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How to Start Your Social Media Strategy


It is now the job of the pharma marketer to get people talking and to listen to what they are saying. Jody Ball offers advice on making that transition.

By Jody Ball.

Social media should always be seen as a complementary part of the marketing mix. Each team needs to consider its unique internal culture, vision and digital capability before developing a realistic strategy. The first step is to consider why you feel you need to use a particular platform and what it can help you to achieve.

When you've developed a strategy, don't make the mistake of thinking social media i 'quick and easy.' Engaging an audience and building a community take time and thought in any media. Resourcing also needs to be factored in and, if it's at all possible, ensure that the platform has a human face and a genuine identity - the more senior the person the better online credibility. Any marketer, even in a heavily regulated industry, should be prepared to genuinely engage with the audience to make the use of social media worthwhile.

Foster a positive corporate culture
For pharmaceutical marketers social media is less about tools than changing the culture of the industry and its approach to engaging with its customers. The need to prove ROI needs to be replaced with desire for connection.

Fostering a culture of acceptance internally will make use of social media natural and allow marketers to play with the tools before using them as part of campaigns. For this reason many companies have now switched policy and started to allow staff to use Facebook, Twitter, etc, in work time.

Before embarking on the first few campaigns, create a multi-focus steering group incorporating people from legal, regulatory affairs, medical, marketing, communications, etc, to agree and develop best practice models, parameters and guidelines for the use and integration of social media.

Create a clear corporate policy
To date, social media is bound by the general rules of digital communication as outlined in EFPIA and the country codes. But in the absence of concrete guidance, it's essential that a corporate policy on usage is developed. A clear policy will help ensure everyone understands the boundaries and underline that your organization takes social media ethics seriously.

Many social media campaigns will be more successful through partnerships, so make sure all third parties are familiar with industry regulations and what is permissible. If necessary, draft a standard operating procedure (SOP) that is specific to the project.

Establish realistic processes for adverse event (AE) reporting too, because it's impossible for a medic to listen round the clock. Any agencies monitoring blogs and forums must be fully trained on recognizing the criteria that make a true adverse event and pass it through a specific AE response system.

Know your options
Innovation may seem attractive, but social media marketing campaigns must still be viable and relevant or no-one will engage. Surveys generally reveal that the top reason for both doctors and patients to use social media is to seek other people's experiences, so it's important to consider channels that will facilitate this. Take some time to work with all the options, or get some thorough expert briefings.

The best way to understand how a social media channel, or community, functions is to use it very frequently. Regular participation will give you an instinctive understanding of the type of content that will resonate most with that community. Read plenty of material on your chosen platform and make sure you access as many case studies as possible.

Never underestimate the importance of the corporate website, which remains the base information source for other platforms.

Understand your audience
Gain a good understanding of which channels are likely to be the most effective platform to carry your message to your target audience. For example, MySpace used to be widely popular as an entertainment channel, but it is now primarily a place for teenagers. However, if you're looking to raise awareness of an OTC acne medication or promote chlamydia testing, MySpace may be the perfect choice.

Sometimes a target audience will run across many demographic segments, although disease- and medicine-specific audiences are usually fairly easily segmented. Once you create a general map of your target audience you can more easily select the social media to target. Once you're using them, many platforms will allow you to hold good, targeted focus groups such as a virtual advisory board on Sermo, or a special interest group question on Twitter or poll on Facebook.

The importance of understanding user demographics by geographical location should not be overlooked. For example, one European study revealed significant variation in the importance placed on the internet as a source of health information. In Denmark, the internet is already considered the second most important source, preceded only by health professionals. At the other end of the scale, in Greece, the internet is considered the least important source of information about health and health-related problems.

A recent survey has revealed that healthcare providers in the UK engage far more but then many of the discussions are in English and language to date has prevented engagement. France and Germany have more healthcare professionals who never engage in social media than the other three big EU markets. Establishing clear global SOPS can help to solve global vs local issues by allowing local markets to develop their own campaigns.

Active listening
Understand what is being said about a product or disease before embarking on any social media marketing. There are countless blogs, websites and microblogs talking separately and together on the web and listening to these 'conversation clouds' will help you to benchmark understanding about a disease and find a message and communications platform that will resonate with your target audience.

Often called 'digital landscaping' or 'conversation tracking,' there are lots of ways in which to listen. There are many free providers of listening tools on the web, some of which are specific to certain applications (like Tweetscan and Blogged.com) Several providers will run paid for services that use sophisticated bespoke tools to run search strings across multiple channels simultaneously. These are then sometimes trawled through manually in order to build a picture of perceptions and conversations. It is also possible to map this geographically.

You can send out questions to specific groups on Facebook or Twitter once you're using them. You can listen on many of the platforms directly too. Google Alerts, Tweetdeck, SocialMentions, etc, all offer ways to listen. Of course the real beauty of listening is that, unlike traditional market research, it is virtually instantaneous.

Benchmark results
It is difficult to budget for something that you believe won't demonstrate ROI, but part of the cultural change to acceptance of social media is to understand that it's engagement that's being assessed.

Goals should focus on increased disease or corporate awareness, positive reputation management, increased site visitors or improved search engine rankings. Use of several different social media can bring together smaller campaigns that target distinct communities, and which contribute to the overall goals.

Social media campaigns are usually measured with specific soft metrics such as traffic, links or comments. If your strategy is detailed you will also be able to add target audience, engagement, influence and action.

Many providers can detail specifics such as unique visitors, page views, return visits and interaction rates. Specific 'listening tools' that measure and benchmark conversations from blogs and other platforms (such as Technorati) will also measure specifics such as 'conversation size', number of conversation relevant sites and conversation reach (the number of unique visitors across sites in the conversation).

Getting hands on and involved is key to starting out successfully in social media, so make your knowledge practical and understand platforms by usage. There are now lots of examples of good social media use from various health organizations so also take look at what other healthcare organizations are doing. Have a clear understanding of regulations and what is possible and always bear in mind that healthcare providers and consumers must control the dialogue otherwise social media doesn't work. Any input from the industry must be with the aim of supporting that dialogue, monitoring the conversation and responding where absolutely appropriate. With this in mind, the potential for a truly collaborative online health community is unlimited.

Jody Ball is the Managing Director of FD Santé.