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Trial and Error on a Digital Landscape

Hampered by regulation and fearful of failure, the pharmaceutical industry’s efforts in digital communication often seem hit and miss. But an industry that learns from its research mistakes really shouldn’t be fearful of making a few online mistakes. 

The web has done much to disrupt modern life. It has transformed business models across a range of industries and shifted products from being tangible objects (like CDs), to intangible items (like an iTunes album). And, now that access to information is a mere click away, it has radically altered the way we approach customer services.

Pharmaceutical companies' customers – professionals and patients – are no different from other customers, in as much as they expect information immediately and will use the internet to find it.

The European Commissions' Institute for Prospective and Technological Studies 2012 report, Citizens and ICT for Health, found that 41 per cent of people looked online for health information more than once a month, and a further 40 per cent a little less frequently.

Given the large demand for access to information, much of it generated by pharmaceutical industries, you have to ask yourself: why are the digital activities of pharmaceutical companies so hit and miss?

Behind the curve
Arguably, the pharmaceutical industry has been dragged into digital communications by changing payer, healthcare professional and patient behaviour, rather than a collective desire to try something new. Even pioneers like Boehringer Ingelheim were on Twitter some three years after designer jeans brand Earnest Sewn – the first brand with a presence on Twitter. And this hesitancy has meant that pharma is a latecomer to the online sphere, a territory long inhabited by many of its stakeholders and many other industries.

High profile mistakes made by online pioneers have done much to chill interest in digital innovation among the traditionally conservative pharmaceutical industry. One advantage to this digital reluctance is that the pharmaceutical industry, which has strict regulatory compliance concerns, has been able to learn from the mistakes made by major corporations – like Dell, Sony and Wal-Mart – who embraced digital marketing techniques much earlier.

However, pharma's digital procrastination has meant that other content providers have often set up their own properties to discuss conditions and treatments. And the plethora of content, with all its varying degrees of quality, often makes the discovery of industry-generated content much more difficult.

The restraining bolt
While the pharmaceutical industry is used to creating content that is accurate and compliant with regulation, the social aspect of digital communications continues to pose challenges.

Much of the early thinking in the industry about social media was the result of pilot projects that were largely designed to understand how it works. These projects were more about the platform and how to increase control sufficiently to match the upper limit of the risk appetite of the organisation, rather than better understanding the stakeholder. This resulted in the industry developing a good grasp of the mechanics of the platforms, but did little to help pharma gain insight into audience behaviour on the platforms or explore what outcomes they truly wanted from the trip into digital. This often explains why a website, a Facebook page and a PR campaign all exist separately, trying to attract the same audience and doing little for the brand or company behind it. 

And the abiding fear persists that digital has simply opened up a vast new frontier in adverse event reporting. Perhaps the work of Digital Communication Working Group, a joint effort between the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) announced in May, will lay to rest misplaced concerns and help with best practice – eventually.

Being social
To be truly social pharma needs to be part of a “multilogue” with its online stakeholders. Yet this is problematic in legal environments where companies are prohibited from talking with patients. Even if all companies could converse online with patients, it is hard to have an authentic sounding conversation when a company has to use fully formed, fully referenced, pre-approved content. It may be possible that 80 per cent of the time questions can be answered with stock, approved answers, but it is the outlying 20 per cent that are likely to have the most social impact with the audience. It becomes more about social discovery of content rather than social interaction.

Digital diabetics

Over the last three years, the industry, led by device manufacturers, has begun embracing online influencers among people with diabetes. The engagement has given online influencers unparalleled access to the various companies and in return the companies have treated the influencers with the same level of care as they would traditional media.

Roche sponsors The Diabetes Nest on Twitter, based around four established bloggers but open to all people living with the condition. Medtronic hosts internet forums in Europe and the US for key bloggers in the diabetes community.

Other problems arise when patient-to-patient conversations on pharmaceutical industry social properties breach regulations. The pharmaceutical company is often left with no choice but to remove many of the conversations that may involve discussions around medications and possible off-licence uses.

