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The Social Media effect on the Pharmaceutical & Healthcare Industry

The Social Media effect on the Pharmaceutical & Healthcare Industry


Social media has probably become one of the most important forms of communication and interaction to date, and it is here to stay.
Last Updated: 21-Sep-2011

Social media has probably become one of the most important forms of communication and interaction to date, and it is here to stay. It has turned the world from passive consumers into active consumers, with people increasingly taking to the internet to voice their approval or concerns about a certain product, brand or service. With over 750million active users on Facebook, and over 200million Tweeters worldwide, anyone who takes to social media to make their voices heard can have an enormous audience to hear it.

It has also so far been an area that many pharmaceutical and healthcare companies have hesitated getting involved in. It is as though there is a fear of jumping into the social media swimming pool first. So what’s happening, is that pharmaceutical as well as healthcare companies are watching each other, waiting to see who makes what move in social media, and then deciding if its worth getting into.

Whilst conservative behaviour is certainly the smartest way to go - with this industry being so regulated and controlled - it is still like looking at the glass half empty versus half full. Depending on what a particular pharmaceutical or healthcare company wants to get out of it, instead of hesitating, this could be an opportunity to set a trend few others have done yet and gain a lead in a powerful brand or product movement tool.

So, as a pharmaceutical or healthcare company, what can you get out of social media and how can you maximise its potential reach and influence? Well, it depends on what you want to learn, explore, establish or achieve. It would be key to understand from the beginning, what it is you expect to achieve through the use of social media in developing your social media strategy.

For instance, do you want to listen to consumers and engage with their opinions or do you want to use it as a tool to humanise your company or product? Perhaps the goal is to develop your existing customer base or announce new product launches? You may even want to use it as a way of asking your consumers questions about your products? Whatever the reason may be, if you decide to pursue social media, you will need to embrace it and engage with the community. Simply having a social media platform for the sake of it and leaving it redundant, has the capacity to potentially do more harm than good. In the end, if you don’t engage with your audience, it may not be worth using social media at all.

First a look at social media in more detail including social media tools (existing and growing), target audience, response time to social media strategies, and what value this could bring to your company.

Tools: Some social media networking tools & media platforms that can be used to connect to and learn from the community include: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, photo and video sharing, e-mail, e-newsletters, websites, web forums, webcasts, podcasts and more. Depending on what your social media strategy is or what consumer area you are targeting, some channels will be more effective than others. An example would be how age demographics play a heavy hand in channel choice.Target: Points of Influence within these industries include: patients, caregivers, advocacy groups, physicians, HCPs and patient’s family members. Sometimes, depending on what therapy area your focus would be in, the best route to a patient may not be the direct one, but instead an indirect one that would influence them in a positive way that would have nothing to do with a drug.

Response Time: It is important to remember that social media campaigns can start slow, and then grow quickly. Meaning, a positive campaign has the potential to reach a vast global audience within a short space of time, with minimal effort. However, it also means careful attention needs to be paid in order to monitor what is happening and how to respond quickly, if a response is needed at all.

Value: Some of the reasons why social media is of value include: building trust, humanising, engaging with and learning about consumers, responding quickly to issues, lowering the cost of a communications strategy, providing customer facing teams with real-time information, helping shape policy, having a global effect. If your strategy is well-planned from the start, you could end up gaining much more value than expected.

Before jumping into the pool of social media, compared to other industries, it is important to remember that social media in pharmaceuticals and healthcare is still relatively unexplored and untapped for its potential reach and impact.

Before jumping into the deep end, it is also important to know the heart of your brand, product or therapy area. As media is becoming more and more fragmented, and as the surge in the popularity of social media increasingly puts power into the hands of the consumer as well as the medical community, it is more important than ever that companies understand their core values affecting the brand or product, as well as the therapy area these brands live in. At the same time, it is equally as important to understand the challenges they are facing.

