A beginner’s guide to digital pharma: part 1 – why bother?

Faisal Ahmed and Paul Tunnah


We can appreciate that the digital space can be a daunting place for beginners. There are so many different social media channels and techniques, plus the pace of change is ridiculously fast. Every day there seems to be a new buzzword around, the latest greatest new social media tool has just emerged and it can feel like there’s no easy place to begin and no hope of keeping up.

So if you’re not a regular Tweeter, find the thought of comments appearing on your blog terrifying or simply don’t know what half the new words being bandied around mean then fear not!

We thought that by combining our respective spheres of knowledge across both pharma and the digital space beyond we might be able to offer some intelligent (we hope!) thoughts as a starting point for those wanting to dive into digital pharma and social media. Therefore, we’re going to write a short series of these pieces to give some pointers to beginners. It’s not meant to be exhaustive and we certainly wouldn’t venture so far as to describe ourselves as “experts” (the pace of change is so great that you’re constantly learning in this area anyway), but we hope it helps in some small way.


“There are so many different social media channels and techniques, plus the pace of change is ridiculously fast.”


The first question is, of course, why should pharma bother with social media? Well, if you’re reading this we suspect you know it could be important, but here’s our view.

Today, it’s easy to come out of meetings with pharma companies and service providers excited by the opportunities for creative work in the digital space, but frustrated that 99% of them won’t actually come to fruition because of regulations, fears, lack of budget etc.

But fast forward five years and imagine the following conversation:

Digital agency: “How about a product website split into two, one half targeting HCPs and the other targeting patients?”

Pharma company “Well, do we really need a website? HCPs don’t even bother coming to see it. Let’s communicate our drug to patients via Facebook (we can also put the SmPC up there too) and let’s send the clinical data direct to the HCPs’ smartphones.”

All sounds a bit far-fetched? Well, bear in mind that FMCG companies have been communicating this way for years, pharma just needs to catch up. And yes, we “get” the whole argument about pharma being more regulated, but as information becomes more accessible the regulations are only going to support dissemination of accurate and reliable information, not suppress it. It may take time (hence looking forward five years), but the rules will change.


“Forget the terms digital and social media for a moment and just focus on the customer.”


So pharma has to change too and it has to understand digital.

Forget the terms digital and social media for a moment and just focus on the customer. In our industry, the “customers” are the HCPs (prescribers and payers) and the patients, so you have to start with them and work backwards. The digital world then becomes just another channel for helping you communicate with them, just like existing channels such as the phone, television, sales reps etc.

But if you don’t believe the power and reach of this channel then check out the following video for some stats and how the power of the customer (through social media) is changing how we do marketing from now on.

Social Media Revolution 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFZ0z5Fm-Ng

With over 400 million internet users across Europe and healthcare being the third biggest digital activity we hope to help you understand the potential of this space. In every industry, marketing is transforming from often didactic ‘chunks’ of communication to longer term community generation and management.¹

Social media is the hot topic of the moment, but as with anything new it’s best to start by observing and listening. In fact, many big brands are already doing just this in a much organised way, for example:

Gatorade Mission Control

Dell’s Social Media Command Center .

At the end of the day, it’s just people talking to people, which is the most powerful tool for any business if your message is right. But as the Internet Advertising Bureau’s Chief Exec Guy Phillipson said “change will never be this slow again”.


“At the end of the day, it’s just people talking to people…”


Expect to see us cover a range of areas from website design, through planning, how to use different channels, online marketing techniques and effective implementation. We hope you find the series useful and would love to hear your feedback. Let us know if there are topics you want to see covered or if you have any questions or observations by adding your comments below or Tweeting them to us @pharmaphorum.


1. Pew Internet, Generations Online in 2010, http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Generations-2010/Overview.aspx

Read part 2 – “start with a plan” here

About the authors:

Faisal Ahmed is one of a handful of people in the UK that has been involved with digital for over 12 years, having been part of the start-up team at amazon, defining how we shop online. Faisal has launched digital strategies for 90 football Clubs, the ECB and WRC. He also launched Playboy’s mobile and social media platforms in 2006 and one of the first online social networks. Over the last 2 years Faisal has been Head of Digital at a leading healthcare agency winning over 15 awards and bringing to life both one of the first mobile apps and augmented reality in healthcare. Faisal can be found tweeting here @sickonthenet.

Paul Tunnah is Founder and Managing Director of www.pharmaphorum.com, the dynamic online information and discussion portal for the pharmaceutical industry featuring news, articles, events / company listings and online discussion. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

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