Should Big Pharma be Marketing via Social Media?

MDNG Endocrinology, July 2008, Volume 9, Issue 7

In June 2008, I participated in an online interview with Ed Silverman, author of the popular pharmaceutical industry blog Pharmalot.

In June 2008, I participated in an online interview with Ed Silverman, author of the popular pharmaceutical industry blog Pharmalot. He was curious as to why, despite much sound and fury, many pharmaceutical companies have not started to market their products using various networking technologies, including blogs and social networks.

Some have suggested that launching a blog or participating in an online forum is anathema to Big Pharma because drug fi rms are unwilling to be open and honest with the public. For example, Matthew Holford, author of the blog It’s Quite An Experience said this in response to the interview: “I don’t think any [drug] company could ever write a blog, simply because, with the attendant interest in suppressing information, it would lack authenticity, and would have the well-vetted look of an offi ciallysanctioned press release.”

Despite Holford’s skepticism, a couple of pharmaceutical companies have decided to launch blogs focusing on prescription and over-the-counter products. Most notably, Centocor launched CNTO411 in March 2008. Th e blog has generated quite a bit of interest from industry critics, experts, and health consumers. However, it has not yet established its footing. When pressed by readers to defi ne the blog’s target audience, Centocor’s Melissa Katz replied: “everyone.” Th is response annoyed some, who believed that the blog would provide more value and have a sharper voice if it had a well-defi ned target and point of view.

In addition, GlaxoSmithKline in 2007 launched the blog, “alli connect” to discuss issues related to weight loss and its OTC medication Alli. Because the blog is designed to support its marketing eff orts for Alli, the blog is much more focused than CNTO411. Yet the question remains, should pharmaceutical companies be marketing their medications using social media? Well, the answer is more complex than a simple “yes” or “no.” First, when it comes to marketing, there are many activities drug fi rms engage in that have nothing to do with producing 60-second commercials. For example, there may be value in tapping into the opinions of dedicated and informed physicians and consumers in order to better understand patients’ unmet medical needs and how drugs are working in the real world. Pharmaceutical companies are currently partnering with social networks like Sermo and PatientsLikeMe to gather outcomes and opinion data from both of these groups. In addition, some physicians want pharmaceutical companies to stop relying on sales representatives and engage in more substantive and authentic conversations with doctors. Th is was one reason Pfi zer decided to partner with Sermo to open a dialog with its online physician community about a range of subjects, including how drug fi rms should communicate with doctors in a Web 2.0 world. While the relationship has generated some controversy, Sermo’s CEO Daniel Palestrant has said it represents a “win-win” for both parties. Overall, I believe that pharmaceutical companies have much to gain from engaging people using social media—if it is done in an open and non-manipulative way. Transparent activities like the Centocor blog and Pfizer-Sermo partnership may be criticized, but at least everyone is aware of what is going on. If companies begin to attempt to infl uence the conversation in devious ways, then they have no business marketing their products using social media technologies.

So, why haven’t we seen more drug fi rms starting blogs or participating in social networks? A big reason is that many have not yet fi gured out how to participate in the online conversation while satisfying social media’s cultural requirements. Despite this, they are marketing in social media in other ways. For example, a number of companies have been advertising on the PRESENTDiabetes health provider social network. In addition, LifeScan has initiated a partnership with a consumer diabetes social network, TuDiabetes, to promote its OneTouch blood glucose monitoring device.

The important question is not if pharmaceutical companies should market via social media, but how. Only time will tell if they get it right.

Fard Johnmar is the founder of Envision Solutions, LLC, a full-service healthcare marketing communications consulting firm. Visit www.envisionsolutionsnow.com to learn more about the company and the services it offers.