The rise of digital marketing: pharma and social media

Most pharma companies use social media channels to broadcast content rather than converse with their audience. Typically, this follows two themes; broadcasting corporate news including regulatory approvals, appointments and disease awareness, and releasing other notable items, such as the latest data from congresses or stats on epidemiology.

Unlike many other industries, there is little attempt to use social media as a platform for conversation. This is primarily a result of the regulatory challenges faced by the industry.

There is still little in the way of true innovation in digital marketing across pharma. For most companies, having an e-detail, brand website and corporate twitter account ticks the digital boxes. Digital remains an afterthought of the marketing plan after the exhibition stands, symposia and patient leaflets have been ordered.

Fear of the known

The risk of not adhering to industry codes of practice means there is an inherent fear of digital channels and, in particular, social media. With most companies requiring approval of all external communications it is very difficult for pharma to converse over social media and certainly not with the immediacy that users demand.

Trust issues

There are a couple of key issues that reduce the impact pharma can have over digital channels. Firstly, social media users are used to engaging in conversation and debate. Pharma’s inability to engage in this way means their social media presence is far less engaging for patients and doctors than other content providers.

Secondly, there remains a distrust of industry. Deloittes’s report on pharma's adoption of social media* highlights the challenge, with 75% of doctors surveyed indicating a lack of trust in pharma.

Pharma companies should consider partnering with third parties who are trusted by their target audience. Partnering with professional bodies or third party networks offers great opportunities for industry to provide access to clinical data and insights which their partners are not able to deliver on their own.

HCP engagement

The rise in popularity of platforms such as doctors.net.uk, Medscape, Epocrates and Sermo indicate that like any consumer, HCPs are using digital platforms to engage with the content they want. In addition, HCPs are increasingly using digital platforms as a way of receiving medical education, whether via webinars, or new platforms like twitter’s Periscope. Tools like Skype are also being used increasingly by HCPs in their day-to-day working, including conducting MDT meetings with remote colleagues or even patient consultations.

As the traditional access to HCPs continues to increase in difficulty, perhaps a mix of online and face-to-face conversations will enable pharma reps to be more efficient.

Where the journey begins

Listening is key to developing digital solutions that meet the needs of HCPs and patients. Social listening, for example, by searching the web to see what’s being said about your company or products is a great way to gather insight and there are many free tools out there to get you started, such as Google Alerts.

Speaking to HCPs and patients and asking them to describe the patient journey and mapping out the challenges and gains at each point helps identify where solutions are needed. Co-create solutions with HCPs and patients rather than stopping at co-design. Co-creation means involvement at each step of the process as you design, prototype, test and refine solutions. Start small, get something out there and learn as you go.