Alternative Media: Mastering Social Media

Online communication tools work only if you know how to use them
Apr 01, 2007

Fard Johnmar
The push for new media is on. Pharma agencies are buzzing about social media tools such as blogs, podcasts, and interactive healthcare forums, but few firms really know how to make these online initiatives work.

This is due in part to pharma's need to control how information is developed and disseminated. Tight message control is very difficult or impossible when speaking with people via an online forum, blog, or social network. Another headache is the uncertainty about how the FDA will regulate pharma's social media communications activities.

Although there are many barriers to overcome, a number of pharmaceutical companies are eager to use blogs, podcasts, and other tools to market their products and advance their agendas. Following is a framework pharma marketers can use to help them:

  • understand what is being said about their products online;
  • ethically engage stakeholders via blogs, podcasts, and other forms of social media;
  • flexibly participate in and respond to Internet conversation;
  • boost their return on investment.

The Real Deal

According to a study conducted by Envision Solutions, 5 percent of U.S. Internet users looking for information about the antidepressant Lexapro visited the popular blog between mid-December 2006 and mid-January 2007. They are relying on this Weblog because it provides straight talk about the safety and efficacy of many commonly used psychiatric medications.

There is a lesson to be learned here. People turn to social media because they are looking for relevant content. Though pharmaceutical companies devote significant resources to "" Web sites, Internet users are far from satisfied. This is because they want "the real deal" about how medications will affect them and their families. The key to engaging them, building brand loyalty, and increasing compliance is listening to what people want and providing them with information they need.

Social media can help in two ways. First, it is an excellent source of observational market research. Competitive-intelligence firms such as Nielsen BuzzMetrics and Cymfony have developed tools that provide detailed information about what consumers and medical professionals think about medications and related issues—and developed methods of collecting information while complying with regulatory guidelines.

Jim Nail, Cymfony's chief marketing officer, says that it is crucial for pharmaceutical companies to monitor user-generated media because "it can help them begin to bridge the divide between pharma and its stakeholders." Second, he believes "engaging in authentic conversation is the best way for pharmaceutical companies to rebuild public trust."

It is essential that pharma marketers observe established blogs and other forms of user-generated media prior to launching a social media communications campaign. If a company does its homework, it will decrease the odds of making an embarrassing mistake, providing irrelevant information, or failing to recognize an opportunity. Before speaking, the marketers should understand what people want to know.

Think Outcomes, Not Tools

Like most people, marketers love shiny new toys and are vulnerable to peer pressure. For example, right now podcasting is hot, and many consultants and communications firms are encouraging pharmaceutical companies to develop podcasts. However, many executives are complaining that their podcasts are not being downloaded or shared.

This holds true for other forms of social media, like blogs and social networks. Some marketers want to hop onto the bandwagon with little regard for how or whether a certain tool will have an impact. Before deciding to invest human and financial resources in these communications channels, consider the S.T.O.P. method:

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