Sealed Doors of Bomb Shelters

When discussing why the pharmaceutical industry does not use social media, Andrew Spong (@andrewspong), one of the best known names on the health care social media circuit once tweeted,


“Without the change in mindset, for pharma SM can be akin to trying to hold a conversation through the sealed doors of a blast shelter”


This clever sentence captures the somber mood of social media evangelists who have often bashed the industry for not adapting to the new world of communication that social media has opened up. Mr. Spong implies here that by not adapting to the changes that are exploding in the new world, the pharmaceutical industry has locked itself into a bomb shelter to protect itself. And, it is trying to communicate through the sealed doors of that bomb shelter with its stakeholders. In short, trying to communicate without using social media tools is as ineffective as trying to talk to someone through the sealed doors of a bomb shelter.

Why then is the pharmaceutical industry not attracted to this promising new world? Are pharmaceutical marketers stupid? Are they risk averse? Are they so ‘unplugged’ from the world that they do not understand paradigm shifts in their sectors? That probably explains it. Unlike in most industries, social media has hardly changed any paradigms in the pharmaceutical industry.

But, the question still has me flummoxed. We (pharma people) operate in an industry that’s all about information and knowledge. We position ourselves as information providers to all the health care professionals, be they doctors, nurses, pharmacists or in some cases, even to patients and their families. If that’s what we really do, then why would we not naturally adapt to new and exciting media that allow us to engage with all these people more closely? Let us examine a few facts.

Corporate brands

Essentially 2006 was the turning point in social media for most businesses. Pharmaceutical companies (mostly outside India) at this point began to slowly join the social media milieu, but in limited capacity. This is because Twitter accounts and Facebook pages were often for the corporate brand, not the individual drug brands or care areas, and Facebook page comments were disabled almost across the board.

 Concerns about AER (Adverse Event Reporting)

This limitation of conversation on social media is logical given the concerns about AER (Adverse Event Reporting) requirements and the lack of relevant FDA guidelines. But its not like the industry gave up totally on social media. It tried, but minimally, with measured and unsure steps, as if walking on thin ice. And, minimal effort led to minimal results.

Uni-directional engagement

Pfizer (@pfizer_news) the largest pharmaceutical company in the world, attracted about 30,600 followers on Twitter (as of Aug 1st, 2012). Fantastic? Not really. Coca Cola (@CocaCola) has 586,000 followers and Nike (@Nike) has 561,000. Pfizer’s followers were largely made up of the Health 2.0 community rather than patients. Fewer people engage with Pfizer because of a strict regulatory environment that holds the industry back from being able to provide real value to the patient. Therefore, only being able to leverage social media as a traditional one directional media channel, very much like the traditional detailing to the physician, no significant relationship between brand and patient can be formed.

 Real time communication and engagement

The nature of current social media approaches and tools demands real-time interactive response and dialogue. The pharmaceutical industry does not and cannot communicate that way.

Image1)      Facebook demands interactivity and informal two-way communication. Companies evolve convoluted versions of it just to be present, killing the fun and the interactivity that makes Facebook so enjoyable.

2)      Twitter demands 140 characters to communicate. Pharmaceutical communications (prescription brands) demand fair balance, context, long explanation, disclaimers, and all kinds of fine-print.

3)      LinkedIn is all about the individual professional. It’s a great platform for recruiting, even in the pharmaceutical industry. The problem on LinkedIn is that interactivity is almost nil. Pharmaceutical companies hardly create meaningful interactions and networking on this medium.

4)      YouTube is one place where pharmaceutical companies can participate on a social platform, as long as it is one-way broadcasting and storytelling. That is only media. Not social.

Social media is about on-demand mobile communications (user generated content, location data, commerce etc.) that is real-time and fragmented. The pharmaceutical industry is all about centralized, one-way, controlled communications.

Discontinuous engagement

As a result of these challenges, patients quickly realized that pharmaceutical social media channels do not offer any venue for real communication (and are, in fact, anti-social media) and began to choose other social venues to discuss their medication and conditions. This then created opportunities for other interested parties to establish engaging social destinations for patients that focus on specific brands and conditions. As a result, pharmaceutical companies have slowly but surely been losing control over the discussions regarding their brands and allowing other parties to “hijack” the mindshare of their clients. 

Uncontrollable online activism

The industry is unsure of how to handle customer problems via social media. Last year, a pharmaceutical company planned to launch a medicine in the US in a newly approved indication for $1,500 per dose. Unfortunately that medicine had a generic version for just $10-$20. Activists led a social media campaign in protest. Despite quickly lowering the cost of the drug to around $20 or less per dose, the damage was done. The online campaign created a widespread backlash and ultimately damaged the company’s image. This sort of social media crisis is a clear demonstration of what can happen if such a volatile medium is not handled properly with expertise.

 Unclear regulatory framework

Even as pharmaceutical companies have increasingly struggled with their online presence, the US-FDA has repeatedly failed to deliver promised guidance, even while issuing warning letters for egregious web sites. Meanwhile, Facebook recently decided that it will no longer allow drugmakers to disable comments posted on newly created pages, prompting some to consider walking away from the site.

Despite the fact that there are minimal regulations currently in place for social media, the industry is struggling with the medium. Can it afford to leave its social media initiatives in the hands of others much like its R&D and manufacturing processes? Perhaps, the answer to the industry’s social media problem lies in the creation of private and branded communities with the ability for Facebook integration. In private communities, control can be established through various modes including strong moderation policies or by further controlling the discussions using innovative approaches. Within private networks, pharmaceutical companies have the ability to create guided experiences, increase patient engagement, adherence and education, listen to patient comments while simultaneously promoting their brand.

 Yet, with all these limitations, the pharmaceutical industry will, in the truest sense of the word, betray the essence of social media. The intersection of the pharmaceutical industry with social media presents a major cultural collision – they type when a regulated, top-down, one-way, controlled communication corporate culture meets the free-wheeling, bottom-up, conversational, unpredictably evolving world of digital networks. Even as digital network communications are rapidly becoming “the new normal”, the pharmaceutical industry with its old economy mindset driven by environmental challenges continues to shout itself hoarse through the sealed doors of bomb shelters.


One thought on “Sealed Doors of Bomb Shelters

  1. yes. agree to most of your point. i believe apart from this there are commercial reasons that a marketeer cannot co relate benefits and ROI which is a basic for the logical mind of sales-marketing guy. Ashish


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