Practicing Safe Social Marketing: Six Steps To Online Engagement

Social media as a pharma marketing tool has been deemed too vulnerable to regulations, but that doesn't mean you have to stay on the sidelines
Mar 03, 2009
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

Last year the buzz in the industry was about social media and its potential for online marketing. Pharma ended up spending nearly $1.2 billion to market online, a figure that is expected to reach $2.2 billion by 2011, according to digital tracking firm eMarketer.

Yet confusion remains as to how to integrate new forms of communication, particularly digital and mobile, into a brand-marketing plan. So If 2008 was about creating awareness that social media exists, then 2009 should be about exploring how to meaningfully engage. And engage in a way that makes the team feel comfortable given the industry's regulatory constraints.

To get you started, here are six safe steps that can be easily integrated into a marketing plan:

Track your brand

At a minimum, marketers should monitor how their brands live online. With nearly universal adoption of the Internet among physicians and 72 million US adults visiting a health site in 2008, according to comScore, there is an enormous amount of unfiltered discussion and information flow taking place among patients, caregivers, and physicians online. Dialogue is happening all over the Internet—on wikis, health-related social networks, general social networks like Facebook, blogs, videos, message boards, and drug rating sites. Brand managers need to have a solid grasp of the social media landscape where their product or therapeutic category is being discussed. If they don't, they are missing out on a golden opportunity to listen in and learn from their customers. Marketers can monitor general perceptions, provide a quick read on an unfolding situation, uncover issues that had not been considered, or even confirm primary market research.

Since no one has time to pore over all of the sites, and some companies prohibit such visits, select an outside service that will aggregate the information in which you are most interested. Many research companies now offer robust sentiment tracking or blogmining services. Work with your branding or advertising agency to help select the one that best meets your goals.

Know a patient opinion leader

Patients today tend to be involved, well educated, and unafraid to question the advice of their physicians. In its 2008 report, How America Searches: Health & Wellness, iCrossing found that 59 percent of patients turn to the Web as their first source of health information. Physicians rank second at 55 percent, and traditional media like television and print trail in the distance, attracting only 20 percent. Patients forge relationships with one another online and discuss medications, therapies, symptoms, and more. This has led to the rise of a new type of expert: the patient opinion leader (POL)—non-medical professionals who inspire trust and act as guides for other patients. POLs write blogs, voice their opinions in patient communities, post videos on YouTube, and create Facebook pages devoted to their cause.

Kerri Morrone Sparling, a POL, is a blogger at Six Until Me, a popular diabetes blog that attracts 50,000 visitors per month. Readers ask Sparling for advice and opinions, and while she is careful to point out that she is not a medical professional, she's known for her candor and her accumulated wisdom as someone who has lived with the disease for 22 years. Sparling believes her audience would welcome a dialogue with a pharmaceutical company.

"Earning the trust of your user base is crucial to the growth of the industry," says Sparling. "If Big Pharma wants to really touch the lives of patients, they need to show us that they care, that my health, and the health of my fellow diabetics, is something their company holds in the highest regard,"

Lisa Emrich, a patient blogger who lives with multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, writes Brass and Ivory, a blog that discusses health policy and Big Pharma as it relates to MS.

"I've received emails from the communications department of isolated pharma companies who are developing MS treatments," says Emrich's. "But the purpose is often just to distribute a press release and not actually to develop a mutual relationship." Emrich's message to the industry—"Talk with us, not at us. Engage with participants. Patients will not bite."

All pharmaceutical companies have advisory boards of physician opinion leaders; perhaps now is the time to create ones with patients, too.

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