Having to remove too much content will disrupt a conversation, especially when it might otherwise have taken place freely on another online forum or discussion board. This is one of the key reasons Janssen gave when it took down its Psoriasis 360 Facebook page at the end of March.

But even when a company is ready to go out there and join the conversation, the marketers may find that not all patients are using social media. So while some companies are standing on the periphery of lively conversations, started and maintained by patient groups, others find themselves wrong footed by the fact that not all the patients they would like to reach are online.

This may be due to geography (Europe still has a north/south divide in terms of online usage) or desired demographic (older populations tend to be less inclined to go online) or perhaps because the disease is considered embarrassing. The visibility of much social media means friends and employers may get to hear about a conditions that is perhaps harmful to a person's career or socially embarrassing to share with the 150+ contacts a typical Facebook user has.

But even with more embarrassing diseases the trend is for patients to use private forums and chat rooms, where they can engage anonymously using avatars and screen names. This is still social but these patients are not signaling their participation to the rest of the world and are therefore more difficult to reach.

In a relationship
From the point-of-view of the marketing team tasked with implementing digital and social media campaigns, one of the thornier issues is trying to reconcile marketing objectives and budgets. Traditionally a review would be based on a 30, 90 or 180-day planning cycle, whereas social media requires more of an open-ended engagement.

The strategic impetus of the campaign calendar goes back to corporate financial planning and accountancy practices that enable investors to get a snap shot of how well the business is performing. Imagine for a moment meeting someone at a party and they turned around and said they had to go and check the contents of their wallet? This would probably be considered bizarre and possibly anti-social. Yet campaigns often do exactly the same thing on social platforms because there isn't a plan to end a campaign, a social marketing equivalent of politely making your excuses before leaving a real-world event. This is what attracted criticism when Janssen ended its Psoriasis 360 campaign.

Digital hits

  • We like Pfizer's use of digital over the years. Its social media refresh of the Real Danger campaign extended the life and reach of its campaign against counterfeit medicine
  • We like Janssen's Living With ADHD: a day in the life video about ADHD; which showed how well-produced content can reach a wider audience by virtue of its artistic merits
  • We like Janssen's award winning 360 Psoriasis campaign and the lessons it's taught all of us
  • Boehringer Ingelheim changed the way communications are done at conferences through its use of Twitter
  • GlaxoSmithKline's MyAlli community provided a socially safe environment to offer patients support and help increase success of its Alli obesity treatment

Digital misses

UCB's US-orientated Parkinson's More Than Motion Facebook page may have been better off cooperating rather than competing with other patient forums like the National Parkinson Foundation.

Positive failure

The industry has, perhaps, already learned that using digital isn't a cheap and quick tool; knocking up a website may be cheap but promoting it, monitoring it and refreshing it are as resource-intensive as any traditional campaign.

There is also still a long way to go in terms of interpreting audience behaviour and understanding what they want.  Manhattan Research's Cybercitizen Health Europe 2011 found that people looking for health information from pharmaceutical companies mainly wanted it from websites about their condition or disease; only 13 per cent wanted it from Facebook and just 5 per cent wanted it from Twitter. Such insights should be guiding the next raft of digital campaigns to ensure the industry engages meaningfully with its stakeholders.

There is a stigma around failure, which isn't particularly helpful to the pharmaceutical industry's efforts in digital communication. The scientific research that modern pharmaceuticals are based on is built, to a certain extent, on failure. We talk about discoveries and breakthroughs as single events, but in reality these benefit from the hindsight of past experience.

Yet in a new field like digital marketing, failing online is viewed as shameful; instead we should look to learn from our mistakes and aim to make new mistakes in the future.

Ged Carroll

The Authors
Ged Carroll is director of digital strategies at Ruder Finn and can be contacted at; Maya Anaokar is director of healthcare at Ruder Finn and can be contacted at

30th July 2012

From: Marketing



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