brand and patients.
Richard Meyer says
Steve: Hope you don’t mind but I quotes you on a post today http://worldofdtcmarketing.com/never-seen-such-a-clear-chance-to-make-a-real-difference/working-in-the-industry/
Dennis Urbaniak says
I think your point about the talent drain in pharma is an important one although I see an equal number of historically talented people staying who aren’t able to make the change in behavior that is needed. We can source this from inviting people in from other industries who see the opportunity and by leveraging those who are ready to change and support them by encouraging more risk taking, etc. A lot of it comes down to leadership. As far as your point about those who stay are just the ones who maintain political correctness, I can only reference my experiences within my company today. I see a lot of challenges by management and a lot of open acceptance by more senior leaders to support this change in our company. Every company is different so I am not suggesting this is the case everywhere but I think it is difficult to make broad characterizations on the people in our industry today. Either way, for those who see the opportunity, it is a great time be in the business.
Jane Bozarth says
Ok I have a different question, and again appreciate your indulgence in letting me participate [I don’t know nothin’ about no pharma, but I drive past a bunch on my way home through RTP]. I understand secrecy and hierarchy issues — used to work with justice/law enforcement. Most of the talk in the comments here is about the ‘industry’ with a broad brush. Is there any particular company, or pockets within a company, that are doing this well? Does pharma have a positive deviant somewhere?
Other than Steve Woodruff? 😉
Tom Martin says
Well said and great points. Surely it would help if the FDA would provide guidance, any guidance. Fear of being punished is keeping companies on the sideline even though they’d much rather be in the fray.
With all of this said, I do think there is a place for Pharma to work/play in the social space BUT that’s not going to be a Twitter/FB centric program. In fact, likely it’s going to look a whole lot different, lot less sexy and take a lot longer to see real results than a traditional consumer facing program will.
I was just on a great call with a diabetes blogger yesterday. Will it have any benefit for my client? Maybe, maybe not. But if it does, the funny thing is that no one will ever really know. I didn’t educate or sell, we just talked…about how my client could work better with diabetes bloggers. Can I prove any ROI on that talk… probably not. But I have to believe in my heart it was a step in the right direction.
I also think that Google+ presents some real opportunity for Pharma and social media — some cool things I think you could do there.
We have seen some great case studies lately where pharma companies are starting to use “compliance ready” platforms like ours to ensure internal guidelines and AE policies are followed when engaging or monitoring social media. We typically make sure compliance has bought in first – before marketers launch our platform. This has worked very well. In some cases, our clients have taken a proactive approach to voluntarily report AEs found on social media. This has made them look good in front of FDA. Also the approach have made them good corporate citizens. Only 5% of AEs are currently reported via traditional channels. We think taking this proactive – “compliance ready” approach will result in greater patient outcome, ultimately helping everyone ( including the pharma companies)
We have seen significant interest from pharma marketers and research folks in our “compliance ready” platform.
“Compliance Ready, Pharma Specific Social Media Platform for CRM, Drug Discovery and Market Intelligence”
Steve, great insights.
I hear a lot about Pharma changing but Pharma is not the fulcrum of the problem. I think it is the FDA and the legal establishment that needs to change. While I to see some DTC currently, I see many more call 1-800 Bad Drug commercials, telling people with chronic conditions that if they took drug X and they had a symptom or event (related to their chronic disease) it may be the fault of the drug and there is a big bag of money waiting for you.
How many of us would push the envelope if the we knew the possibility was the loss of our car, or the house, or our retirement funds if we uttered one word or phrase, that even though it was 100% true and accurate, was not documented and approved by some government agency and so we lose everything? There are so many problems with the relationship and patient emphasis between the FDA and Pharma companies, I don’t see how there will ever be trust enough for Pharma companies to speak to the patient in an open, public, social or real time fashion. I don’t think is a question of is it time to give up, but more of a question…did it ever have a chance to get started in the first place.
Jane Chin, Ph.D. says
My concern with pharma giving up on social media is that the consumer and patients aren’t going to point their fingers at the real culprit in stonewalling pharma’s efforts to get into social media (the FDA), but they will point at the pharma companies and intensify their criticism of how pharma companies are all about pushing prescriptions and “don’t care” about patients.
These days, “caring” has taken the form of responsiveness, time-to-response, and a general presence of “a real person to connect with” when it comes to online platforms.
