DigiPharm 2010: So why does digital matter anyway?

Paul Tunnah


It’s easy to assume when reporting on an event such as DigiPharm that your audience is fairly digital media savvy, that the reader has spent a good chunk of their day ‘Tweeting’, ‘Facebooking’ and generally internet surfing, webcasting and emailing their way through the day.

However, if the social media crowd can bear with me for a moment, I’d like to not make that assumption, because even those who are not digital-literate need to appreciate the issues discussed at DigiPharm (or DigiPharm Europe 2010 to use its full name). There’s nothing wrong with being in this group – lots of people don’t feel comfortable in the new world of digital marketing and social media. Lots of people are frustrated by it, scared by it and worried that they will never understand it. If that’s you, then all I ask is to keep reading and maintain an open mind.

Let me start by illustrating why I think digital, or online, marketing is important. Imagine the following conversation:

Marketer 1: “Wow – this new channel allows direct engagement with our customers much quicker than previously. We can listen to their feedback and respond directly and immediately to address their concerns.”

Marketer 2: “Hmm…sounds a bit dangerous to me. Why don’t we stick to what we’ve always done where we have more control about the message, can make sure it’s internally approved and won’t get into trouble for saying the wrong thing.”

Sound familiar to discussions you hear in your office every day? Actually, this conversation took place at the end of the 19th century when the telephone had just started appearing in offices and homes.

Okay, I’m being facetious, but my point is that digital is simply a new channel and a very powerful one that is here to stay, so like it or loathe it it’s worth understanding more about it.

Without wishing to be over-simplistic, there’s one key question I’d like to address first off, because it’s important to define something clearly.

Q: Are digital marketing and social media the same thing?

A: Not exactly. Whilst some people will argue the semantics of the exact definitions, “digital marketing” for me covers all use of online media for marketing purposes. “Social media” defines the use of the internet for two-way engagement, which can apply in both business and personal life. Facebook, Twitter and online forums are examples of social media because you can have “conversations” with people in the same way as you would have a conversation in real life, but mediated through text exchanges. Digital marketing has been around for longer in the form of static product websites that don’t offer engagement.

DigiPharm covered both the above aspects of online activity, so having clarified that let’s move onto the highlights of the show. I’m going to include the Twitter name for relevant speakers in square brackets (where I know it) when they are first mentioned. If you’ve never used Twitter before, clicking on this will take you to their “Tweet stream”, but you won’t be obliged to sign up for anything and can passively observe, click on links and play around in a safe way without having to interact with anyone straight away. Just following what some of these people are saying can be very insightful.


“…lots of people don’t feel comfortable in the new world of digital marketing and social media.”

Sadly, I could only attend the first full day of DigiPharm, but it covered many of the key issues. Whilst it is clearly impossible to capture a full day’s meeting accurately in one short article, I will try to outline some of the highlights from the diverse range of presentations.

With proceedings chaired by Paul Dixey [@pauldixey] of Bluelight Partners, pharma itself was well represented with Kai Gait [@fision] (GlaxoSmithKline), Sabine Kostevc [ @skoko] (Roche), Alex Butler [@Alex__Butler] (Janssen) and Judith von Gordon-Weichelt (Boehringer Ingelheim) all presenting the industry perspective. As “digital pioneers” from within the industry, it was fascinating to hear their perspectives, with some key learnings coming to the fore.

Kai Gait outlined how managing the pace of change within digital marketing creates challenges, including managing internal stakeholders who are not comfortable with such new media and simply trying to keep abreast of the many channels emerging in this space. Alex Butler focussed more specifically on social media and the delicate questions of whether pharma should and can play in this space. As someone who is proudly on the verge of launching a Facebook page for psoriasis sufferers, his own answer would be a clear yes in both cases. However, his key point was that social media has to be two way and if pharma is to truly get involved it has to be prepared to really listen to its customers. Both Gait and Butler accompanied their presentation with the usual disclaimer that their views were not necessarily those of their companies or even, with a wry smile in the case of Butler, “those of anyone else at all”.

One person who would recognise the rationales behind such disclaimers well is Sabine Kostevc, having launched Roche’s now famous social media guidelines back in August. This marked the first such official guidance by any big pharma with regards to employee use of such channels and covers both personal use and official company representation separately. Although too early to judge the impact of such guidelines, it is a brave move to be the first and other big pharma will no doubt follow suit, with a representative from Pfizer openly admitting they were working on it.

Judith von Gordon-Weichalt rounded off the industry side presentations with a review of Boehringer Ingelheim’s impressive looking social media monitoring tool. At face value this appears to be an ambitious, but largely successful attempt to keep an eye on the many digital channels available and understand sentiment towards Boehringer’s products. Performance dashboards have been around for years in other areas of marketing so it’s nice to see them broaden to social media.


