11 November 2009

Mastering Social Media in Pharmaceutical Digital Marketing

Over the past few years, social media websites have emerged as a popular medium for companies looking to promote both their brand and their products. Targeted adverts are now commonplace on websites such as Facebook and MySpace and the emergence of Twitter has given marketing departments another online presence to use in the battle for market share and sales.

The push for new media is on. Pharma companies are buzzing about social media tools such as blogs, Social Networks, podcasts, and interactive healthcare forums, but few firms really know how to make these online initiatives work.

This is due in part to pharma's need to control how information is developed and disseminated. Tight message control is very difficult or impossible when speaking with people via an online forum, blog, or social network. Another headache is the uncertainty about how the FDA will regulate pharma's social media communications activities.

Although there are many barriers to overcome, a number of pharmaceutical companies are eager to use blogs, podcasts, and other tools to market their products and advance their agendas. Following is a framework Pharma marketers can use to help them:
  • Understand what is being said about their products online;
  • Ethically engage stakeholders via blogs, podcasts, and other forms of social media;
  • Flexibly participate in and respond to Internet conversation;
  • Boost their return on investment.
The Real Deal:
There is a lesson to be learned here. People turn to social media because they are looking for relevant content. Though pharmaceutical companies devote significant resources to "product.com" Web sites, Internet users are far from satisfied. This is because they want "the real deal" about how medications will affect them and their families. The key to engaging them, building brand loyalty, and increasing compliance is listening to what people want and providing them with information they need.

Social media can help in two ways. First, it is an excellent source of observational market research. Competitive-intelligence firms have developed tools that provide detailed information about what consumers and medical professionals think about medications and related issues—and developed methods of collecting information while complying with regulatory guidelines.

It is essential that Pharma marketers observe established blogs and other forms of user-generated media prior to launching a social media communications campaign. If a company does its homework, it will decrease the odds of making an embarrassing mistake, providing irrelevant information, or failing to recognize an opportunity. Before speaking, the marketers should understand what people want to know.

Think Outcomes, Not Tools:
Like most people, marketers love shiny new toys and are vulnerable to peer pressure. For example, right now podcasting is hot, and many consultants and communications firms are encouraging pharmaceutical companies to develop podcasts. However, many executives are complaining that their podcasts are not being downloaded or shared.

This holds true for other forms of social media, like blogs and social networks. Some marketers want to hop onto the bandwagon with little regard for how or whether a certain tool will have an impact. Before deciding to invest human and financial resources in these communications channels, consider the S.T.O.P. method:

S - What's the strategy? Your overall marketing strategy should determine whether a communications tactic is appropriate. For example, if you are trying to reach people 65 years and older with new information about an arthritis medication, launching a social network is not the best way to engage them

T - What's the time frame? Given the complexity of social media, the value of any communications tactic must be weighed against your time frame. Launching a blog, for example, is no simple matter. It requires extensive discussion and planning. If you have limited time before a launch, think twice about inserting a Weblog into your communications plan.

O - What's the desired outcome? The purpose of communications has always been about getting people to pay attention and take action. Every tactic should be evaluated against this yardstick. Ask: "What do I want the reaction to be?" and "How will I measure it?" Each social media tool has a different purpose. Understand how each can help you meet your marketing objectives and you will be ahead of the game.

P - What's the procedure? Social media is far from safe. Because you are dealing with people who have varying allegiances and motivations, you are bound to experience something you did not plan for. Before engaging in social media communications, think about what could go right (and wrong) and plan accordingly.

Be Transparent:
As scary as it may seem, practicing transparency is the only way that pharmaceutical companies will become credible citizens of the online community. This means being courageous enough to tolerate negative commentary and having the flexibility to respond quickly.

Flexibility Is a Virtue:
Communicating with stakeholders via social media can be very difficult for a pharmaceutical company accustomed to carefully crafting and vetting public statements. However, slow response times can doom a social media communications campaign because events and perceptions change very quickly online.

Pharma can increase its flexibility by decreasing reaction times and content development cycles: For example, if a company decides to launch a corporate blogs, it can develop an in-house legal, regulatory, medical, and marketing team that will approve posts before they appear. It also must be willing to change course. If a review of relevant online bulletin boards and blogs reveals that your carefully developed message is not resonating with consumers, don't be afraid to shift gears if appropriate. Companies can and should find ways to engage their stakeholders via social media. Success will require having the appropriate mindset, managing expectations, and carefully linking tactics to business and corporate objectives.

With a growing number of Pharma companies testing the waters of social media, an intrepid few have tried to keep track of every site, You Tube video, Twitterer, Facebook page, and so on. It’s become a daunting task and no one list seems to have it all.

I discussed a lot about social media here, I’m not necessarily sure it’s the cure for Pharma marketing. At least, it’s not the cure in the way many marketers think about it. For many, social media represents yet another channel to promote their products. Nearly every Pharma and healthcare company sponsored social media effort thus far feels as though it is brand focused instead of patient focused.