Time for Pharma to Face Social Media Fears?

August 1, 2011

By Reeta Mehrishi and Sanjeev Sachdeva   

August 2, 2011 | Guest Commentary | As tools like Facebook and Twitter become a permanent reality of human interaction, savvy businesses are standing up and taking notice. Businesses are increasingly social media-literate, integrating social media into their existing business processes and strategies as they seek to capitalize on and tap into these new avenues of consumer penetration. Yet the pharmaceutical industry remains apprehensive about jumping on the social media bandwagon.  

With strict regulatory and compliance demands from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), pharma’s reluctance to embrace the social media trend comes as no surprise. Pharma companies are bound to adhere to the guidelines of the FDA’S Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications (DDMAC), which aims to ensure that prescription drug information is truthfully conveyed to the public. While the communication guidelines for print and broadcast media are explicit, the DDMAC has not formalized guidance for communication in the context of interactive digital media. This ambiguity leaves what is deemed appropriate for social media communication open to the DDMAC’s discretion—and consequently, many pharma companies are hesitant to broach this new territory.  

Another barrier to the adoption of social media technologies in the pharmaceutical industry is the FDA’s mandate regarding adverse event reporting, which requires manufacturers, packers and distributors to submit any and all reports of adverse drug side effects to the FDA. Many companies are concerned that participating in social media will result in an increase of non-compliance risks for factors such as the detected events missed to be followed or not followed within the required timeframe. Also there are other open issues such as suspected authenticity, identifiable patient or reporter, duplicate information and other. (see, DIA 2011--Compliance, Collaboration, and the Cloud   

However, by getting mired in these regulatory and compliance challenges, pharma companies are missing out on a significant opportunity both for their businesses and their brands. Notably, in a Nielsen study of how often adverse events appear in consumer-driven online conversations, a mere 0.2% of posts met the FDA’s criteria of adverse event reporting.  

As social media takes off in other industries, customers have grown accustomed to having a voice and expect companies to provide a forum where they can they openly share their ideas, perceptions, and problems. Pharma companies are no exception, and in fact, are well positioned to become active participants in real-time two-way connections within their value chains.  Arguably, to survive in the post Web 2.0 world, pharma companies will need to weave social media into their businesses in order to be more customer-centered, more relationship oriented, and more transparent.  

So why should pharma get into the social media game now?  

It’s already happening: Most pharma companies have started to tentatively foray into the world of social media through online communities, blogs, Facebook or Twitter accounts, although these outlets are generally underutilized or not user-friendly. Unofficial sites and communities like WebMD or Revolution Health are much more popular with patients than official company channels. Choosing not to actively participate in these social conversations won’t make them disappear. By building up a strong social persona and providing viable social media platforms, companies can have a direct hand in shaping and guiding the conversation around their products and brand.   

Transparency, transparency, transparency: In the past few years, several pharmaceutical companies have come under attack for their slow response time either to processing and reacting to customer complaints or disseminating information about potential side effects or health threats to the public. Social networking sites provide a forum to instantaneously respond to consumers and expedite awareness of any unexpected side effects. Engaging in this two-way dialogue with consumers and reacting in real-time lends credence to the honesty of the brand.  

Educating and engaging the patient community: Social media provides a new channel to educate the consumer, either through syndicating preexisting information or answering customer questions directly. It also allows companies to monitor and immediately respond to off-label use or develop educational materials around recurring customer issues and concerns. Pharma companies can also engage the physician community and educate them about the merits of the product or company. In addition to that, social media can be leveraged to raise patient and other participant awareness about a medical condition, general clinical research or ongoing clinical trials.  In effect, social media acts as a valuable agent in patient recruitment planning as well as execution. This engagement—particularly as patients and physicians become better informed—increases the likelihood of these parties acting as brand advocates.   

Extracting social intelligence: The use of social media has accelerated the content explosion, and getting to the wealth of intelligence buried in this content is a daunting task for any company. Companies can employ social computing and business analytics to evaluate the massive amounts of unstructured data imbued in social media. These insights can be leveraged to understand perceptions, trends and patterns among various stakeholder groups – not just patients, but general practitioners, specialists, sales representatives, pharmacists and nurses and learn how these impact each other and product sales as well.  Pharmaceutical companies can also use social media to conduct drug review and perception evaluation.   For example, one of the largest European companies reevaluated its brand messaging and uncovered competitive advantages in the space of insulin-based drugs by analyzing its nearest competitors through social channels.    

Consumer-driven innovating: As social media has enabled consumers to become a vocal and influential constituency, customer or other stakeholder (e.g. analysts, shareholders and others) insights mined from social data can be used by pharma companies to guide their product and services pipelines. One large US-based pharmaceutical company closely tracks the reactions of various stakeholders to company news, comments made during investor meetings or major announcements in social media, and analyzes this data in real time to inform their strategic priorities. Capturing the voice of the customer is more important than ever, particularly as social channels allow consumers to express their needs and desires in real-time. Co-creating products and services with customers will become rote as companies strive to innovate and quickly respond to this new source of demand.   

While the onus is on the FDA to remedy the lack of clarity around social media regulation, the pharmaceutical industry risks far more by hesitating to embrace this potent business tool.  The most successful companies will be those that pioneer the social media landscape and fully amalgamate social business into their broader digital strategies.  

Reeta Mehrishi is a Social Media Analyst and Sanjeev Sachdeva is Global Head, Pharma IT Solutions & Innovation, at Tata Consultancy Services