#hashtagpharma: Pharma and the need for social media

Sofia Fionda debates, in pharmaphorum’s digital and social media themed month, the opportunities that social media presents to pharma and how it can learn from brands like NIKE, which is embracing the use of hashtags.

With around two months to go until the 2014 London Marathon, the streets are packed with those training for the intense 42km event. Feeling lazy in comparison, I decided to go for a run outdoors. I wore my NIKE Fuelband, which published my 25 minute trek to my twitter the second I stepped back into my house. I instantly got retweets and replies from people commending me on my run. How did they see this? The hashtag #makeitcount. It enabled me to join the online community of Fuelband users, seeking motivation and information sharing on their exercise experiences. And it got me thinking how pharma could learn from NIKE’s success.

I didn’t go straight out to buy a pair of their trainers. What NIKE did was give us a platform to engage with each other, on an interesting and relevant topic and feel like we weren’t alone during our gruelling exercise regimes. So what was in it for NIKE? Well, the global reach of this campaign means that every time it was used on social media sites, people were promoting the NIKE brand across the entire world.

The three little letters ‘ROI’ are daunting to pharma when it comes to social media. Our clients regularly ask “Where is the money to be made by engaging on social media in this way?” Well, that I cannot answer. If I could, I wouldn’t be in my current position. But ROI is kind of missing the point. Social media isn’t about selling. So we should stop using it in this way, because that’s where we fail. The same way direct purchasing online isn’t going to replace store-shopping. People are looking online then going to the shops to make their purchases. It’s a way of collating all the information about a product and making a judgement whether or not to buy. But that’s only part of the story. Whereas before you’d have that one friend who was a camera whizz and ask them which the best model is, you now have access to millions of camera whizzes. All you have to do is log on and search. It’s that simple. And pharma’s customers have the potential to engage in the same way when deciding which anti-TNF to use, for example.

Providing customers with access is key.

I’d argue that now is the time to get involved – or else, pharma will miss the boat.

I guess the question here from pharma would be, how best to get involved? Well, social media have made it extremely easy, a doorway just waiting to be pushed open. I’m talking about the hotly-debated ‘hashtag.’

I’ve already mentioned the NIKE ‘make it count’ campaign. Part of why this campaign was so successful was the hashtag they used. They were able to construct an online community engaging with this topic, willing to share their experiences and therefore reinforcing brand loyalty to NIKE.

“And it got me thinking how pharma could learn from NIKE’s success.”

No-one is saying pharma have to throw themselves into social media and the world of hashtags this second. And not without a clear strategy. Nor, and perhaps most importantly, without understanding the social media environment. The same way that they use market research insights to understand customers ‘offline,’ appreciating their customers online is vital to success. You only have to think back to the ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ campaign which the European commission devised to encourage science careers in girls. Their idea? Create a hashtag #sciencegirlthing. The outcome of that? Let’s just say the social media world was not receptive and the campaign, as well as the videos, were taken down and officially abandoned within 24 hours. Why? Because they hadn’t thought to test the hashtag out and understand how it would be received.

Hashtags are all about creating a community with your target audience. Social media is not a place where you spit out content and hope to achieve your goals. We recently did some qualitative market research, testing a product related website. This market research was conducted post website design. It was clear within the first few interviews that the company had fallen prey to the fallacy that ‘If I build it, they will come.’ No. They won’t come without reason. And that reason has to be because there is an unmet need.

Pharma are able to grasp these principles I have highlighted and get it right. Just look at Johnson & Johnson (recently topping IMS social media involvement list 2013) partnering with RED on AIDs awareness. Their message was simple: $1 was promised for every retweet, repost and re-pin of their AIDs awareness infographic. Did they make millions from this? I doubt it. But the outcome was that their company name was exposed / shared and viewed in a positive light, promoting AIDs awareness.

Why are the rest of pharma so late to the party?

We could focus on regulations here. It’s easy to use that excuse.

However, the FDA have finally published guidelines that I believe will see pharma heave a big sigh of relief, once they are fully understood. These include guidelines such as:

• Companies are not required to submit tweets, status updates, Instagram shots before they are posted online. They must still submit to the FDA, but only after posting.

• Reporting activity via ‘real time’ sites can be done monthly. A link to the feed can be supplied rather than a screen shot of the posting.

Essentially, this means that pharma will not be held accountable by the FDA for user generated content.

“…pharma will not be held accountable by the FDA for user generated content.”

But I think the real hurdle here, which has long been swept under the carpet until recently, is pharma’s inherent conservatism. According to a recent study, “Reluctance, not regulation, restrains Pharma social presence” with many marketing teams hitting a wall when it comes to motivating their teams to incorporate social media strategies. I recently had to explain to a pharmaceutical audit team what a hashtag was. I could tell they had yet to consider how a hashtag would work, or most critically, what the need for them was.

But it’s the same as educating for and validating any strategy in the ‘offline’ world. You look at the risks and opportunities and you devise a strategy to reduce one and maximise the other. Simple concepts all marketers are familiar, and confident with. So how can this be achieved?

I’ve already mentioned the importance of understanding the market. There are a whole host of companies offering reams and reams of data on the digital world. Which is great. There is reams and reams of important data out there. It’s just that the insight is trapped in a lot of useless and misleading clutter. The real value, and the actionable insights are the ones found when you get into ‘Why’ behind the data, not just the ‘What’. The ‘What’ is necessary, but ‘Who’ your customers are online, and ‘Why’ they are engaging with a hashtag or content whilst ignoring another, is critical to a successful marketing strategy. It’s about then actioning those insights into content they are seeking, becoming a top of mind, trusted source, and turning those customers into brand advocates by positively engaging with them, so that they advertise your brand for you. It’s a win, win.

And whilst my recommendation of solid research might sound like a cautious approach – caution is always a good idea – pharma’s involvement with social media cannot be done by simply dipping in a toe. There’s an ocean of opportunity out there. First, learn how to swim. Then throw yourself into it alongside your customers. And I guarantee you won’t regret it.

Join in the debate about pharma and the opportunities for them on social media with our unique hashtags #hashtagpharma.


1. Study published by Weber Shandwick, entitled Digital Health: Building Social Confidence in Pharma

2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLLFPfk14UI&noredirect=1

3. http://socialmediatoday.com/paul-tunnah/1986751/three-letters-kill-social-media-pharma

4. http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2012/jun/29/science-girl-thing-viral-fiasco

5. http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20131125033630-3154163-social-media-doesn-t-drive-sales-but-that-s-not-the-point?trk=tod-home-art-list-large_0

6. http://www.forbes.com/sites/steveolenski/2013/07/10/how-johnson-johnson-is-using-social-media-to-save-lives/

7. http://www.corpcommsmagazine.co.uk/news/3404-johnson-johnson-tops-charts-for-social-media

8. http://www.fiercepharma.com/story/fda-hands-pharma-marketers-another-piece-social-media-guidance/2014-01-14?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss

9. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/social-media-engagement-in-pharmaceutical-industry-hindered-more-by-internal-lack-of-social-confidence-than-external-regulations-new-research-finds-210225791.html



About the author:

Sofia is a Research Executive at Branding Science and has experience in running digital understanding projects, such as website testing and digital influencer mapping.

Closing thought: How can pharma learn from NIKE?