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Digital: hot topics in pharma

As the pharmaceutical industry enters 2012, what are the three main aspects that it should be considering when developing strategy in an increasingly social online space?
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It is easy to underestimate the revolutionary times in which we live. Many of the communication channels that have become indispensable and integrated into the fabric of society did not exist six years ago.

Although passionately associated with the drive to develop pharmaceutical companies' digital capacity and ambitions, I do not feel technology in itself has any real value. In fact, technology, when not focused on people, is often a solution searching for a problem.

Isaacson's recently published biography of Steve Jobs states that the iconic Apple founder believed that if the 20th century in digital was about the intersection of technology and the humanities, then the 21st century will be about that intersection with biology and medicine. Often, the pharmaceutical industry ends up having the same debates and discussions, never really grasping the full possibilities hinted at by Jobs. So, what should we be considering within digital pharma for 2012?

Here, I shall take up the challenge of outlining what I believe are the three big themes for 2012 for this industry: website strategy, 'big data' and social media. These are obviously not exhaustive and do not include mobile and games for health, which I shall cover in a future edition of PME.

Website strategy
What does the internet mean for us today? The World Wide Web represents an amazing story. We have moved from its early development in the 1980s to mass growth and commercialisation in the mid 1990s and now to the ubiquitous web and web 2.0. This final transition was probably the most profound; moving from a model of large-scale information exchange to an internet enabling people to connect with each other around the globe.

The web has unleashed personal communication and sharing on a scale unprecedented in human history. It has rewired people's perceptions of the world around them. Any aspect of the pharmaceutical industry that has not yet been dramatically changed by the internet, will be.

The growth of the web and our understanding of its impact on society have changed considerably over the last decade. We can see this in a rudimentary analysis of people's behaviour. Social applications (such as Twitter and Facebook) now dominate the global top ten international websites (along with search), with even the mighty Amazon only managing to reach the eleventh spot.

Increasingly, people are finding content either from their network or through search within social applications. Search itself is becoming ever more influenced by social equity with a successful SEO (search engine optimisation) strategy now dependent on optimisation of social content and platform presence. So any site, including those of the pharmaceutical industry, without multiple social connections, will drop down the search rankings dramatically.

Some websites now feel impersonal and old fashioned to visitors, with a few even seeming like a museum. Website traffic on a broad level has collapsed and it is imperative that pharmaceutical companies start to think about how they can deliver credible content to customers, patients and the general public. The consumer technology magazine Wired published an article in 2010, which said: 'you have spent the whole day on the internet but not on the web', proclaiming 'the web is dead, long live the internet'.

The web is not dead, but pharma needs 2012 to be the year it fully grasps the opportunities of this changing landscape and stops building isolated, dusty museums, instead focusing on connecting people with their content in the places online that they naturally inhabit.

This availability of information is on a scale unimaginable to pharmaceutical companies five years ag

Stop thinking 'website' and instead concentrate on how best you can be a part of people's lives, delivering content and dialogue where they already want to spend time.

Big data
I predict that data will be the hot topic of 2012 for digital healthcare.

We are only just beginning to comprehend how the large amount of information created by everyone every day can be used to help society. Eric Schmid, the current executive chairman of Google, stated in the summer of 2010: "Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003". It is true to say that 'big data' is the latest buzz term in technology.

Big data refers to vast amounts of diverse unstructured data that offer access to insight and information on a scale unimaginable 20 years ago. The trick for pharmaceutical companies is to bring meaning to this data.

The socialised internet enables the production and storage of incredible amounts of this personal information on a daily basis. Companies from a range of industries are digging legitimately through these information mountains, searching for patterns, and this work has already impacted fields such as genomics and public health.

For a pharmaceutical company, I would model this as three broad types: owned data that is placed on a company's assets; unstructured data that is placed anywhere on the web, and data placed on communities such as PatientsLikeMe in a structured format.

A recent example of unstructured data is an October 2011 study conducted by a multi-disciplinary team of researchers at the University of Iowa in the US. The researchers reported study results suggesting that Twitter could become an innovative scientific tool for epidemiologists. The research team described its results as 'promising' for assessing not just disease activity, but also ancillary issues like treatment side effects or potential medication shortages (in this particular case, for the H1N1 influenza virus).

This approach could be utilised by pharma to understand disease states and treatment response delivering a level of unmediated insight from the real world which has been unobtainable by pharma previously.

In the case of a community like PatientsLikeMe, structured data comes from people being enabled to share information about how they are managing a condition such as diabetes, how they take and respond to treatment and their overall mood and quality of life. This availability of information is on a scale unimaginable to pharmaceutical companies five years ago.

PatientsLikeMe is not just a community, however. The data it supports has the capacity to change society by encouraging people to share information not just for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of others with the same condition.

Pharma has an opportunity to partner with communities such as PatientsLikeMe and another online site collating structured patient reported outcomes called Cure Together. Such collaborations can build access to longitudinal consensual patient data, enabling a better understanding of the real struggles and challenges faced by patients. This can also yield valuable treatment data that could influence everything from R&D and clinical trial development through to sales and marketing.

Social media
While a number of pharmaceutical companies have moved forward significantly in this space, over the next year pharma can really involve itself with the social internet. In order to develop a meaningful strategy, it must be accepted that social media does not really exist as a distinct category any more. There is almost nothing on the web of value that is not socialised in some form. This could be nothing more than the capacity to comment and share.

I developed a model termed the 'Ladder of Engagement', which enables people to look at an online strategy and frame it in the context of sharing, co-operation and collective action. This forms a basis for cultural change within an organisation.

Although pharmaceutical companies have a broad range of assets and people with the knowledge to make them of high value to the people they want to help, often there is a lack of sharing in a meaningful way. To become part of a broader online community may not require any more than harnessing an attitude of caring and a generosity of spirit, which many companies have embedded in their culture.

Beyond this is the co-operation and collective production at the heart of the modern online experience. In very simple terms, people and companies are stronger when they build things together. This can be as straightforward to achieve as engaging in a conversation about a contentious condition on social platforms such as Facebook or allowing the wider community to put forward ideas in a 'innovation lab' environment, an idea utilised years ago by companies such as Dell and Starbucks.

Collective action
The final rung in the ladder is that of collective action. This could transform a pharmaceutical company's strategic vision. Collective action can be best described as a shared responsibility. This unlocks people's desire to further the common good and examples can be found in the collaborations working to fight malaria in Africa, as well as online clinical trials.

When underpinned by a rigorous process, engagement with other people on social networks mitigates risk for pharmaceutical companies. Many of the messages pharma needs to communicate are complex and nuanced, requiring conversation and discussion, not just carefully constructed message-based communications. I have seen reasonable and productive discussions on Facebook on subjects as contentious and interwoven as the HIV patent pool and global disaster support. Let's start to trust the public; the public will then start to trust us more.


Alex-Butler
The Author
Alex Butler
is the founder of online marketing communications agency The Social Moon


Twitter @alex__butler  |  @the_social_moon

12th December 2011

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