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Pharma and Social Media: It’s Not About Controlling the Conversation, but Finding the Right Venues for Engagement

Now that Facebook Pages is to Marketing what LinkedIn Profiles is to Job Seeking – pharma companies are in pickle: Facebook is going to open up comments no matter what.

This means pharma companies can no longer restrict people from commenting on their Facebook pages.

Er…. DUH! Why is this big news? People get on Facebook to socialize – and not just to socialize – but to socialize in a mildly (or very) uninhibited manner. Facebook is MySpace done artfully and profitably, where we aren’t subjected to blinking starry page backgrounds or annoying music on auto-loop.

But remember why Facebook was created, and why Facebook has taken off with businesses – it is because when people are less inhibited, they are more suggestive, and more likely to click on links that businesses want them to click to buy stuff!

If businesses want stuffy and formal – there’s already a Facebook for that – it’s called LinkedIn.

I realize that it makes good sense for pharma to get its brands and company names out there. The problem is that when the public engages pharma, if they don’t ask about products, what would they want to engage pharma about?

[Assuming they aren’t interested in engaging pharma companies to ask, “why are you charging such high prices for drugs I need to save my life?”]

It’s akin to expecting a customer who drives a Toyota Corolla here in the U.S. not to engage the company Toyota to ask about the Corolla he drives. Unless that customer happens to work in an area that involves some business process, thereby predisposing the customer to want to ask about how Toyota “the company” works, customers often equate the company with the brands they use.

I understand that pharma industry supporters, including myself, would love if pharma can once again establish credibility with consumers by focusing on their support of disease state research and advancement.

Only another party’s already settled in that domain: they’re called physicians.

Physicians are typically seen as providers of support to patients in disease areas, from the consumer perspective. Let’s say I experience the symptoms of clinical depression – I’d naturally think, “I need to seek info from the doctors (once I learn more about this on the web)”.

I am not thinking, “I wonder what information GSK or Pfizer is providing in treating depression.” I’m not even thinking, “I wonder how Forest Laboratories or AstraZeneca are supporting R&D in depression relapse.”

But I may think in drug names, like, “I wonder if I should ask my doctor about Abilify, or Zoloft.”

[note: this would be an off-label use of Abilify, since Abilify is not approved for first-line use in treating depression, only as an adjunct to a first-line treatment if that treatment isn’t working as well as it should; it’s like a “boost”. But I use Abilify because I’ve been seeing so many ads on TV for it, and I honestly haven’t seen that Zoloft bouncy little ball in ages on TV.]

Thus there is first a cognitive hurdle that will not be easily passed. It is that diploma on the wall that garners the physician ‘credibility’, just as it is the commercial/business status that garners the pharma industry ‘lack of credibility’ when it comes to its participation as providers of information on the disease state, no matter how objective pharma tries to be.

In fact, even a recent survey of U.S. physicians had shown that they don’t want to pay for their own CMEs, yet they also won’t trust the CME content that is supported by pharma thereby making CME affordable (“free”) for them!

Logistically, the speed of Facebook and Twitter is exactly why Pharma should must hesitate.

People don’t go on FB/TW expecting a support-ticket time-frame (“slow”) response. They are on these platforms for just in time/immediate responses (“fast” “NOW!”). Otherwise, why bother? There are already online forums or patient info phone numbers for support-ticket speed “communication”.

It is not just about the platform, but the patient expectation that comes with the platform.

If you had ever engaged in a hashtag-driven Twitter chat, then you’d know how it’s next to impossible to follow every single conversation that comes at you in firehose fashion. Imagine then if there’s one or two patient complaints or problems amid the 20 other divergent discussions.

That’s what trying to retain “form” around a topical discussion may look like when Facebook comments are opened up for pharma.

[Lest any of us had forgotten – remember the “Motrin Mom” event, where a twitter indignation went viral and before the end of the weekend, the U.S. VP of Marketing at McNeil had to take that YouTube ad down? Try controlling THAT hashtag outbreak; I was there and saw how quickly it amplified.]

I’m 100% for increasing dialog between industry and consumers/public. Yet I think we can’t equate social media platforms the same, just as we can’t equate popular venues the same for medical education.

There are some social media platforms that are akin to a quiet, business like conference room.

Then there are social media platforms where people go for happy hour and unwind and engage in more personal conversations than business.

Then there are social media platforms where people go in expecting a brawl and in fact that’s why they showed up in the first place.

Pharma needs to identify these types of platforms and, rather than forcing or imposing artificial constraints by making everyone show up to a bar in a business suit.

The question Pharma needs to ask is, “is the purpose we intend to serve by showing up here feasibly achievable by the expectations of the crowd who will also show up?”

Updated: June 30, 2013 — 8:04 am

2 Comments

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  1. Thanks for an excellent and thoughtful post. I like the analogy you made in your Twitter feed:

    “Just because you show up in a bar wearing a 3 piece business suit, doesn’t turn the bar into a conference room.”

    If social media is used solely as a broadcast medium, it’s not social media. A Facebook page without commenting, to me, is not much different than a a traditional web page.

    – Rahlyn
    @RebarInter

  2. Thanks Rahlyn!

    I think pharma can do better with social media, but not before it decides why it is using social media at all. “Everyone else is doing it” is not a good reason.

    There is real concern with liability and misinterpretation with online forums of any kind, but unlike Twitter where you’re physically constrained to 140char, at least on Facebook you can have paragraphs of text if warranted.

    If Facebook could make like Quora and roll out a “disclaimer” option (Quora has recently implemented this for medical and legal answers), it may cover some bases. But when it comes to big, easy targets like pharma companies, it needs to be careful how it engages consumers when the nature of the “purchase” is actually through physicians prescribing the drug.

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