Living in a world of But’s

Judith von Gordon

Boehringer Ingelheim

Social Media is the brand of today’s generation, it has become an almost essential part of our lives. The pharmaceutical industry has jumped also upon the new opportunities that technology advances offer, But: with care! Our rules and guidelines are tough and we are testing the water on many occasions.

Boehringer Ingelheim belongs to the top 15 pharmaecutical companies. We are privately owned. We have our Headquarter in Germany and yes, we are driven by our Research &amp, Development spirit. In 2008 we, the Communications people, decided it was the right point in time to start with social media.

Step 1: Our Twitter channel

The first new channel we tested was Twitter. Our Corporate Twitter channel has now reached 5700 followers, in addition we have a Twitter channel operated by our US colleagues with 2600 followers and a German channel with 500 followers. Our smaller affiliates in countries such as Greece have now also started to tweet in their country-specific language. All of these different channels communicate amongst each other, so they can all offer precise information to their different followers. We tweet on news, but also share interesting articles, invite to media events and answer questions. We do not only “collect followers” but also actively follow others. A recent major announcement about a diabetes collaboration between Boehringer Ingelheim and Lilly was used in 195 individual tweets from third parties distributing the Tiny URL with detailed information. Twitter has proven to be a very important new channel for Boehringer Ingelheim. The followers are diverse and include journalists, PR people, media channels, industry people, doctors and patients. And again the famous Pharma-‘But’: All information provided has gone through an official review process or is part of a framework that has been prediscussed. Our internal ‘Twitter-Gurus’ can only move within these boundaries. This is needed to ensure accurate and official information is broadcast, which corresponds to legal requirements.


“Twitter has proven to be a very important new channel for Boehringer Ingelheim. The followers are diverse…”


Step 2: Our Facebook page

Sometimes the 140 character limit imposed by Twitter is insufficient space to pass on all the news and advances of our company. In addition to more space we also wanted something more personal. In answer to this and also to commemorate our 125 year anniversary last September, we started our own Facebook page. This page currently has around 5000 ‘likes’, a term equivalent to followers. The page is written in more approachable langue and appeals more to the younger generation than anything else we did before. The page’s wall is filled with news and is open to comments and posts from the public. Also, the info area passes on the group’s general information, with a description of the mission, products and even an overview of the company itself. Besides information, the Facebook page provides the audience access to videos, photos and even a discussion board, so the public can always interact and offer their opinion. It also offers links to other Boehringer Ingelheim Internet pages, being a door to further Social Media interaction. Most comments come from our own employees around the world. But there are also critical remarks from outside the company which we do not want to hide or delete – but rather address the concerns or questions that arise.

In the course of 2011 we will come up with some more interesting content to keep our Facebook audience engaged.



Step 3: Our visual media

In addition to the above mentioned Social Media profiles, Boehringer Ingelheim have invested heavily in visual Media. We have more and more photos on Flickr and we are active on YouTube. The company’s YouTube Channel is a video-based communications platform. You can find information there on different disease areas. The video contents are mostly interviews with specialists offering educational insight to the public, to patients and to academics on clinical trial results. There are also video testimonies from patients with certain illnesses, which can assist other patients with the same condition.


“…the Facebook page provides the audience access to videos, photos and even a discussion board, so the public can always interact and offer their opinion.”


Furthermore the Channel presents videos about the company itself and its work throughout the world, driving awareness and curiosity to the general public. All of the contents pass through a specific approval process to make sure the video posted is indeed accurate and proper for the audience. And here you will see the next But. We found this channel very challenging as every country can access YouTube. We have pharmaceutical products in different stages of registration worldwide. But you hardly can generate meaningful medical content that is appropriate for worldwide access. Also blocking out certain IP addresses from certain markets is not the ideal solution. We figured that out when we saw that even some of our own computers in Germany had IP addresses that showed US origin. So more work is needed here to accommodate our communication needs and technological possibilities.

Step 4: Innovative websites

As we see an increasing interest amongst the public in medical information, we have to make our websites increasingly more interesting. So we recently created some media websites and website-tools directed at informing and educating patients and specialists of a certain condition. The oddcast or avatar used to explain diabetes type 2 is a tool, where the user can simply type a question and the digital hostess will answer it. If you visit you will find a website with videos, dictionary, interactive games and many other resources for the visitor to gather information on the subject. Of special interest may be a cartoon-type video explaining the condition and also a certain treatment class to treat it.

In addition, there is The White Room, , which is an Oncology website containing similar features as the Diabetes health lounge, with videos, glossary and a possibility to download material from the website to your computer. The important thing about these pages is the fact that they are always updated and therefore offer recent discoveries and advances on the respective disease. Here as in the section on YouTube we have another big But. We need to plaster the websites with a whole series of disclaimers which make sure that only non-US journalists or Healthcare professionals access the information. Otherwise we may be in big regulatory trouble.



 Step 5: Social Media monitoring

Boehringer Ingelheim is not only monitoring Traditional Media but also Social Media with a special tool, developed with and by a German agency, Press Relations.

Naturally, distributing so much information daily, Boehringer Ingelheim needs to evaluate how the information was picked and also analyse what can be improved. More than that, we also have to make sure that there is no wrong information being widely distributed via social media which could be very detrimental to patients and also for us as a company.


“The important thing about these pages is the fact that they are always updated and therefore offer recent discoveries and advances on the respective disease.”


The new tool aggregates all information found in Twitter, YouTube, forums and blogs. The basis are 180 predefined search terms. So – nothing new so far. But: the information found is not only aggregated and spitted on our desks, more than that, it is evaluated and coded in tonality. The tonality coding goes into coloured graphs. Each of our products has a column of its own which shows positive mentions as a green bar, neutral in yellow and negative ones in red. Additionally we have graphs showing whether the social media noise has to do with drug safety, information on clinical trials or launches. Another graphic display shows which social media channels carry most news on us and from which background the authors come. Needless to say that proper side-effect monitoring and training is organised.

So, all quite cool. The only But to mention here is that we need to constantly feed in additional forums and are blocked from password protected social networks. But we do understand that there must be a safe area for relatively unmonitored exchange of experiences and thoughts, which we are all willing to respect.


We have made a great head start into social media but we are only at the very beginning in terms of establishing an infrastructure and determining processes when it comes to dealing with increased direct doctor/patient interactions. In order to improve, we will, in future need to descend the ivory tower and listen and learn from the doctors and patients themselves.

About the author:

Judith von Gordon is Head of Media + PR worldwide at the Boehringer Ingelheim Headquarter in Ingelheim,Germany.

Contact: Judith von Gordon, Tel. +49 6132 773582 or

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