Although social media is a great tool with so many channels to choose from or even develop as your own, (especially) pharmaceutical companies more heavily invested in social media have also set guiding principles (best practice) to live by as that industry is unlike others with strict adherence to regulatory restrictions and requirements. These guiding principles are needed to be set and decided from the beginning. Because one of the most important ways of humanising the company is by allowing your employees to actually tweet/facebook/etc and connect, it is imperative that they understand what guidelines to stick by, and appreciate that they represent the company as well. Appreciating and understanding the heart of the company’s product, brand and therapy area would be a vital key to strengthening this interaction.

This responsibility should be respected at all times when in the public realm of social media. The one statement that has surfaced continuously, is to train employees fully in the chosen social media tools. When that is done, refresh their training and familiarise them with your core brand messages and guiding principles. This training will most likely be regularly updated, so keep up to speed with the latest developments in social media.

Getting to know your core values and defining your strategy often comes down to asking one very simple, straight forward question. The answers that develop will often be very obvious, but asking the right question in the first place is the tricky part. At 1HQ, we are not only good at finding answers; we are also great at asking the right questions in the first place. Bypassing this process could lead to ill informed staff using social media tools and platforms to post inaccurate or potentially incorrect information about your brand or product, which could have a detrimental effect to your overall aims and objectives. When it comes to social media, the world is watching so make sure your brand proposition is being delivered effectively and coherently – with everyone reading off the same page.

Depending on what type of pharmaceutical or healthcare company you are, it is best that such guiding principles have input from Legal as well as QA. It is a specific area that requires in-depth review and strategy.

In terms of strategy within social media, the most effective strategy will certainly involve those three basic key elements, if not more:

  • Giving a human feel to whichever channel you explore
  • Setting those guiding principles to adhere to religiously
  • And also very importantly, knowing from the start your goals and objectives
There are of course a number of other important elements to consider including timelines, focus, competitors strategy, and so on. From experience, those three seem to capture a strong foothold as a must-have to begin with.

In terms of therapy areas, depending on which one(s) you are in, the best way forward is to centralise the social media strategy around the particular area of therapy. For example, if one if your areas of therapy happens to be neurology, then the question that should be asked is how do I reach the community of sufferers of diseases within that therapy area through social media. Yes, truly a million dollar question, but how you get there may be easier than you think. Again, asking the right questions is your crucial starting point, and choosing the right digital media partner also becomes crucial in this endeavour. Whilst there are many agencies out there that can do social media, you will need to team up with those agencies that understand the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries as well. This is needed in order to safely and effectively link the scientific to the creative. After all, you need to form this team in order to maximise the effect. At 1HQ Health, we link the scientific to the creative with a team of people with pharmaceutical and healthcare experience within a top UK Branding Agency. This gives us a fundamental understanding of what is involved within this specific area of branding, putting us one step ahead of the competition.

At the end of the day, timing is extremely important. So far, pharmaceutical (mainly) marketing teams are still playing catch up to FMCG marketing teams, and for good reason. But times are changing where marketing is becoming increasingly more important to pharmaceutical companies, even looking at how FMCG have used marketing tools to their advantage. Even though a product may not be launched for some time, there is no stopping a pharmaceutical company from creating something through social media that does not reflect anything about the product itself, and instead focus on something else that links the consumer to the pharmaceutical company. This will start to build the connection in the consumer’s mind to the pharmaceutical or healthcare company, so when the product launches, there is an established emotional connection to the company.

Depending on whether the product or brand is a prescription or OTC drug, the strategy will have a different focus, as one is much more restricted than the other. This comes back to the simple thought of looking at the glass half full versus half empty, where just because you cannot speak about the particular drug itself, doesn’t mean you cant speak at all. You just say different things. And when you speak, depending on how and what you say, people will not just listen, but also participate.

About the author:
Burton Paul heads up the health division at leading entrepreneurial and creative branding agency, 1HQ. Burton has over 15 years experience in managing projects and clients across a wide range of sectors including FMCG and pharmaceuticals. His work includes brand delivery for some of the biggest names in the sector; most notably Adcock Ingram, Arrow Generics, BMS, Cephalon, Eusa Pharma, GE Healthcare, King Pharmaceuticals, Mylan, Peptech, SSL (Reckitt Benckiser) and Synpart.