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Social media in healthcare communications

Pharma must embrace the internet if it is to connect with customers

A signpost labelled 'www'The internet has helped win elections, now it's time pharma truly embraced it as a way to connect with their customers and communicate their message.

Barack Obama, is the new President of the United States and while many said this was an election about race as well as policies, other pundits are talking about how he owned the related online conversation and used everyday technology to convey his message to, and connect with, all Americans. Just after John McCain conceded defeat and Obama took to the stage in Grant Park Chicago, millions of Americans received an electronic message of thanks from the soon-to-be President. 

The pharma industry can learn a lot from the Obama campaign – such as  how to connect with customers, educate patients about their disease and develop techniques to own the online conversation. In the UK, digital communications seems to be dominated by two very distinctive programmes, e-detailing or e-CME but these activities are really only the tip of the iceberg in what can be achieved. In a survey undertaken in 2008, many brand and communication managers stated that they simply did not know enough about the e-channel to feel confident running large-scale campaigns and therefore stayed with in the realms of what they know or what is perceived as safe, despite many feeling their activities fall short of their expectations.

So what is digital communication all about and what should brand and communications managers know in order to run effective campaigns?

Own the online conversation
At a recent digital training course, organised by Burson-Marsteller, the ownership of online conversation for contraceptives was reviewed. In a period of six months there were 37,000 blogs posted about contraceptives, the majority of which were negative. A further review of search engines showed that companies and patient organisations involved in contraception did not appear at the top-end of any search. If another pill scare was to happen it would be these bloggers that owned the online conversations. A digital check-up will help you to understand who owns your brands' online conversation. The check-up reviews search engines, blogs and other consumer-generated content, social networks and your corporate/brand website. It can be reviewed from the eyes of a consumer or a prescriber. The check-up allows you to understand the nature and tone of the online conversation and enables you to develop strategic online communications plans.

Know your e-stuff – Web 2.0
The Web 2.0 revolution has undoubtedly arrived but the term can mean radically different things to different people. In comparison to traditional Web 1.0 sites (that act as isolated silos of information) Web 2.0, or second-generation sites, tend to be more interactive, web-based communities offering hosted services, with their content and functionality designed to serve the end user.

Web 2.0 sites provide for social networking and their existence is driving a social phenomenon globally. They are helping to generate and distribute information through open communication – allowing freedom to share, edit and re-use its content. Users are able to comment on the content and then to 'market' the end result – the publication of blogs and videos on YouTube being current favourites with the general public.

There has also been a proliferation of medical social networking sites. In the US, a new site for doctors is launched every month and in the UK the BMA and SERMO are both shortly launching their social networks. These online networks enable doctors to cluster together to get guidance from their peers, just as they have done at congresses, educational events and informal meetings. Doctors are even sharing case study examples of how to treat a particular disease. The ease of sharing information means they are also sharing concerns they may have about a product, which in some instances may adversely influence others, starting a negative trend. Some pharmaceutical companies have raised concerns about the content of such sites, but they are here to stay and the industry has to be aware of them and learn how to deal with them. On a positive note, medical social networking via the web has given doctors the opportunity to collaborate with each other, sharing best clinical practice, challenging established ideas and even accelerating the uptake of new drugs, or old drugs for new indications.


The values of social networking
 Open your mind by:
• Openly participating with a community – tell them who you are and what you want to achieve
• Observing, listening and learning how participants discuss and behave in relation to your brand
• Associating your company with specific communities
• Supplying communities with the information or services they request


'Pull' and 'push' e-marketing techniques
The best-known method of searching for information on a website is the use of a search engine such as Google. This method is known as a 'pull' system, as it is triggered by the consumer's request. It is, however, only as effective as the search engine used and indeed the design of the linked website itself. A major downside is that search engines throw up masses of irrelevant sites, intermixed with the information required.

'Push' systems, on the other hand, provide information to a consumer without them having requested it. Promotional emails that are sent out by companies or individuals containing direct links to their websites are an example, as these encourage the recipient to visit and seek out more detail. However, as each of us knows as recipients, if email promotions are used indiscriminately they arouse negative responses. It's virtually impossible to know whether your email is going to be a welcome or unwelcome distraction. Nevertheless, email alerts to existing customers can be effective in alerting or reminding them that your new site is up and running. However, just how they respond to your email will depend upon its design and content.

The customised notification alert is a much more worthwhile 'pull' alternative. The advantage with this is that the customer is able to decide what information they would like to be alerted about, how often they would like to be alerted, and in what format. Electronic, customised notification alerts are also an excellent way of driving traffic to your site and getting brand messages in front of your customers – and they are a technique that puts the control back into the hands of your customer. The most popular form of notification messages appears in the bottom right-hand side of a desktop computer but others can be sent to mobile phones or to a BlackBerry device.

The ideal situation with any 'pull' method is one where the consumer requests and receives regular information from trusted sources. Web syndication techniques, such as Real Simple Syndication (RSS), provide just such a system. RSS is a family of web-feed formats used to publish frequently updated content, such as blog entries, news headlines or podcasts. Consumers 'sign-up' to regular RSS feeds from favourite websites. These increasingly include personal websites, making it possible for an individual to keep up to date with comment from their trusted sources in an automated manner that's far easier than checking them manually.