“…social media has to be two way and if pharma is to truly get involved it has to be prepared to really listen to its customers.”

The power of online communities was a focal point for several service sector presentations. Whilst it can be frightening for the marketer to appreciate how much power such customer communities hold, it is the undeniable reality that your message is now dictated and shaped by such groups far more than any internal marketing materials. Erik van der Zijden [@erikdigiredo] and René van den Bos [@renedigiredo] from DigiRedo illustrated neatly how failing to empower your community will ultimately backfire, with the fictional (but true to life) story of a young digital marketer. The message – if you don’t allow engagement with your customers they will go somewhere else and engage without you.

Carwyn Jones (doctors.net.uk) and Paul Wicks (patientslikeme) both presented their success stories in building communities for doctors and patients respectively. Now over 12 years old, doctors.net.uk has come a long way and serves as a focal point for online physician-to-physician engagement in the UK, reaching over 40,000 doctors every day. It is also a powerful place for pharma-to-physician engagement, but only when used in the right way, with Carwyn keen to point out that it only took half a second for doctors to switch off if the message did not interest them. The success of patientslikeme.com stems from being able to bring together groups of patients not only with the same disease, but also similar levels of symptoms, allowing users to share and compare experiences and offering direct patient-to-patient support. However, it also provides the opportunity for real-life patient feedback to external parties.

Andrew Spong [@andrewspong] (Nexus) and Silja Chouquet [@whydotpharma] (whydotpharma) told the story of their digital community of pharma folk, which meets online every Friday at 12 noon UK time to “talk” through Twitter. Hashtags, which are represented by the “#” symbol followed by a word or characters are used to flag a Tweet as belonging to a specific category, allowing users to follow relevant topics rather than individual users. Their ‘healthcare social media Europe’ group is denoted by the hashtag ‘#hcsmeu’ so search for this on Twitter to see the kind of areas discussed or take a look here for more information. The fact that Silja had unfortunately lost her voice only served to illustrate the way the group functions even better, with the slides telling the story in text. As a sometime participant in this group, which discusses a whole array of issues in pharma in a “cocktail party” type atmosphere where multiple discussions overlap, I would highly recommend dropping into it one Friday, even if just to observe.

Other presenters focussed on more specific issues and areas within digital marketing. Kay Wesley [@KayWesley] (Complete Digital) focussed on the well known site Wikipedia, exploring how many pharma companies took responsibility for updating drug information on this popular resource (answer – very few!). Mark Prince (Sublime Digital) addressed the issue of linking offline and online promotion, an area which, in my opinion, no-one has cracked yet despite the development of some interesting technologies.


“…if you don’t allow engagement with your customers they will go somewhere else and engage without you.”

Adverse event reporting and capture online is a knotty area and one which Daniel Ghinn [@engagementstrat] and Paul Grant [@paulgrant] (Creation Healthcare) explored in more detail. The key challenges highlighted here were the amount of spam messages featuring drug product names (especially in erectile dysfunction treatment!) and the fact that all the information required to define a qualified adverse event may be spread across multiple ‘posts’ online (e.g. multiple Tweets talking about a drug). The issue of how to address adverse event capture and reporting from online channels is probably the biggest challenge faced by the heavily regulated pharma industry in the digital world and there appear to be no simple solutions in sight.

The day closed with a physician panel (including both health service doctors and in-house pharma medics) providing their perspective on digital marketing. Their slightly tangential view focussed more on the use of mobile technology and applications to support their activities, such as diagnostic applications. With some fairly vocal views being presented against traditional pharma promotion, the development of such applications was proposed as a way to build trust with the industry and provide real support for them in dealing with patients.

So, what conclusions could be drawn from all this?

Well, for me there are several messages coming through for pharma to note:

• Physicians, payers and patients are engaging with each other actively through digital channels. They are talking about medicines and associated healthcare delivery whether or not pharma is listening – so isn’t it at least better to know what they are saying?

• Despite all the buzz from digital and social media, clear objectives need to be ascertained and buy-in secured internally otherwise digital campaigns will inevitably be viewed as failures.

• To effectively engage with its audience online, pharma must be prepared to listen, not just dictate its message as in traditional marketing.

• In the online world, the position, strengths and weaknesses of your brand are dictated more by the consumer than they are by your marketing team.

So, for the uninitiated, is it worth taking the plunge and getting to know the world of digital better?

Well, put it this way, was it worth learning how to use a phone?

About the author:

Paul Tunnah is Founder and Managing Director of pharmaphorum, the online information, discussion and networking site for pharma executives. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form.

The DigiPharm Europe 2010 conference was organised by Health Network Communications, part of the Terrapin Group. For more information visit www.healthnetworkcommunications.com. To view the Tweet stream from the conference search for the #digipharm hashtag on Twitter.

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