The pharmaceutical industry in Europe is increasingly aclimatising to the 'digital revolution' and the world of social media. There is a growing sense that the industry can and should be tuning into this 'world' as a way of engaging with patients and healthcare professionals, and as a source of insights.
So what's holding things back? In a sense, it is the online world's key strengths: 'open access', lack of obvious controls, real-time responses and two-way engagement. The need (often a legal requirement) to ensure information about brands is medically correct, benefits are 'real', adverse events are reported, statements are justifiable, claims are qualified and clinically accurate make the effective deployment of any social media strategy a real challenge.
Despite this, some companies have pioneered the use of social media and although they have had to tread carefully, they have successfully engaged with online communities to raise awareness and give their company recognition as a credible and authoritative voice, reaching thousands, if not millions of people who may have had little awareness of them previously.
Regulation versus engagement
With the vast amount of regulation that restrains pharmaceutical marketing, social media marketing and digital marketing strategies must be addressed at a boardroom level. Senior executives, and the medical team, must be encouraged to embrace the increasingly valuable role that social media plays in the way in which they 'engage' with consumers.
Indeed the world is changing to such an extent that companies may start to suffer if they do not have clear social media 'positions'. Companies that aren't connecting with key audiences run a real risk of being left behind as competitors develop better, fine-tuned communications and positioning because they have listened, learned from and adapted to what consumers discuss and divulge online.
It remains essential that medical, marketing, market research, sales and training teams work together to develop digital strategies and ensure that they are aligned and integrated within the whole marketing mix and across the organisation.
There is a lot to be learned from the consumer world and how successful 'engagement' with social media can be a valuable part of brand development strategies. In the healthcare arena however, it is a bit more difficult. Here are a few handy tips:
• Tailor – every brand, therapy area, patient group and company is different. There is no simple or single unified approach to social media
• Invest upfront – in time and people. Dedicate the right level of resource needed to generate sustainable impact
• Engage – it's no longer about a one-way communication model where success is judged on message recall, it's about engaging with and understanding your customers
• Integrate – how can your social media strategy enhance your market research and how can it be a source of information?
• Think 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.
What does the future hold?
Social media can impact every part of a pharmaceutical brands' marketing strategy, from advertising campaigns, through to how the brand can encourage 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.
This article was first published in PME November/December 2010 as part of the Thought Leader series.
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