The ABPI Code of Practice only allows for four emails per year to be sent to prescribers but the pull technique negates this as the doctor has requested information updates. Many customers are interested in information beyond the typical sales detail information, they may want to follow the landmarks for a particular trial, they many want to receive clinical papers on a certain subject, they may want to learn more about health policy within their sphere of excellence, all of which the industry can supply and create an online rapport with their customers.


Creative interaction with your customers

Marketers need to start thinking differently and creatively about digital communications. It is not just a case of putting product messages on websites, but how you engage with your customers to ensure that they value and respond to the information, and are encouraged to return for more in the future. In the same way as a pharmaceutical company or its representative engages with a doctor at a meeting, at an exhibition stand or during a sales call, a similar interaction can, and should, take place online.

Options can include links to interactive pages and tools such as interactive medical educational programmes that can be rated by the doctor. Links can be set up to virtual meetings and satellite symposia at international congresses, and the facility to ask questions can also be added. Many companies use computer-generated animation to explain the mode of action of a new product, but why not devise interactive games and other medical knowledge challenges?


Their needs, not yours
In the coming year, the need for good quality e-CME will intensify, as cuts continue on study leave budgets and pressures increase on doctors' time in general. Professional societies and associations are already seeing the number of delegates registering for conferences and meetings drop and are looking for alternative ways of meeting their members' educational needs. Pharma companies need to think about working with faculties of key opinion leaders to produce high-quality, non-promotional, professionally endorsed e-CME programmes on which doctors are invited to evaluate, give comment and make recommendations.

If you provide doctors with what they need, they are likely to recommend your e-CME to other colleagues. Some of the most successful marketing campaigns of recent years have been achieved by listening to doctors and giving them what they say they want, rather than what we think they need. Out-of-the-box thinking around disease management can often be a bigger driver of sales than constant product presentations.


Social media release content
• Press release
• Webcast of speaker
• Presentation slides
• Photography – pack shots, speakers, patients
• Clinical papers
• Background information


Make it immediate
When key clinical data is to be published, standard marketing activities tend to include revisions to sales materials, media activity and opinion leader presentations at educational events. While these are useful techniques in themselves, they lack the speed and reach that internet-based routes can offer.

Consider arranging for your opinion leaders to be involved in an interactive webcast or a downloadable podcast discussing the paper and the possible impact it will have on clinical practice. In the same way that downloading the 8.10am interview from the BBC's Today Programme on Radio 4 as a podcast has become the norm for those working in the corporate and financial world, doctors are being encouraged to use interactive technology to access clinical information. Before the cynics among you say it will never catch on with doctors, the Lancet and the BMJ are pushing interactive technology on their websites to encourage clinical debate and discussion with great success. Over three times as many doctors log on to the BMJ online than receive actual copies of the journal.

Social media releases
Not that long ago there was an outcry in the blogosphere at the possible death of the press release. Social media advocates believed that the traditional press release, with static text and little to no images would eventually die off in favour of the social media release. While traditional press releases exist and work particularly well for certain scenarios, malleable press releases offer new ways for journalists and bloggers to create exciting content, especially when traditional healthcare media also have to create content for the online version of their publication. A social media release also helps to negate the problem of getting journalists to attend a press briefing, especially if it involves a significant amount of travelling. A journalist can sit at their desk and watch a webcast of the key presenter, follow the slides and simply develop their story in a matter of minutes, as the social media release includes all the necessary information required for traditional and online media.


How to develop your digital communication skills
• Be prepared to change, create ways to identify and listen to marketing signals and look at how you can adapt and respond
• Be flexible and experiment – you need to explore the diversity of online and what it could do for your brand
• Undertake a digital check-up to help define your online strategy
• Expand the depth of the information about your disease area/brand on the web to get the information to customers at the very moment they are looking for it, a couple of pages of irrelevant information on Google will not suffice
• Think broader than e-detailing. Many traditional media outlets such as Pulse magazine have made the transition online – how can you capitalise on this?
• Make the most of your traditional marketing activities by including podcasts and webcasts in your programmes to expand your target reach
• GPs and hospital doctors are not the only people online. Nurses, pharmacists and patients are all using the channel
• Open your mind to the value of social networking.


Evaluate its effect
The great advantage of e-sales and marketing is that you are able to monitor and evaluate a customer's behaviour, then respond and adapt your materials quite swiftly. As online sales and marketing is still in its infancy it is especially important to show results to warrant further investment and getting your market researchers involved in the early planning stage is essential. Together you will be able to agree the evaluation parameters you can measure and ensure these measures are incorporated into the technology you use.

At a basic level, website traffic, number of visits and time spent online surfing the site can all be evaluated, but companies need to go much further than this. Pharma bosses will be looking at the return on investment and how many more opportunities to prescribe have been generated by your online activities.

Digital communications should be woven into the fabric of all communications programmes, as the rewards are there for those companies with the confidence to adopt and embrace this new technology and open up new communication channels to prescribers.

The Authors
Karen Winterhalter is chair of the EMEA Healthcare Practice at Burson-Marsteller, she can be contacted at
Gill Dunn is an associate of Healthcare Practice at Burson-Marsteller, she can be contacted at
To comment on this article, email

24th September 2009


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