When most of us think of social media, what first comes to mind may be platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or even the more professionally geared LinkedIn. But there's a new kid on the block, and pharma should be paying attention. I say 'new,' but you'll recognize the newcomer immediately: Internet search-colossus Google, who has just launched Google+ into the social media space.
The Google+ beta was released in a field trial in late June, and early indications are that the service incorporates features that might get pharma past some of the pitfalls associated with today's dominant platforms.
It's no secret that pharma and social media have made uncomfortable bedfellows. The social Web celebrates conversation. Pharma is wary of conversation. Pharma worries about saying the wrong thing; worries that someone else will say the wrong thing; worries that just by being in the social media space, it's going to get into trouble.Lack of guidance from the regulatory bodies on either side of the Atlantic has fueled the anxiety, but the traditionally measured top-down communication style of pharma struggles with the informal call-and-response of social media interaction.
The clear disconnect between pharma and social media has some industry folk asking if it's time for pharma to withdraw graciously. Steve Woodruff, author of the Impactiviti blog and one of the first to bring social media to pharma's attention, posed the question in a recent blog post entitled, "Time to give up on pharma and Social Media."
I don't think so, and Woodruff doesn't either. Pharma needs to pull back from what Woodruff calls "public, interactive, real-time social media platforms" and realize that it can't use social media the way Justin Bieber or your local microbrewery use it.
What the Buzz is About
This is where Google+ is interesting and, potentially, a smarter social media option for pharma companies. Circles (groups), Sparks (suggested content), and Hangouts (private spaces) could be key features to allow marketers more control of the online environment in which they engage healthcare professionals and patients.
More than this, though, Google just seems that much more willing to work with pharma to create digital media services that meet the industry's unique concerns. From reportedly paying $500 million to settle a criminal investigation into unregulated pharmacy advertising, to reprogramming YouTube channels to allow pharma marketers to control adjacent videos, and suggesting pharma-specific ad formats directly to the FDA, Google sees pharma as a market worth working with.
In contrast, Facebook is forcing most pharma marketers to include comments on their Facebook pages, more concerned that the site continues to host open dialogue than dealing with pharma's worries about off-label postings.
Nothing is for certain on the Internet. Google+, with just 10 million users at press time, might just be too late to convert Facebook's more than 750 million users. And Google hasn't been entirely golden in the social media or health spaces—early efforts Wave and Buzz both were considered flops—and Google Health, a service designed to give people online access to their personal health and wellness information, is to be mothballed at the end of this year.
But Google is no ordinary Johnny-come-lately: According to Comscore, 180 million people visited Google sites (including YouTube) in May, compared with less than 160 million on Facebook. And while some in the industry might be asking whether it's time for pharma to throw in the towel on social media, I think things are just starting to get interesting. With the right tools, Google+ among them, and its own digital IQ, pharma will find its place in social media.
Peter Houston is Content Director at Advanstar Communications Pharma/Science Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org