Highly-regulated industries like the pharmaceutical industry have been slow to embrace consumer conversation. But as more consumers turn to each other online to get healthcare information, pharma brands that remain hesitant to engage with them miss a critical opportunity not only to influence sales, but to learn how consumers make decisions and thus improve marketing. Luckily, says eMarketer senior analyst Victoria Petrock, many brands now see the need to shift spending to digital, interactive activities:

“Most pharma marketers see digital marketing’s potential but remain rooted in old ways of doing things. Though adoption is uneven, a paradigm shift is under way as campaigns slowly but steadily migrate online. Rather than turning to one-way, mass-market media to promote brand awareness and maintenance, marketers are experimenting with more interactive, lower-cost, and more targeted digital channels.”

Here are a few reasons why the pharmaceutical industry needs to get social, now – both by talking with consumers and by helping consumers talk to each other.

Consumers turn to each other online for healthcare information

Consumers go online to research healthcare. Seventy-two percent of US internet users and 59% of the general population have looked for health information online within the last year. Also, 40% of women and 30% of men said they have gone online to search their symptoms and diagnose a condition themselves.

And many look to each other, online and off, for medical advice. One in five adults (21%) say they turned to others who have the same health condition the last time they had a health issue. Meanwhile, 23% of people with a chronic ailment go online to find others with similar concerns. Says Bruce Grant, senior vice president of business strategy for Digitas Health:

“Previously, someone facing a health decision could only talk to [a limited number of people]. Now, social media brings an unprecedented scale and takes away geographic limitations on the conversations, so a person facing a treatment decision – especially with a life-changing condition like multiple sclerosis or cancer – can consult with [others with that condition in social media] conversations.”

As a result, pharma companies are reducing ad spending in nearly every channel except digital. Overall promotional spending was reduced by 8% to $27.35 billion in 2012, including drop-offs in print and direct-to-consumer advertising. However, the industry will increase spend on digital marketing 12% by 2016.

While much of that spend currently focuses on ads, expect pharma brands to focus more effort on creating dialogues between consumers as brands get more comfortable in social – just as we’ve already seen happen in the retail industry. Pharma brands will realize the need to be conversational online, says Grant:

“Social media is not a marketing or a messaging channel. It’s a conversation, and consumers have always used conversation when making an important decision.”

Connect with consumers around specific areas of interest through conversations and multimedia

Online, the healthcare information most sought-after by consumers relates to: A specific disease or medical problem (55%), a medical treatment or procedure (43%), and weight issues (27%). By creating conversations around these specific interests and concerns, pharma brands can attract consumers by creating a valuable online resource.

One example would be to create a Q&A community on the brand site where consumers can engage with each other about popular health topics like weight loss goals, ask questions about certain side effects, etc. Pharmaceutical companies could use these communities to attract not just consumers, but also healthcare providers – the prescribers who often decide which brand a patient should buy.

Grant recommends stocking the community with helpful owned media consumers can share and discuss with each other:

“The real opportunity is to become relevant and valued as part of the conversation. And the way to do that is to offer something to the conversation in response to what people are discussing… One of the smartest, simplest and safest [ways to offer something of value] from a regulatory point of view is to make website content more shareable, which can easily be done. So if you have a brochure or diet guide, customers can share it with others.”

Neither consumers nor healthcare providers stay isolated in one channel, so these communities have to be accessible across every channel says Larry Mickelberg, partner and chief digital officer for Havas Health:

“The smartphone shines in the moments in between patient consultations and during patient consultations. It’s really the first place physicians go for any type of information today. Healthcare providers also use smartphones to interface with their peers for a point of view or second opinion.”

Use data captured in these communities to improve marketing and patient care

Online conversations are a powerful tool for public health research. Researchers are now using Twitter to track the flu, allergies, and the use of certain medications. Pharmaceutical companies can similarly mine their own on-site communities to improve marketing and patient care. For example, if conversations from consumers in a particular region mention allergies a lot, a manufacturer could target other consumers in that region with marketing for their allergy medication. Conversations can also reveal certain moments of truth in consumers’ pharmaceutical decisions, says Grant:

“State-of-the-art social listening applies Big Data principles and technologies to the mass of social conversation data, which can tell you the decision-making factors and what point in the journey patients begin talking about medications. These are the things that help marketers understand their customers more deeply.”

Highly regulated industries like pharma and financial services are slowly catching up to their retailer and manufacturing peers in embracing social data. There’s massive opportunity in this space for the pharma brands that quickly adopt social and begin reaping the benefits consumer conversations and their data bring.

  • http://twitter.com/txTDM Tara DeMarco

    Hi Chris, these are some great thoughts, thanks for sharing. Definitely agree with your three points. Thanks for reading!

  • http://twitter.com/moosechris Chris Moose

    Let me start by saying I completely agree with the premise
    and I’ve been trying to push this for some time. Let me outline the barriers and what I believe is the ultimate path forward.

    I think Pharma companies have not just a shareholder
    (profit) incentive to be social but a moral obligation to be social. Recent research shows monitoring social media
    outlets can reveal quality / adverse events much faster than the existing FDA-centric adverse events reporting ( http://tinyurl.com/d5ld236

    if that link does not work see Wall Street Journal ‘Mining the
    Internet for Speedier Alerts on Drugs’ article on Oct-8-2012).

    The FDA rules on this are vague right now but I think it is
    just a matter of time until the FDA holds companies accountable for accessing all possible data sources to improve patient safety. And, coming back to my ‘moral’ argument, I don’t think companies should wait until toe government tells them to act; they
    should act now because it is the right thing to do.

    But in defense of the Pharma companies this opens up a lot
    of risk. In some ways a legal strategy against product safety lawsuits is ‘We did not know this data’. So how do we create a path for companies to adopt this given the cultural resistance?

    I think it comes down to a 3 part strategy:

    1) Start in a less legally intense area

    For example take a pharma with an Animal
    Health division; explore a social conversation there; what kinds of things are revealed when you interact with vets,
    pet owners or farmers (typical customers of an Animal Health division)? The liability is lower so there will be less resistance (legal
    concern) but the social learnings can then be applied as you scale to the Rx side of your business

    2) With a pilot in process begin to measure the
    profit movement by talking with your customers

    Let’s face it; ROI / money catches people’s attention. To what degree can having a social relationship drive market share? Don’t
    use case studies to make your point; take the learnings from #1 above and build your own internal business case. Plus with a pilot underway a fact-based conversation about the potential legal risks can be had within a company because they are truly wrestling with the issues; not dealing with hypotheticals

    3) Change the rules

    Social media will be an input into a ‘Real World Evidence’ … the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) is trying to drive reimbursements in line with outcomes. The traditional Pharma supply chain (Pharma -> Wholesaler -> Pharmacy / PBM -> Patient) and the traditional influencers (Doctor; insurance companies; formularies; etc.) create a significant abstraction
    between the end consumer (patient) and the pharma company which needs data to get onto the formularies; command the optimal price points; etc. Using social media and monitoring the conversations patients are having as they manage their diseases (especially chronic diseases like diabetes, etc.) is a game-changed in patient insight.

    This is an important topic for many reasons… I look forward to seeing how it evolves. Thanks; @moosechris