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Both feet first

David Avitable from JFK Communications charts the adoption of social media within the US life sciences arena

After a slow start, the life sciences industry is now beginning realise the potential for integrating social media into an overall communications plan. It can be used to develop deeper relationships with stakeholders, forge corporate and brand loyalty and mobilise communities around specific diseases or issues.

Just how big is social media?
Over the last 10 years, social media has developed networks of unprecedented scale.

  • Facebook is now estimated to host 500,000,000 active daily members – roughly the size of the entire population of North America.
  • YouTube receives about 3 billion views per day – the equivalent of nearly half the world's population.
  • Twitter has more than 300 million users, with a daily tweet count of about the same figure and daily search queries nudging 1.6 billion.

FDA and Facebook
In November 2009, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held a long overdue and widely publicised public hearing on the use of social media for the promotion of FDA regulated medical products.

As of March 2012, the FDA has still not released its official guidance on how the industry should use social media channels to promote regulated products.

According to the popular industry blog Dose of Digital, which maintains a pharma and healthcare social media Wiki, the number and variety of social media pages, channels and communities is growing exponentially. Pharmaceutical and healthcare organizations have so far been responsible for:

  • 35 brand-sponsored patient communities
  • 112 non-branded patient communities
  • 53 healthcare professional communities
  • 85 pharma and healthcare related Facebook pages
  • 48 pharma and healthcare related YouTube channels.

Source: Dose of Digital

In the meantime, however, leading life sciences companies have proceeded to implement social media strategies and are engaging with patients and customers in ways that are creative, effective and responsible.

In August 2011, Facebook eliminated a special exemption for its pharmaceutical and healthcare pages, which allowed companies to block comments being posted on their wall. Some pharmaceutical companies have always allowed comments on their Facebook pages prior to the amendment, while others did not.

There were companies that responded to the Facebook policy change by deleting their pages. However, the majority decided to maintain their Facebook pages and adapt to the new environment. These companies have shown that they understand the opportunities for dialogue and two-way communication that social media provides. They have also demonstrated that in their view, the potential risks of engaging in true two-way dialogue with customers and patients are far outweighed by the corporate loyalty and brand building opportunities that social media provides.

The issue of liability, particularly with regard to the danger of somebody using a social media site to report an adverse event, has been a major industry concern since the earliest days of social media, and was a primary reason for the life sciences industry's slow adoption of social media relative to other industries.

In the absence of any real guidance from FDA on this issue, most life sciences companies have been very careful to provide clear information to visitors on where to go to report adverse events properly.

Most companies also provide 'fair balance' or important safety information and warnings, whenever mentioning their product on a social media site. There are different ways to do this on Facebook and YouTube. 

Beyond pharma and biotech
It is not just traditional pharma and biotech companies that are engaging in social media.

Today's leading pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical technology companies rely on external partners to conduct their clinical trials, provide formulation and drug delivery services, package their products and manage their supply chains.

Top 10 pharma companies in social media

  1. Pfizer
  2. Johnson & Johnson
  3. Novartis
  4. Boehringer Ingelheim
  5. AstraZeneca
  6. Bayer
  7. GlaxoSmithKline
  8. Sanofi
  9. Roche
  10. Merck

Source: InventorSpot

Contract research organisations (CROs) such as PharmaNet/i3, Quintiles and PPD, and contract drug development, formulation, delivery technology, clinical supply and manufacturing organisations including Catalent Pharma Solutions, Lonza and Patheon offer comprehensive services that have enabled these organisations to become highly integrated with the life sciences companies they support.

What all of these companies have in common is that they offer considerable scientific, technical and logistical expertise combined with global resources.

One of the main marketing challenges that these outsourced service providers face is building thought leadership and profiling their scientific and technical expertise. Activities such as white papers, publications, presentations and trade media relations are all tactics that these companies use to reach potential customers. And, increasingly, so is social media.

Convergence: this time it's real
The popularity and widespread use of smart phones has really only occurred over the past five years and tablets such as the iPad are even more recent developments. Without this technology, real convergence, the kind of convergence that is so seamless we hardly notice it, was impossible.

Today, a person with diabetes can be reading an article about new developments in needle technology in the latest issue of Diabetes Forecast. At the bottom of the page, there might be a quick response (QR) code, which can be scanned by an iPhone and they are then taken directly to a product website.

The website can provide:

  • More information on the technology
  • Product discount coupons
  • Links to an online store where she can buy the product
  • Recent reviews of the product written by diabetes bloggers and journalists
  • Information and a link to the company's diabetes Twitter page
  • YouTube videos showing the new needle in action
  • Information and a link to the American Diabetes Association's (ADA) Facebook page with its own review of the new needle
  • An email opt-in feature so she can sign up for future offers and information on new products
  • She also has the ability to return to the site after using the new needle and add comments on her personal experience with the product
  • And, if she wants even more, she can download a company sponsored iPad app that enables her to track her diet, blood sugar and insulin.

Now that is what real convergence looks like. And social media is a vital part of the mix.

The Author
David Avitabile
is President of JFK Communications, a global integrated healthcare communications company

20th February 2012

From: Marketing

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