Is pharma’s engagement with social media – SICK?

Richard Heale

The Thoughtware Group*

The definition of a pharma customer is changing rapidly. These changes make the task of customer targeting increasingly complex.

The one thing all customer groups have in common, however, is that they can, and do, communicate on the web.


Does this common factor point the way to a strategy which could make sales easier to achieve in an increasingly complex marketplace?

As the sales agenda gets more complex in pharma, so does the definition of what constitutes communication on the web particularly via the so-called ‘social media’ which now encompass Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and a host of blogs and other forums.

Along with that increasing complexity is the growing integration of social media technologies such as text analytics, crowd sourcing and mobile telephony.

Such technological integration presents a rich platform from which to understand the pharma customer, while presenting an equally challenging landscape for pharma.


“The one thing all customer groups have in common, however, is that they can, and do, communicate on the web.”


Analysis of social media &amp, pharma sales

There is no doubt in my mind that the evolution of social media is generating significant opportunities, and therefore we have to address and overcome any issues that might arise.

Indeed, it could be argued that the opportunity to garner customer insights through analysis of customer-to-customer web-based communications, creates the potential to transform pharma sales and marketing.

It is notable, however, that while many pharma executives think themselves savvy on digital communications, many do not yet seem to be engaging effectively with analysis and use of social media.

They appear to be generally reluctant to harness the power of social media and to seize the opportunity to generate web communication-derived insights into the thinking and behaviour of their current and future customers.


“They appear to be generally reluctant to harness the power of social media…”

Why is this?

Looking for reasons

Is the reason for this reluctance that the pharma executive doesn’t believe that the rich ocean of communication that is the web actually exists in terms of volume, depth or ‘fish to catch’? Or do they believe that ‘web trawling’ and ‘text analytic’ technologies, or the companies that employ them, just aren’t up to the task?

No, that cannot always be the case.

The exponentially increasing pharma web communication statistics speak for themselves as do the ‘case study’ outcomes of previously-trawled pharma marketplaces.

Physicians and patients are finding others with whom to converse, collaborate, influence and advise in ever-increasing numbers and in ever-widening subject areas on the web.

And these groups are not the end of the pharma customer sales target list.

Payers and regulators – both public and private – are obvious additions.

‘Patient carers’ and the ‘pharma media,’ which now includes anyone who chooses to blog, tweet, facebook, etc on anything related to pharma, are also now part of the pharma stakeholder base.

All of these groups are discussing questions which are highly relevant to pharmaceutical sales. Importantly, they are doing this on the web, in public and in large numbers. The critical mass of web communication in the pharma marketplace was reached long ago.


“The critical mass of web communication in the pharma marketplace was reached long ago.”

While these pharma marketplace stakeholders may not all be paying customers they are, at the very least, significant direct or indirect influencers of the size and nature of sales.

So if the opportunity for powerful insights is available to pharma executives through the analysis of web-based communication, why is the opportunity being ignored so frequently?

Could it be that pharma executives don’t believe that useful marketplace insights can be generated from analysis of stakeholder communications?

That is hard to believe when there are examples of analysis of such communications that correlate, at a highly statistically significant level, the specific words that are used in a sales process with the probability of a successful sale. Such insight has been described as the ‘Holy Grail’ of sales by one senior pharma commentator.

Maybe we are re-experiencing the “I’ve ticked the brand web site box” syndrome that was so prevalent among pharma brand managers when web sites were first proposed as a marketing tool?

Perhaps it is the turn of social media in the “too hard box” as there isn’t an appropriate ‘box’ for the brand manager to tick on their ‘Marketing – To Do List.’ And maybe pharma senior management are often not leading the paradigm shifting social media charge by insisting that the social media ‘box’ is an essential on every pharma brand manager’s ‘To Do List’.

Choosing to engage with social media – a decision framework

Or, could it be that pharma brand managers are all actually making well-informed risk mitigating decisions? That is, decisions based upon a robust decision-making framework that results in them rejecting what may be seen as ‘bleeding edge’ web-based marketing and sales strategies?

In a May 2011 blog post, Professor Michael Wade suggests that successful business engagement with social media is a question of how “SICK” is the social media strategy that is to be employed?


“…to develop and harness social media-based insights with minimal risk requires the pharma executive to engage with these factors and formulate an appropriate strategy.”

If an executive does not believe that Professor Wade’s SICK criteria are satisfied then social media strategies should be rejected. (,t=%2FProfessor-Michael-Wade-IMD%2FThe-SICK-social-media-strategy )

So what is SICK? According to Wade, SICK is short for:

• Segmentation

• Implementation

• Critical Mass

• Knowledge Integration.

Each of Wade’s four social media success factors has sub-components. For example, Wade divides “Segmentation” into three dimensions: Objectives, Stakeholders and Application, and each of these dimensions has sub-components.

Therefore, to develop and harness social media-based insights with minimal risk requires the pharma executive to engage with these factors and formulate an appropriate strategy.

Is this what pharma executives are actually doing?

Do pharma executives have access to the necessary Thoughtware?

If they do not, who will decide that this is actually the case, and from where, when and how is the required remedial education going to come?

A personal view

Luckily, my career has presented me with the opportunity to practice the practicalities of various schools of selling in both the pharma and non-pharma marketplaces.

Each of these schools advocates:

• selling to the explicit buyer

• understanding the end and intermediate clients needs

• giving due consideration of key influencers.

Therefore, the more understanding the salesperson has of those needs and the ‘real drivers’ motivating buyers and influence, the greater the likelihood of sales success.

Moreover, if the marketing platform from which sales are made resonates with the customer, and the related sales strategy dovetails into that marketing, then the probability of sales success is dramatically increased.

That’s what social media analysis of web communication in the pharma marketplace can achieve!

So, what do you think, pharma executive?

Do you think that social media has no relevance to pharma sales and will eventually drift into management obscurity as many other technically-driven business phenomena have in the past?

Are you still hanging on to the ‘adverse reporting’ myth?

Tell us – Please!

Alternatively, why not just get SICK?


*The author gratefully acknowledges the cartoon contribution to this article of Jock Macneish (Thoughtware Group) and the editorial skills of Oxford PharmaGenesis™.

The next article by Richard Heale can be viewed here.

About the author:

Richard Heale is the President of the Thoughtware Group (See: ). The opinions expressed above are those of the Thoughtware Group. The Thoughtware Group are represented in the European and North American Pharma Marketplaces by Oxford PharmaGenesis™.


Tel: Chris Thomas (+44 1865 390144), Gordon Muir-Jones (+1 215 497 9699).

Why are pharma execs reluctant to harness the power of social media?