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Socal media has got people chatting and healthcare is a hot topic. Pharma needs to maximise on these opportunities… but not overstep the mark

A glowing 'on' buttonDigital and social media have revolutionised the online experience in the last five years. In a relatively short time frame, we have moved from the web as a static library, to an environment for online engagement, from monologue to dialogue. As a society, we have made huge cultural shifts in the wake of technological advances on both a business and personal level – digital media have irrevocably changed the way we interact with each other.

You could say it has been a long time coming. I do actually remember buying a state-of-the art Pentium II, and chucking out the incumbent 486. I also remember writing letters, going into the bank and doing my own shopping. However, while digital media have been with us for some time, social media have arrived relatively recently.

The main reason for this explosion in social media services and their rapid adoption is their ability to allow people to engage with each other in simple and entertaining ways – Facebook being based around the concept of sharing photos and being able to point each other out in them.

These simple mechanics attracted huge audiences, which, in turn, led to social media applications for mobile phones, BlackBerries and iPhones, and was a significant factor in the development of netbooks as a portable low-cost internet platform. We are now permanently online and businesses are necessarily moving with the times to capitalise on a receptive audience. This shift in technology and the resultant accessibility has allowed brands to deliver compelling sites and services that encourage onging engagement and work to establish communities of users. More than ever, marketing is now about creating life-long relationships.

Ah. For a moment there, I forgot that this was an article aimed at the pharmaceutical industry. And there's the rub. How is it possible, that we can all work in an exciting and innovative industry, one that has been largely responsible for increasing life expectancy in the last 100 years across the globe and has improved quality of life for billions of people, that we are only now becoming excited about social media?

The good thing is that we are excited about it. Digital and social media have provided many benefits in the consumer world which can be replicated in the pharmaceutical industry such as accessibility, speed of deployment, targeted messaging, reduced cost and quantatitive feedback. With regards to accessibility, analysis of usage patterns show that more and more doctors are accessing the internet outside working hours and from their personal computers. One recent experience with a web-based representative online detailing tool showed that the most popular times for customers to request online contact from a rep was between 7am-8.30am and 8pm-11pm.

Another opportunity with digital and social media is that the online environment now provides real-time interactions that cross geographical boundaries. The industry has become more focused on the European and global market and the digital space allows a channel of communication that could be exploited to support EU or global strategies. However, as yet, the pharma industry has tended to see this aspect of digital media as a threat – it is easy to fall foul of country specific regulations not to mention facing challenges with language, ownership of the customer base and company processes.

Which brings me to the hot topic of regulation. While digital media are a more benign and manageable challenge, social media present real issues for the pharma industry.

Customers across market sectors are becoming active and prolific authors. Web 2.0 technologies which are now readily available from blogs, forums, chat, and services like Twitter, Wikipedia and Facebook, have provided an audience for the average 900,000 blog posts generated every day and a way for that audience to debate and re-use this information.

Also significant is the speed with which these messages propogate – measured in minutes, not hours or days, with the responses arriving just as rapidly. Given the size of the population of internet users and the rapidity with which content is generated, it is unsurprising to find that there is current content on almost any pharmaceutical brand being created by either customers or patients. What is sometimes surprising is that the brands aren't listening to what is being said. Scanning is a much neglected tool for gathering market feedback by assessing what the global internet population is saying about a brand.

One of the main worries for the pharmaceutical industry is that what people are saying about the brand is negative or untrue. The speed and volume of user-generated content is very difficult to monitor and therefore there is a real threat that adverse events will be discussed between patients or doctors and not picked up and reported. All in all, the pharmaceutical industry cannot feasibly remain in control of the information that is available and this is a very worrying concept to embrace for those of us that work within this highly regulated arena.

To really embrace social media and make use of its benefits to drive business, the pharma industry has to change its mindset. It should not be that the only way to stay on the right side of regulation is to do nothing. Many pharma companies forbid interaction with Wikipedia as they are then seen to be responsible for its content, even if updates have been made by other, unknown users.

Controlling content is a losing battle. New technologies and services are continually being released that provide new ways for users to voice their opinions. Google's SideWiki is a current example of this. Released as part of Google's Toolbar, it allows users to comment on web pages and for those comments to be shared with any other users who have the Google Toolbar installed. These comments are shown in a panel on the side of the webpage being viewed and are specific to that page. Today (and this will probably have changed by the time you read this article), seven leading pharmaceutical companies have SideWiki entries on their homepages, all of which have been compiled by an independent individual.

There are, however, some positives to be derived from digital media which complement the pharma industry's need for regulation. One of the key benefits of the use of digital solutions for customer interactions is the depth of analytics information that can be gathered and the insights that this can give. Coupled with the use of single-sign-on solutions for user authentication, this information along with user preferences can be used to tailor and re-order content to suit the interests of each individual customer, providing a personalised and more compelling experience. 

This concept of personalisation is increasingly important in the eyes of consumers. A significant proportion of the websites that we use – from online shopping to news services and social networking – deliver a personalised experience that the customer can tailor to his/her own interests. These services also draw on information gathered from previous customer interactions to offer tailored supporting content, typified by Amazon's "people who looked at this also looked at…" When applied to the pharma industry, this is a highly valuable tool for segmenting target audiences and providing a message which could be tailored to a single customer.

