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Practice makes perfect

Engaging in social media need not be daunting – it just takes time to hone your skills

Gymnastic Horse'Upskilling' has been a buzz phrase in recent months when it comes to pharma and social media. Conversation has centred on whether pharma has the in-house skills to embrace the 'social dawn' or whether the industry will be completely reliant upon agencies and service providers to deliver its digital–social endeavours.

Could it be that the issue is being 'over-cooked' and the level of training required to utilise social media is not as great as may have been thought? If we view social media tools to be like a telephone, then the most important skills are being able to listen and talk; changing the ringtone can be taught with ease but it is the conversational points that must be planned and considered.

To date, many industry conversations have been fuelled by talk around developing internal working processes to support the appropriate use of social media.

This article focuses on the scenario that a pharma company has internal social media governance in place and a team ready to dip its toe in these waters; it is with regards to execution that upskilling is so often argued to be important.

Sourcing and sharing
The critical factor in social media that determines the success or failure of an activity is the credibility of the social media voice. This has to be earned over time – there are no quick fixes. However, the social media community tends to be receptive to those organisations and individuals that source useful information and content and share it. How could a team within a pharma company undertake such a task?

First of all you need to set up a tool to manage information and content from the internet. Google Reader (GR) is a free tool that is easy to use and can make the job of sourcing and sharing content incredibly manageable. In effect, GR provides a portal to access new content from multiple websites and blogs in just one screen view, thereby cutting out the need to click around the internet to find new and exciting content.

The first step to use GR is to register for a Google account. Once this is done, visit the Google homepage and select the 'more' button in the top left corner – this will provide a drop down menu of options. Select 'reader' and the application will open. GR can then be used in two phases to manage internet reading – the first phase is to populate the reader with known sites and the second phase is to expand the reading list.

To populate GR, go to the top left hand corner and click on the 'Add a subscription' button. Type in the URL of a website you like to read eg, and then press 'Add' (see Figure 1). The name of the website will then appear in the subscriptions list. Any new content that appears on your favoured site will now appear in your GR reading pane.

Figure 1

Google Reader


If you are working in a new disease area and looking for websites that contain content about it, type a relevant search term into the 'Add a subscription' bar and Google will provide recommended reading. Following this process enables the development of a reading list from which content can be shared.

Sharing content via GR is easy. First, click on 'Settings' in the top right corner and then select 'Reader settings'. Select the final tab 'Send to' and click the box next to 'Twitter', then click 'Back to Google reader' (see Figure 2). This enables the sharing of articles from GR to Twitter with a couple of clicks via the 'Send to' option that appears under every article in the reading pane.

Figure 2

Google Reader 


The second phase of populating GR is organic in nature – as you come across blogs and websites, add them to GR by using the Really Simple Syndication (RSS) function of all new websites. Clicking on the RSS icon (it is orange with white stripes) provides the option to add that site to GR.

The final tip for managing GR is to file subscriptions into folders that represent different categories of content, for example, diabetes news, healthcare comms agencies and public policy. This will enable GR to apply an algorithm to all new content and provide a cross-section of content to the GR homepage. So, that's upskilling for sourcing and sharing sorted, what else is on the training agenda?

Originating content  
The next element of effective social media engagement is being able to share originated content. Original content can live on social networks, blogs and video sharing sites – the best channel to use will depend upon the nature of the project.

Managing these need not be complicated – most social media platforms are underpinned by simple content management systems/user controls. Understanding how these systems work can be taught very quickly and when it comes to social media, the adage 'practice makes perfect' has never been more fitting. Rather than upskilling, pharma companies should focus on empowering their teams simply to play with these technologies.

New technologies should be embraced rather than feared as they offer a cost-effective option for communications. Bespoke systems need no longer be built to deliver a message online – free software can often be harnessed to meet the brief. A great example is WordPress, which is generally agreed to be the leading blogging platform (and can be used to build traditional websites too).

WordPress is incredibly simple to use – content is managed via an intuitive content management system and the functionality that enables the upload of content feels similiar to Microsoft Word, making it a user-friendly experience (see Figure 3).

Figure 3


Some people believe that free software is not secure or stable. This is a fallacy. The key security consideration relating to using free software is where you host it. Most pharma companies have in-house IT teams who test the reliability and security of a server before projects commence. Working with internal teams can ensure that free software can be adapted to meet the needs of a project.

The major advantage of using free software is the development community that the software 'lives' within – thousands of people are online developing new, innovative and exciting 'plug ins' for these applications. For example, WordPress constantly updates, providing lots of options to keep digital assets looking fresh – and for free. Imagine how much it would cost to commission a digital supplier to provide constant innovations for existing sites!

With corporate governance to draw upon, a sharing approach planned and intuitive software in place, an in-house team has the key assets to activate a social media plan. What is now required is a strategy, and here is where the challenge lies. Social media strategies need to be nimble, able to evolve and grounded in insight.

Case studies of failed social media projects all highlight a lack of planning and understanding of the social space. How can a team develop a strategy that leads to useful social media conversations and content that provides real value to audiences?

Developing an engaging proposition
Before a team starts to source/share and originate content for the social media space, it needs to have a clear rationale for doing so and a voice/tone for the activity that will resonate with the intended audiences.

The process of finding this voice should enable a team to identify an engaging proposition for social media, which shapes and determines all of the content that the team originates.

So what do we mean by an engaging proposition? Put simply, it is a reason for someone to talk to you in a way that delivers mutual benefit. The process of arriving at an engaging proposition is one of listening, learning and understanding. These are the skills that need to be harnessed and nurtured for social media. For each audience that is relevant to the activity, we must drill into existing market research and insights, speak to advisory boards and patient organisations and gain a deep understanding of the challenges individuals face, as well as their unmet needs. Social media listening can often be a useful tactic to deploy at this stage of planning.

Finding an emotive, rather than clinical, common ground often makes the engaging proposition more robust – here emotional intelligence needs to be applied. And the engaging proposition should not be developed in a vacuum. It should align very closely with the value proposition and positioning of the brand that the social media endeavour relates to.

In this way, any conversation within the social media space should represent an extension of the brand values. Here we use the term brand in the broadest sense, being the full wrapper around a product, rather than just the product itself. A team should engage in a way that demonstrates the essence of a brand and its approach to the world.

Dusting down
An engaging proposition is the nucleus of any social media campaign; tactics for dialogue and engagement are built around it. To be effective and social, this dialogue needs to be rapid, charismatic, consistent in tone and transparent in intent. This is the key learning for social media and it means loosening up on control.

Some people say that social media has complicated everything. I think the contrary. Social media has simplified digital by driving forward intuitive software that is easy for everyone to use and placing conversation at the heart of it.

As communication professionals, we should be able to talk, listen, respond and build relationships with people. These are the key skills for social media. Perhaps it is not a case of upskilling, but rather 'dusting down' those abilities that we already have.

The Author
Aaron Pond,
account director and digital lead at Aurora, a specialist health communications agency. Join the conversation at Aurora blog

To comment on this article, email

16th February 2011


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