Alternative Media: Mastering Social Media

April 1, 2007

Pharmaceutical Executive

Volume 0, Issue 0

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.

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.

Fard Johnmar

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 crazymeds.org 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 "product.com" 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:

S What's the strategy? Your overall marketing strategy should determine whether a communications tactic is appropriate. For example, if you are trying to reach people 65 years and older with new information about an arthritis medication, launching a social network is not the best way to engage them. Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that only 31 percent of people in this age group go online. In addition, few people over 70 are interested in using the Web. Let strategy be your guide.

T What's the time frame? Given the complexity of social media, the value of any communications tactic must be weighed against your time frame. Launching a blog, for example, is no simple matter. It requires extensive discussion and planning. If you have limited time before a launch, think twice about inserting a Weblog into your communications plan.

O What's the desired outcome? The purpose of communications has always been about getting people to pay attention and take action. Every tactic should be evaluated against this yardstick. Ask: "What do I want the reaction to be?" and "How will I measure it?" Each social media tool has a different purpose. Understand how each can help you meet your marketing objectives and you will be ahead of the game.

P What's the procedure? Social media is far from safe. Because you are dealing with people who have varying allegiances and motivations, you are bound to experience something you did not plan for. Before engaging in social media communications, think about what could go right (and wrong) and plan accordingly.

Be Transparent

As scary as it may seem, practicing transparency is the only way that pharmaceutical companies will become credible citizens of the online community. This means being courageous enough to tolerate negative commentary and having the flexibility to respond quickly.

Cephalon is one company that is transparently communicating with its stakeholders using social media. It has launched the Web site ADHDbalance.net, which features blogs written by parents, psychologists, and others who have tips for people caring for children with the condition. Although the company does not publish commentary from visitors, it overcomes suspicion that content on the site is biased by featuring information from accredited and citizen ADHD experts. For example, it has partnered with a respected third-party organization called Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHAAD). The developers of CHADD's new training program, Parent-to-Parent: Family Training on ADHD, have a blog on the Web site.

Flexibility Is a Virtue

Communicating with stakeholders via social media can be very difficult for a pharmaceutical company accustomed to carefully crafting and vetting public statements. However, slow response times can doom a social media communications campaign because events and perceptions change very quickly online.

Pharma can increase its flexibility by decreasing reaction times and content development cycles: For example, if a company decides to launch a corporate blog, it can develop an in-house legal, regulatory, medical, and marketing team that will approve posts before they appear. It also must be willing to change course. If a review of relevant online bulletin boards and blogs reveals that your carefully developed message is not resonating with consumers, don't be afraid to shift gears if appropriate. Companies can and should find ways to engage their stakeholders via social media. Success will require having the appropriate mindset, managing expectations, and carefully linking tactics to business and corporate objectives.

Fard Johnmar is the founder of Envision Solutions. He can be reached at info@envisionsolutionsnow.com