Pharma and Social Media: Challenges and Rewards

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Pharma and Social Media: Challenges and Rewards

- Beyond

Amid a quickly-changing social media landscape and a lack of guidance from the FDA, it can be tricky for pharmaceutical and healthcare companies to develop a social media marketing and engagement strategy that is both engaging and in line with marketing regulations.  However, although pharmaceutical brands need to invest additional time and effort into building an effective and compliant social media program, the rewards to be gained from social media engagement far outweigh the costs.

Here at Beyond, our team of pharma-focused analysts have been aiding clients in social media management, measurement, and campaign design.  Through our work, we’ve developed a few insights and suggestions we’d like to share.  Additionally, in the course of our research, we’ve come across a fair amount of incorrect or outdated information on this topic, so we thought it worthwhile to provide a quick recap of recent events related to social media and pharmaceutical companies.

Background:

In August of last year, Facebook stopped providing most pharmaceutical page owners with the option to block all visitor posts and comments on their page.  Though all page owners still have the option to block visitors from creating entirely new posts on the wall, pharma page owners can no longer restrict whether page visitors can reply to the company’s own posts on the wall.  This change does not affect branded drug pages, where companies can still restrict all forms of commenting and engagement.  However, this change caused some initial panic among page-owners who had grown used to the system as it was.

As Facebook stated, the change was designed to open the lines of communication between pharma companies and the general public.  However, after the announcement, some companies deleted their Facebook pages in response to this change, which helped quell regulatory departments’ fears of unsolicited posts that could theoretically be construed by the FDA as non-compliant.  However, closing down pages (or disabling all comments on them) is clearly not a long-term solution for pharma brands who must operate in a media and marketing world that’s becoming increasingly social.

As pharma brands and marketing professionals are aware, the FDA has been painfully quiet about its stance on social media.  It recently published Draft Guidance on how companies should respond to social media posts that contain unsolicited, public requests for off-label usage information.  However, these guidelines were met with mixed emotions by brands and marketers, some of whom expressed that they were wishing for more concrete guidance on how drug manufacturers should use social media more broadly.

Though the FDA has its own blog and page on every major form of social media (including Twitter and Facebook), a recent piece in the San Francisco Business Times quoted FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg as saying “‘Social media’ is a scary term for me.”  Understandably, it is difficult for the FDA to draft extremely precise guidelines for manufacturers in the rapidly-changing world of social media, where networks and platforms are constantly evolving.  However, brands that spend time waiting for more concrete guidelines to emerge can find themselves missing out on valuable opportunities to engage with patients and improve their brand image, especially as competitors rise to the challenge.

How and Why to Engage 

Despite these hurdles that make social media engagement slightly trickier for pharmaceutical companies as opposed to other brands, we still believe it is essential for all pharmaceutical and healthcare-related brands to engage with patients and customers via social media.

Last summer, Beyond developed a Facebook wall moderation app for pharma companies that allows page moderators to review visitor-generated content before it goes live.  This allows page owners the option to block inappropriate content and respond to requests privately, much as they would if the poster contacted the company directly via a more traditional channel (e.g. writing or calling).  Page owners can, of course, also allow comments to go live, and follow up with a publicly-visible response if they think the response would be of use to other page visitors.

The recently-published FDA guidelines also help to clarify what companies should do if a poster raises the issue of off-label usage of a product in a public posting: the company must simply provide the poster with contact information so that the company can engage the individual in a private, one-on-one conversation about off-label usage (again, just as if the poster had contacted the company’s customer response team directly).

A well-executed social media strategy can soon bring a strong return on the time and effort invested in setting up and maintaining your company’s social media presence.  Here are three simple reasons why it’s essential for pharmaceutical companies to engage in and monitor social media:

1. Patients are increasingly turning to the internet and social media for information when they need to make healthcare decisions for themselves and/or loved ones.  This research includes everything from “self-diagnosing” conditions to learning more about a newly-diagnosed condition, researching drugs, and sharing experiences with patients who have similar symptoms or conditions.  By owning appropriate and relevant content, such as managing a discussion about your product on Facebook or hosting a non-branded patient forum, you can help ensure that accurate information is getting to your target audience.

2. Echoing Facebook’s sentiment around opening up Facebook walls for commenting, we also believe that creating open lines of communication between your company and its customer base is essential.  As many “mainstream” corporations have found, engaging with frustrated customers can help to turn detractors into advocates and clear up misconceptions about your products.  This can be especially important in the healthcare/pharmaceutical space, where some customers may be suspicious of large drug companies.  It’s wise to monitor social media conversations around your brand and competitors so that you may craft your PR strategies accordingly.

3. Social media sites provide a nice way to highlight your corporate news and achievements and strategically position your brand online.  Showcasing things like your charitable initiatives can go a long way towards fostering a positive image for your brand, especially when such information is presented in a setting where visitors can engage with the content.

In closing, social media platforms provide rewarding opportunities for pharma brands to improve their corporate image and capture the attention of patients and potential customers.  As social media expands rapidly and the rising costs of healthcare incent an increasing number of patients to seek information online, healthcare and pharma companies can engage with this growing, captive audience in entirely new ways.

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