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Digital Musings for Pharma: Rethinking Social Media Engagement

Since 2009, the nascent medium called social media has blossomed into something that is now entwined into the very fabric of our personal lives. Billions of people flock to Facebook daily. Some 90% of journalists now get their news and news ideas from Twitter. LinkedIn has dramatically altered how we find and recruit talent, and YouTube has completely changed how we watch videos. Newcomers like Instagram and Pinterest are also garnering hundreds of millions of users.

Social media outlets have revolutionized the healthcare industry and are quickly becoming the preferred resource for individuals seeking healthcare information. Patients turn to social networking groups to find others who are battling the same diseases (for patients preparing for the same type of surgery, following tweets helps demystify the process, and ideally reduces anxiety about upcoming operations), share advice, recommend doctors, even send other members a virtual hug. Clinicians connect to share information and learn from each other.

Through it all, the pharmaceutical industry continues to either ignore this medium or dabble in it in a way that feels like an afterthought. There is still a fundamental misunderstanding of this medium and how it could be applied. While patients, advocacy groups, and the likes of the Mayo Clinic have flocked to social media, most of the pharmaceutical industry has largely ignored it.

It’s not to say nothing is being done – some major companies have established centers of excellence (created to understand this medium), hire agencies to help them and manage the process, and educate internal stakeholders. Some have dabbled with a single platform, like Twitter (corporate communications) or YouTube. But most have continued to say “No social media” in relation to the promotion or marketing of their products. When people have dabbled, it has mainly been around paid media on social channels – that is, advertising.

Brands have limited roles in our actual social life. We just have to understand how and where we can be part of the conversation. In our regulated industry, we’re limited in what we say, so we say very little. Once we’ve recited our label, we’re going to repeat what’s on it (and maybe offer a coupon). So, absent any true guidelines from the FDA, what can the industry do? Particularly now that most every manufacturer is looking at ways to “go beyond the pill” and promote more of a patient-centric approach to their business.

Social media should be viewed more as a way of doing business and less as a means of promotion. While promotion is a component, there are now aspects of social that can be applied to a number of areas, in a compliant way.


Socializing customer service

Industry leaders all provide programs for customer service that are manned by call centers all across the US. There are SOPs that are 10 years old that these centers abide by. These same SOPs could be applied to providing service via social channels, particularly Twitter or Facebook. Banks and financial services companies, who have a similar (but not the same) regulatory environment, have figured out how to do this. Combining social listening and customer service could enhance the patient experience and help with the patient-centric positioning most companies are striving to achieve.

Twitter has been embraced by the corporate communications function to blast out press releases, socially responsible acts committed by the firm, and medical meeting information. However, there is little engagement. This should change now that the FDA has provided guidance on the use of limited-character platforms.

Paid social will grow as more and more media planners come to grips with this medium, especially at drug launch. Planned and managed properly, paid social can be a great vehicle for targeting patients with an unbranded message for disease awareness campaigns. There will still be challenges in using this medium for branded media, primarily due to Important Safety Information (ISI) requirements.

The use of YouTube is a requisite now in most marketing plans. However, it is tied mainly to MOA or KOL videos. Tools such as are now enabling the capture of true patient/user-generated content that can be moderated and put through the same legal and regulatory framework that exists for other content.

From a patient perspective, the biggest opportunity for pharma will be with Facebook as it begins to hone its healthcare strategy. Even though pharma already has a presence on Facebook, pharma is all over the map with regard to Facebook communities. There are unbranded and branded communities, as well as communities based on partnerships with third parties.

Pharma has created product pages, such as and, disease awareness campaigns like, and unbranded presences such as

Pharma should look to truly engage the patient on these communities. By partnering with Facebook, pharma companies could:

  • Provide better, up-to-date product and scientific information in patient-centric language
  • Work with advocacy communities on Facebook to raise awareness of a disease
  • Expand the use of Facebook to reach specific audiences, such as rare-disease communities who are very active on Facebook


In summary

The marketing function of the pharmaceutical industry needs to begin focusing on changing its thinking around social media, to more of an engagement-oriented model and less around advertising and promotion. Social should be viewed as an integral part of the overall marketing mix and not something that is siloed or the domain of corporate communications.

Granted, this relegates the use of social media to a couple of areas, such as those outlined above. But that is much better than doing nothing at all, or doing it badly.

Ritesh Patel
EVP, Chief Digital Officer, U.S. at Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide
Check back each month for a new installment of “Digital Musings for Pharma” from regular columnist, Ritesh Patel, currently the EVP, Chief Digital Officer, U.S. with Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide. Ritesh has more than twenty years of experience in digital media, web, information technology, and operations in the healthcare, retail, and hospitality industries. Over the course of his career, he has also held many senior-level positions in the technology arena including SVP, managing director for the digital division of HealthEd; global lead, digital and social at Chandler Chicco Companies; and global chief information officer for Euro RSCG, in New York City (now Havas Worldwide). Immediately prior to joining Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide, he was the global head of digital and innovation at inVentiv Health.
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