Pharma on social media – the time to engage is now

No logo

The pharma industry is moving on from merely broadcasting on social media platforms and starting to listen and engage, appreciating the benefits of mining these rich seams of data.

What does social media mean to you? There are now an estimated 2.4 billion social media users worldwide, and for many it is part and parcel of everyday life, with Facebook and Instagram being the most convenient ways to keep in touch with friends and family, and follow current affairs and celebrities. Of course, it has its downsides too, such as Twitter trolls and ‘fake news’.

In addition to all of this, social media also represents a legitimate and essential source of big data for commercial businesses looking to understand their customers better. For pharma, mining social media data can lead to unparalleled insights and fuel its move towards greater customer and patient centricity.

To examine how this picture is evolving, pharmaphorum CEO and digital expert Paul Tunnah chaired a recent webinar in conjunction with IQVIA.

Sharing their expert insights were Professor Andrew Stephen, Associate Dean of Research and L’Oréal Professor of Marketing at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and Anurag Abinashi, IQVIA’s NEMEA Social Media Intelligence Lead.

The panel outlined that, much as the platforms themselves have matured, so has the technology available to work with them, automating and solving previous risk-based obstacles such as adverse event reporting.

Abinashi sounded a note of optimism, saying that the industry was showing some progress along the ‘maturity curve’ of social media: moving away from using it to merely ‘broadcast’ and now beginning to use it to listen and engage.

However, there is still some way to go: a poll of the webinar’s viewers revealed a mere 15% of participants used social media for listening, compared to 26% for engagement, and 41% for broadcasting, while 19% revealed that they weren’t active at all on social media.

One reason why many pharmaceutical marketers have been reluctant to use social media is to do with the reporting of adverse events. Pharma is under a legal duty to pass on reports of adverse events, and there remains uncertainty as to whether this responsibility extends to social media. Abinashi said this wasn’t a valid justification for not engaging: “We’re often given that excuse that pharmacovigilance teams will be inundated if we engage, but research supports that the volume of adverse events on social media is extremely low – 1-2%. We also now have tools to automate the process, so this is no longer a risk or resource-based issue.”

Professor Stephen described using social media solely for broadcast as, “just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how companies should be using social media for everything from traditional marketing, to customer relations and intel, right through to informing R&D processes. If it is all you are doing you are missing the opportunity.”

Abinashi said most pharma companies have dabbled in the broadcast element and some are using it to listen, but engagement remains an aspiration for most. “There are two big categories of social listening uses: social listening for insight generation (either retrospective or real-time) and also for influencer identification purposes. On engagement, however, pharma is lagging behind other sectors quite fundamentally.”

Other emerging uses for social media include corporate reputation engagement, and as a recruitment and education tool. On the education front, identifying unmet needs by listening to therapy area conversations could be used to educate and better engage customers from a non-promotional, disease awareness perspective.

Companies with experience in social listening know that it’s easy to focus on rudimentary analysis of brand mentions and topics, ‘followers’ and ‘likes’, and never get to the truly actionable insights.

The panel agreed that listening is not the goal, but social intelligence is, and this informs actions taken by marketing or some other area of the business, such as R&D and product development. This can be used to improve business outcomes, customer relationships, and operational efficiency.

Lessons for pharma – driving innovation

Another opportunity is using trend identification to inform product innovation. Professor Stephen explained that for global, consumer-focused companies like L’Oréal, P&G and Unilever, social media represents an unparalleled opportunity to widen and deepen knowledge of their customers, in all their diversity.

L’Oréal is increasingly diversifying into the healthcare sector, and Professor Stephen highlighted the firm as one which pharma should watch.

Fast moving and highly competitive, the beauty and fashion industry is one of the most difficult for forecasting trends and product demands. The ability to discern between a meaningful trend and a fad can help a company like L’Oréal to capitalise on trends and respond quickly with first-to-market new product offerings. By scouring YouTube to find consumer-generated content on hair colour trends, L’Oréal gained invaluable insights. They identified the kinds of materials and tools consumers were using to create the desired hair colour effects, as well as the myriad problems they encountered in doing so.

Monitoring this user output helps to spot trends and identify the most popular ‘vloggers’ who could act as influencers and help to sell and share new products with their followers.

So where does pharma go now?

Understanding how to engage, and how to extract the right data to get actionable insights – and all the while complying with regulations – isn’t so straightforward in our industry. Life sciences companies need to put this new data source in context with the existing broad range of metrics. Achieving this calls for a step-by-step progression towards social media maturity.

This progression could involve both behavioural and company-level changes within pharma, said Abinashi. “Pharma companies tend to have one person, a brand or business lead, who runs an account or commissions a single piece of research for a brand. This is very different to how other sectors operate, with more of a top-down rather than bottom-up approach. These sectors make social a key part of their business strategy and more and more they embrace social. This helps them to achieve an advanced level of maturity, and then bring in other data to correlate with the social data – this is an area in which pharma is lagging.”

Keeping pace with change

The industry needs to understand how to use each available social media channel, and keep pace with their development. A recent high-profile tweak to Twitter has sparked a change in usage within pharma, Abinashi stated.

Twitter’s trial of a 280-character tweet limit has been universally expanded – a move which has increased its appeal. “Twitter as a platform has been fundamentally unfriendly to pharma. The increase in character count has helped address the complexity of pharma tweets, making Twitter a more useful platform in terms of disease awareness and the publication of research. I’ve observed two companies (Novartis and Eli Lilly) who have already latched on to this expanded word count.”

Abinashi noted that the crucial difference in approach is in how socially mature companies are addressing what their audience wants to hear. “We’ve talked about the difference between listening, broadcasting and engagement. Companies seem to be making the links between those three modes – listening for insights and building that into the publication calendar to develop content that addresses what the audience wants to know. It’s a closed loop and what we’re seeing is more engagement as a result of that informed content.”

To view the webinar in full click here: The next evolution of social media intelligence.