So, it's clear that there are both benefits and challenges presented by digital and social media within the pharmaceutical industry. The key question for us all is how do we successfully harness the benefits and overcome the challenges to make sure that we move with the times and capture more business by using this powerful channel?

A good place to start with digital and social media is internal communications. Not only is this an additional means of communicating with your salesforce, all of whom are consumers and interacting with social media in some capacity on their own terms, but it is also a good testing ground for developing and/or optimising company processes. It also provides a means of gathering feedback and improving salesforce engagement.

While blogging and forums are difficult to implement externally under current regulatory guidelines, they provide useful tools for providing both individuals and organisations a presence and voice with which to address the rest of the company. Use of forums can provide valuable discussion-based environments to allow remote teams to collaborate and discuss their issues and best practice. Many companies in the UK and Europe are now taking this approach with great success.

Using web-based conferencing technologies to create both one-to-one and one-to-many online meetings has been successfully used by several companies to provide both customer-representative communications and also to bring KOL-led speaker meetings to wider audience. These solutions have been replicated across Europe to provide communications tools for individual countries and cross-region meeting tools. At least three of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies are using web-based video conferencing technologies to deliver rep-led live detailing over the internet, with pilots having been conducted in the UK and plans in place for EMEA wide upgrades.

Online events present many opportunities and in regulatory terms can be more straightforward to implement if considered to be the same as a live meeting. Local events need not be limited to a local audience – robust technologies can deliver your event to a whole region. This not only maximises your return on the investment made to run the event, but also sits well with the travel restrictions that many organisations are now facing. But this need not be just about saving on travel costs. Providing access to a wider audience can also deliver your meeting to individuals who are unable to attend in person. Feedback from meetings we have run shows that a live meeting streamed online can increase attendance by up to 40 per cent.

The potential for using digital and social technologies to deliver training and continuing professional development must also be considered. and a number of other healthcare professional focused portal sites have grown sizeable communities focused around learning. This can provide a useful targeted channel to a pre-segmented audience for medical education and shows that digital solutions can provide engaging and valuable services to healthcare professionals.

User generated content should not be dismissed. It is possible to include user-generated content within a site or service as long as steps are taken to ensure that regulatory compliance is managed. Working with stakeholders in medical to adapt standard operating procedures governing sign-off for content for online use, can reduce both the complexity and time taken in approval.

Finally, what about Facebook and Twitter? Several pharma companies have had successes in leveraging the power of such social media sites for the purposes of disease awareness campaigns – as shown by MSD's use of Facebook in Norway or Boehringer Ingelheim's very well-publicised tweeting of their annual shareholder meetings. These first steps into social media have successfully promoted the organisations and are developing audiences that are specifically interested in them.

To ensure that one doesn't overstep the mark, there is a number of key tips to bear in mind when thinking about digital and social media:
• For multi-country projects, solutions can be deployed either as single sites designed for a region-wide audience, or as templates ready for translation and adjustment to suit a specific local market. Both of these approaches allow for the efficient deployment of a solution across the region, with the latter allowing that solution to be tailored to suit the local market and healthcare system
• It is important to understand the financial impact of design choices – for example, including free text input requires daily checking for adverse events, which may be costly, but is justified under the right circumstances. Alternatively, using pull-down menus with a discreet domain will facilitate approval of the solution as only a finite number of possible combinations of responses can be given
• Many marketing teams have already experimented with digital and social media, however, as an agency we never cease to be amazed by how little teams talk to each other! Often the agency finds that they are the conduit of information between in-house marketing teams. Pharmaceutical companies should find a way of harnessing this valuable experience and sharing it across their organisations, which leads on to the final point
• Key to the success of digital and social media is collaboration between teams. A group should be set up to share perspectives and should ideally include representation from marketing and communications, IT, legal, compliance and the CRM solution provider.

So, what about the future of digital and social media? What can we expect to see in the next five years?

The range of communication and interactive solutions that is available is constantly increasing – new technologies are being released and new uses being found for established technologies. A number of companies are already talking about Web 3.0 and what this will mean for organisations and their audiences. The expectation is that Web 3.0 will increase the immersion for the audience and may include 3D technologies and virtual worlds.

Already, at least two pharmaceutical companies are using or sponsoring content in Second Life, the virtual world service operated by Linden Labs. Second Life has a strong following among patient groups and the NHS, with regular congresses and meetings being streamed in Second Life. Many salesforce training teams are also investigating the possibilities that Second Life might offer to create a cost-effective alternative to face-to-face learning.

The rate at which new technologies are being developed is also a constantly increasing factor. This potentially means that the 'average' digital consumer experience is diverging further away from that currently delivered by the pharmaceutical industry, which has traditionally been slow to adopt new digital technologies and communication methods. There is no reason for this to be the case – the technologies and solutions used in the consumer markets have direct applications within pharma.

So, all in all, it is an exciting time in the pharmaceutical industry. We have to be constantly evolving to meet changes in regulations, the economy, global health services and digital media. However, we must stop seeing digital media as a threat and learn to use its benefits to our advantage. As our younger customers get older, they are going to expect more and more online engagement. We need to make sure that we are keeping up.

The Author
Alan Lyes is creative and technical director at TVF Communications
He can be contacted at

To comment on this article, email

4th May 2010


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