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Working the net

Social media is no passing craze and pharma needs to join in

A computer keyboardThe online marketing landscape continues to evolve at breakneck speed. Many in the pharmaceutical industry are unsettled by the unrelenting pace of change, but there is general acceptance that this is no passing craze.

I see a number of people using e-marketing - frequently inappropriately in my view - because it is new, but in about five years it will have found its place as part of the mix, predicts Malcolm Allison, marketing director of new products at Actelion Pharmaceuticals.

One of the advantages of this channel is its ability to reach customers who might otherwise be difficult to access, notes Robert Slooves, global marketing director for neurology, at Merck Serono International. He maintains that e-marketing could become an alternative communication channel to classical detailing.

Simon Freedman, marketing director for Europe, Africa and the Middle East at Allergan, has seen a positive return on  investment into e-marketing solutions, and plans to increase spending in this area. The company uses e-marketing as a direct-to-consumer (DTC) channel for a number of product lines.

We have different sites which are aimed at consumers at different stages of the purchasing pathway and we use a combination of online advertising, search engine marketing and search engine optimisation to attract potential customers to our sites. There are also mechanisms which encourage repeat visits and referrals to other potential consumers, Freedman explains.

Actelion makes limited use of e-marketing solutions at present, but Allison does have a couple of projects in the pipeline and recognises the importance of embracing these alternative tools.

As I work primarily with rare diseases, I think e-marketing is of particular interest as a cost-effective option where the target audience has little time to spend on a specialist disease, he explains.

He cites the minimally intrusive nature of this medium as one of its major draws, and points to the fact that it is more transparent and easier to organise than traditional channels.

It tends to be more process driven than traditional efforts, as a lot of response elements are programmed and there is an underlying structure. It can be easier to manage and results can be directly attributable. This is a big advantage over traditional campaigns, which can be difficult to co-ordinate.

Here to stay
Online marketing is here to stay and there is agreement on the direction that it will now take. Social media will be one of the many topical issues addressed by industry experts at the Pharmabrand 2008 summit in June.

There will be a trend towards using Web 2.0, confirms Freedman. We have already seen some spontaneous use of YouTube in some of the disease areas we work in, he explains.

It is important not to lose sight of what social media actually entails. The true meaning of social media unfortunately gets lost in the marketing hyperbole and inflated expectations and promises, says Jaan Orvet, communications director at Orbitsville, a social media specialist.

According to Orvet, social media is defined by its simplicity and straightforwardness, because at its core are the everyday social interactions that we enjoy in real life. The only difference is that this is achieved through technology.

In real life, we speak with people that we meet and we introduce them to people that we think they might like, to form groups. We share things, like photos and ideas, and we discuss and learn from each other. Move all of this online and in essence you have social media, Orvet says.

Note how there is no mention of "deploying messages" or "penetrating core groups" or any other marketing speak in the definition of social media. Social media is about conversation, about honesty and about behaving like a person and not a corporation. It's not something you can fake or throw money at to make it work. After all, you don't buy friends or credibility. Both come with time and commitment, he adds.

The idea is to engage with customers and to participate in meaningful and extended dialogue with them. This requires companies to be upfront, about the good and the bad.

Allow people to show you what they think. Let them share photos of what a bad rash they get from your product. Or how well the surgery scar healed when they used your cream, Orvet suggests. You will be amazed by how much people will appreciate you, and forgive you, if you are honest.

A marketer interested in providing real and lasting value to their company needs to stop thinking about how to "penetrate target audiences" and "stay on message" and instead start acting and thinking like a regular person - the person they are outside of their professional role.

Companies interested in embracing social media may consider creating their own social platform from scratch, but it is sometimes more effective to become part of an existing community.

It is not only the big communities with millions of members that have the potential to deliver the desired results, notes Orvet. In many cases, smaller, niche networks are the more targeted and appropriate option.

Branching out
Furthermore, social networking should not just exist outside a company's walls. Internal relationships can be enhanced by collaborative action and Orvet encourages the development of an intra-company network where staff can share ideas, photos, links to what the competition is doing, slogans for new products and so on. Collaboration is a huge part of social networking, he says.

Social media may seem daunting to the uninitiated, but educating oneself is as straightforward as joining a social network or getting involved in photo sharing. The trick is to approach it not as a marketer but as a person. Find out what makes you and those around you tick, Orvet recommends.

Additionally, start a small in-house project with the aim of boosting awareness and familiarity with social media. This could involve starting a wiki - web pages that allow anyone who accesses them to modify content - or launching an online photo competition for staff. Recognise that the people who know most about this new tool may not be the most senior or most experienced in the company as Orvet points out: Maybe the most "social" person is your marketing intern. Listen and learn from them.

Fear of the unfamiliar
Social media also requires careful handling, as Allison admits: This is highly potent, and very personal. With good analysis there are endless possibilities. I just question whether we are sensitive enough to be able to use it.

He foresees three major challenges, recent high profile paedophile "grooming" incidents could result in access becoming severely restricted by legislation unless effective self-policing is maintained.

Secondly, social media is anarchic, so very difficult to influence... companies have already been burnt as they tried to make money.

Thirdly, social media is fad driven, will evolve very rapidly, with no particular site or engine remaining popular for more than three or four years, making it even harder to use in the long term.

Social media is something that the industry is eyeing with interest - but there is a definite reluctance to rush in. I'm watching, fascinated, from the sidelines, Allison says. It is seductive - one of those things that we think we should be using. But on this I am not going to be an innovator.

He admits that he does not get involved with social networks on a personal basis.

I am very concerned about the uses that might be made of them by unscrupulous marketers. I suspect that the people we really want to reach feel this way too.

Unchartered territory
Simon Freedman wants to consolidate the e-marketing strategies that he already has in place before charging into this largely unchartered territory. We are always looking at new ways of conducting e-marketing. However, I want to concentrate on getting the existing e-marketing strategies implemented and running smoothly before embarking on any brave new e-venture.

A fear of relinquishing control is perhaps the most immediate and common response to the social media movement. The concepts of openness and sharing are not a traditional feature of modern-day corporate culture.

Mixing private information with business purposes can become an explosive mix and needs to be handled with care, warns Robert Slooves.

Freedman agrees: There are always risks when content is not under the direct control of the company. There is a conflict between the need for a credible open site and the desire of a company to manage the content and messaging.

In response, Orvet stresses that openness is crucial, but it doesn't mean it is a bad thing. It's just different. This comes back to the fact that people already talk about your products, and they form opinions based on what others think of your products. If you don't want to be a part of that, it's okay. But if your competitor does participate, they will have the upper hand.

Companies from various industry segments are already entering this space and some are reaping the rewards of their pioneering approach. Technology giant, Dell, has seen a number of new products emerge from its "Ideastorm", a forum where customers are encouraged to suggest and vote on new ideas.

Snack producer Tostitos invited people to create their own commercials for the brand. The public then voted for their favourite and the winning ad received a prime-time slot during the US Super Bowl extravaganza. Bath & Body Works boosted their sales of toiletries by 12 per cent when they encouraged their online customers to comment on the company's products.

Nonetheless, there are still many that are happy to write this off as a short-term phenomenon. Orvet, however feels that bcause it is based on natural human predispositions that are merely being amplified by technology, social media is here to stay: As long as there are people, it will continue to exist.

The web will continue to change and evolve. Eventually, "social" will be a natural part of the web, in much the same way that no one thinks twice about viewing videos online anymore - yet that was called a "short-term craze" too, as was the whole of the web in the 1990s.

The Author
Selina Denman is managing editor at the publishing group of Marcus Evans

3rd June 2008

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