I propose that pharma companies interested in trying this: start tweeting bits of the package insert and see how the FDA responds. If anything at least it serves as a reminder for the appropriate dosing and administration of the drug. Stop tweeting marketing messages that haven’t been approved to use by reps in the field, and if you must tweet then tweet bits of marketing material that have already been approved by the FDA.
I disagree that pharma should give up even though the FDA appears so far only competent for doling out punishment and not for drafting guidance.
Megan Svensen says
Every day we hear all the reasons why pharma cannot do social media. Yet walking away from social media is not an option if we want to communicate with patients and caregivers using channels they prefer. Finding ways to leverage social media tools while playing by all the regulatory rules is a significant challenge. Perhaps your walled-social-garden analogy will help people visualize solutions in new ways.
Rahlyn Gossen says
You raise many excellent points. I believe pharma can do social media. It’s just that pharma can’t do social media in the way it *wants* to do social media, which is to bombard people with brand messaging.
Though I find the lack of FDA guidance frustrating, I sometimes wonder if the FDA is doing pharma a favor by dragging its feet on these guidelines. Some pharma marketers seem insistent on bringing a message broadcasting mentality to social media, which would only serve to damage pharma’s already precarious public image.
For a case study of excellent social media use, look at Amex’s Open Forum program:
American Express has positioned itself as a champion of small business owners by providing them with excellent free content and resources. These articles are of excellent quality, and Amex does not use this content to push their products. Though the webpage is branded and contains display ads, the content is an agenda-free zone.
This is the kind of initiative that pharma should be taking.
My focus is on the clinical research side of pharma, so my perspective is different than most reading this blog. Though the regulatory restrictions of clinical research are distinct, they are equally challenging.
But I think there is major commonality across pharma roles, and it’s something you touch on, Steve. Short-term thinking is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) impediments to social media adoption by pharma. Social media is not a “launch and leave” medium, but that fact has not sunk in for some.
Patients and the industry would both be far better served by a more long-term mentality, both within and outside of social media.
Thanks for a great post!
David Ormesher says
I want to return to your final comments about revisiting SM from the perspective of the unique needs/constraints of our industry rather than trying to fit square peg/round hole.
We reflexively assume that hcsm has to be open and free and available to anyone and everyone. As if every social interaction or personal conversation we currently have is fully public. We all operate across a broad range of social interactions, from the intimate to the small group to the invite-only cocktail party to public debate. There is nothing wrong with the “walled garden;” it’s just one more venue. Behind the velvet rope at a private club, open and candid conversations can occur among a vetted group.
Think of a 2×2 with the range of branded to unbranded content on one axis and the range of private to public on the other. Right now the most problematic quadrant is the branded-public one, but the other three have much greater flexibility. No reason we can’t experiment in these three arenas, is there?
Yes, it’s extremely frustrating that we can’t play the same SM games as CPG and retail, but hey, we signed up to work in a regulated industry, so let’s make it work.
Steve Woodruff says
David – your description of the 2×2 is correct. There is room for the industry to adopt many digital networked communications approaches. But the branded/public arena – the most talked-about one – is where the biggest barriers are.
Steve I think this is a great thought provoking post. Rahlyn, in the comment above touches on part of what I think the heart of the problem is.
For me it boils down to two questions: 1) What do patients want/expect from Pharma participation in Social Media? 2) How can Pharma participation in Social Media improve the patient experience?
Unfortunately social media is often viewed too rigidly through the “ROI centric” marketing eye… as a medium about interaction and community not interruption and one way communication there is a fundamental flaw in viewing SM simply as a marketing tool. It can be that, but its much more. As you said stated in your post, a short term outlook on commitment/return on investment lends itself to such thinking.
Until this mentality is overcome, and the above 2 questions are answered (the answers vary by patient type mind you), Social Media and Pharma will not ever mix in a meaningful way… it will simply be more of the same push marketing but in a shiny new outfit.
John McElhenney says
What a timely post Steve. I’m going to list you as a reference on my take on the Pfizer Facebook Hack issue. I think you go a long way towards defining the problem. The solution? Well, let’s keep talking, shall we?
jason @ cinnamon agency says
It is laziness that causes people not to use Social Media combined with an unwillingness to even try to learn.
They are the ones who will be left behind!