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Navigating the maze

Consumer marketing can help pharma marketers find their way through the social web

A compassThe UK pharmaceutical industry recently passed a milestone in its drive to become more engaged in the 'digital revolution' by holding its first workshop on social media in the healthcare arena. The workshop was hosted by the British Healthcare Business Intelligence Association (BHBIA) and the debate was facilitated by global pharmaceutical marketing research agency Insight Research Group.

Seeking to take stock of and develop possibilities raised by a continually evolving digital landscape, the workshop heralded a fresh willingness for the industry to engage with the world of 'social media', a loose term that has become an industry buzzword. The event also gave both marketers and market researchers an opportunity to reflect on the challenges for pharmaceutical marketing and business information departments and consider what might be possible in this highly regulated industry.

What is social media?
There is relatively little understanding of what precisely constitutes social media, yet this arena has a unique potential to maximise engagement between pharma companies, their direct customers (HCPs, market access professionals and others) and end-users (patients and carers) of their products (medicines).

Social media is essentially the platform (most commonly described as 'social networks') that encourages and enhances social interaction and the sharing of content. For consumer marketers, social media is increasingly used as a platform to disseminate content that will rouse debate, spark interest and generate consumer engagement, while providing a significant source of valuable consumer insights for market researchers and marketers to tap into.

In the world of pharmaceuticals, there is a growing sense that marketers and market researchers can and should be tuning into social media — albeit in a different manner to how it's done in the world of consumer brands — as a way of engaging with patients and HCPs, and as a source of data and insights.

Based on these views, and the fact that more and more companies are entering the fray, there is a growing sense among company leaders that they might be missing a potential source of competitive edge for some of their brands. This in turn is driving a strong desire to 'tune in' to what is happening in this area.

So far, the industry as a whole has been somewhat hesitant in entering the world of social media. What's holding things back? In a sense, it is the very strengths of the online world — being 'open access' with a lack of obvious controls, real-time responses and a two-way engagement ethos — that can play havoc with pharmaceutical companies. The need (often a legal requirement) to ensure information about brands is medically correct, that benefits are not over-stated, views expressed are not misleading, statements are justifiable, all claims are qualified and clinically accurate… All these things make the effective deployment of any communications strategy a challenge, particularly in the context of free exchange in an uncontrolled environment, which is what social media is all about.

Notwithstanding these challenges, some companies have pioneered the use of social media. Although these pioneers have had to tread carefully, they have successfully facilitated and created debates among online communities and networks. This has allowed them to raise awareness and gain recognition for their company as a credible and authoritative voice, enabling them to reach out to thousands, if not millions, of people who had little or no awareness of them previously.

Regulation vs engagement
Just like they have in the consumer branding world, social media marketing and digital marketing strategies must be addressed at a boardroom level. With the vast amount of regulation that restricts pharmaceutical marketing, it is important that senior executives give guidance and acceptance of the increasingly valuable role that social media can and should play in the way in which companies 'engage' with consumers of their medicines.

Indeed the world is changing to such an extent that companies may start to suffer the consequences if they do not implement clear social media 'positions' in the near future. Social media is changing the way consumers are interacting with pharmaceutical brands. This means those companies that are not engaging run a real risk of being left behind. In the meantime, competitors will develop better, fine-tuned communication and positioning because they have listened, learned from and adapted to what the consumer discusses and divulges online.

The internet has changed the way patients identify and learn about conditions and decide how and when to be treated. Consumers no longer listen just to their GP or consultant; they do not only visit and search within the boundaries of public health websites to seek advice. Social media has cast the patient advice net so wide that pharmaceutical companies should now consider everyone a stakeholder in the education and awareness process.

Driving digital development
Engagement is key. At a basic level, if you are not using your medical department's expertise and support along with your market research skills and marketing approach to have a real, appropriate and sustainable social media presence, you may well be missing out on the opportunity to understand your customers better. Companies will also miss out on the conversations had by end-users and the debates that surround your brand, the competition, the wider therapy area and your company. This needs to be tied in with the market research information you have about what your prescribers and payers are saying, as well as what the competition is doing. This level of information can be a source of sustainable competitive advantage for your brands.

It remains essential that medical, marketing, market research, sales and training teams work together and that whatever digital strategies are deployed are aligned and integrated within the whole marketing mix and as part of their market research planning.

Does this sound like something all pharmaceutical companies should do? Not too difficult? Well, in principle, yes. In practice, as we discovered at the recent BHBIA workshop, there are many difficulties.

Internal stakeholders, especially senior management and, vitally, the medical team, must be fully signed up to and supportive of your journey into the world of social media. This might be easier said than done, but without their support and understanding it is likely to be an uphill struggle.

The issues around regulation and control of approvable information flow may make entirely 'open' engagement nigh-on impossible unless you are prepared to dedicate the resources to monitor these channels closely and with a clearly defined response strategy in place. The use of social media as a source of marketing information is fraught with issues around consent, use of data and adverse event reporting, along with traditional issues of sampling errors, bias and questioning technique. This is where market researchers will need to add value in making sure the challenges are understood and suitable caveats introduced. In the absence of any clear industry guidance, this is also where we as an industry need to make sure we make best efforts to meet the current codes of conduct and act responsibly.

Learning curve
While there is a lot still to be learned from the consumer world about how brands use social media, there are many issues and concerns that make the healthcare arena a more difficult one in which to operate. The fundamental tension between regulated messaging, medical accuracy and qualification versus open and free exchange of opinion, feelings and individual points of view will continue to present significant challenges for any pharmaceutical company wishing to engage in this domain.

As one delegate at the workshop said, "It's rather like peeling the layers of an onion; once you strip away one set of problems you reveal another layer to be dealt with." Nonetheless, a few tips and hints emerged from the discussions. Here they are:
• Learn and apply: there are valuable lessons to be learned from other brands and other companies. Take the time to learn those lessons and apply what you have learned to your current situation
• Tailor: every brand, therapy area, patient group and company is different. There is no simple or single unified approach to engaging in social media
• Invest upfront in time, people, resource and research. What are the outcomes you are seeking? How will you know you are getting what you want? Dedicate the right level of resource needed to generate a sustainable impact
• Engage: effective marketing is no longer about a one-way communication model where your success is judged on message recall; it's about engaging with and understanding your customers
• Integrate your social media plan into your new marketing strategy for next year and the year after. Think through how your social media strategy can enhance your market research and how it can be a source of information
• Think ROI: be prepared to answer the challenge around ROI. Consider other measures around awareness, perception and engagement and ask, 'What is the cost of not doing this?'
• Evaluate: choose the right channels and tailor your evaluation — decide at the outset what success looks like for your brand. This doesn't automatically mean you have to have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed. Social media 'success' does not equate to having 5,000 followers.

What does the future hold?
Social media can and should form a part of the marketing communication and market researchers' arsenal and is likely to do so more consistently in the next twelve months. The social media platform can impact every part of a pharmaceutical brand's marketing strategy, from advertising campaigns through to encouraging interaction and positive conversations in a topical area. The unrestricted use of social media remains fraught with problems but the genie is out of the bottle and the industry is increasingly seeking ways to 'go with the flow'.

The evidence is that more companies will find ways to make the digital world work for them and for the patients that benefit from their medicines.

The Author
Damian Eade is associate director at Insight Research Group

To comment on this article, email

8th November 2010


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