Pharma, Social Media & Common Sense

By the numbers, pharma’s usage of the social media to drive corporate, brand and disease management objectives has never been greater. But how robust are pharma’s channels and programs on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other networks?

Consider a few table stakes for digital communication generally:

  • Tell the whole truth and nothing but
  • If applicable, open comments but police spam and abuse (a concept FB now enforces for all unbranded health pages).
  • Support the brand you have while you build the one you want.
  • Stratify messages, channels and audiences to support that strategy.
  • Develop and monitor KPIs, some qualitative. It’s not just about the money.

Now consider a few typical characteristics of pharma social media content these days:

  • Primarily perkily positive — disease is presented as a barrier to be overcome much more often than as a real constraint on function, while interventions are cast as white knights with few down sides. It’s a “can’t wait for you to join our exclusive club” vibe.
  • Posts and tweets are PR, event and re-transmission-driven, with very little original or de novo insight.
  • User-generated content is more scrutinized and filtered to avoid reportable AEs than to spawn new functionality or additional topics
  • The editorial “we” is used to denote the company sponsor, top-down, not sufferers or caregivers.

Now consider the raw potential of digitally-enabled disease management. Manufacturers crowd-source new therapy options while sufferers engage in DIY trials, with data publicly available.  Clinicians monitor patients via implants, smart phones and freestanding machines. Population-based  warning systems via Twitter and GPS-aware applications can save more lives much faster than the evening TV news.

Can pharma PR in 140 characters keep up? It could be closer.

FDA’s recent social media guidelines shed regulatory light only on the transmission of off-label information, a small minority of discussions and, for patients, a distinction that is rarely made.

So the ball is back in industry’s court for now. Time to frame network involvement in concert with patients, clinicians and caregivers throughout the social Web.

Whenever the social media bring us closer to the point of care, information-seeking and reimbursement, we can influence behavior. As always, however, the medium is no substitute for the message. When you send reminder texts, are you relying on the thrill of receiving a text or building on a strong value proposition for adherence?

Back from the Future

Once upon a time, bioscience was all brand, all the time.

With HCPs, payors and patients converging into disease management, we went unbranded for a while. Lately, the pendulum has swung back. Unfortunately, engaging with stakeholders in social networks is rarely a slam dunk; it’s more the cream sauce that you have to simmer and stir, or it burns to a crisp.

Information Hunger: Still Unsatisfied

Today, with more content on display than ever, the hunger for usability has gone unaddressed. Industry has supported abstractions like a “healthy diet” instead of “should I really take that antibiotic today?”

We can, as never before, help patients understand the extent to which outcomes can be predicted and controlled, not to mention the stakes for their choices (including inertia). Our social networking tools include lurking, developing and porting content, app development, comments, redistribution/sharing/syndication and intelligent filtering.

The rise of social media, CDH, the Internet generally, disease management, value-driven reimbursement, e-detailing and more all rest on the need for on-demand content that supports decisions but doesn’t deny their difficulty, high stakes and shifting drivers of choice.  The social media provides myriad context, but the rest is up to content providers.

Message to the Message-Makers

  • Be where you can add value, with the right support at the right time for the right audience.
  • Present objective decision support, not just an assertion of therapy of choice. If the evidence isn’t there, maybe it’s time for a  new job.
  • Don’t be where you can’t or where ethics or regulations say not to be. But where you are, really be there.
  • Don’t run away from the heavy stuff: blood, pain, desperation. Your attorneys can tell you where the bright lines for engagement are, but it’s your job to shore up the fault lines in the systems on which your constituents rely, when you can.

Engagement comes with a large caveat as well.  Sir William Osler noted long ago  that there is no typical patient. Bring the patients, not simply your favorite diseases, into your conference room. Walk through some sites with your team, all looking at the big screen. Don’t cast your line until you’ve skimmed the water.

Some ask, is it “social” if unidirectional or retouched (pharma often does not follow or link to other content sources, and has been known to edit others’ content)?  Who cares? Most important is whether you are offering a path to useful content, yours or others’.

Besides providing the right content,  pick the right channels. Facebook is not a care-seeking haven, nor YouTube or Twitter – and not where HCPs chat.  Find peer channels where no one’s vamping, meaning don’t take HCP “pout for pay” outlets or supplement ad mills too seriously. And whatever your audience, differentiate self-contained communities  where we learn by listening, from those that would honestly value your perspectives and expertise.

Playing for High Stakes

The real danger of industry-driven content in any channel is that when patients and caregivers encounter the stilted happy-speak, fake camaraderie and false dichotomies (anyone you know living a completely “healthy lifestyle”?), our disgruntled audiences end up instead skimming forums that contain less objective evidence than we can offer, often leading to  suboptimal outcomes. Provide bite-sized personalized information, that users can sort, parse and filter. If you’re not PURE (personal, urgent, relevant, engaging), you cannot cure.

Internalize the Real

Hear the conversation that’s not being held for your benefit. These virtual encounters (attend live, unscripted clinical encounters, too!) explain what “social media” really are and can yet be.

Laurie Gelb, MPH is a researcher, strategist and content developer with expertise in hospital operations/marketing, outcomes research and biopharmaceutical commercialization. Past employers include the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, WellPoint and Sanofi-Aventis. She blogs at Managed Care On Line and Profit by Change as well as THCB.


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1 reply »

  1. “Population-based warning systems via Twitter and GPS-aware applications can save more lives much faster than the evening TV news.”

    Great point there, the speed of social is key.

    Excellent post, Laurie.

    Jason Boies
    Radian6 Community