Pharma gets social: new possibilities and handling open dialogue

Daniel Ghinn

Creation Healthcare

The Healthcare Engagement Strategy Awards, now in their third year, celebrate innovation in healthcare engagement that really makes a difference. Pharmaceutical companies have always been included in the winners, as have government initiatives, not-for-profit organisations and healthcare providers. And among the channels of engagement featured, social media has been present since the Awards were first launched in 2009. This year was no exception, in fact pharma’s use of social media arguably featured more effectively than ever.

Pharma winners this year included Boehringer Ingelheim with their Facebook page, AstraZeneca’s use of Twitter in their #rxsave chat, and Pfizer Israel’s social mobile app which I have previously reviewed in this column. On the medical devices front, Roche Diagnostics was recognised for its work with bloggers and partnership with the diabetes online community. Outside of commercial healthcare, the UK’s NHS Local digital initiative and Swaziland’s Malaria Elimination Programme also won Awards.

“…AstraZeneca’s award-winning initiative also encouraged public dialogue in an open environment.”

Now, for the sake of openness, I must disclose that the Healthcare Engagement Strategy Awards were founded and are operated by Creation Healthcare, the company I lead. The judges of the Awards comprise members of Creation Healthcare’s international team, and I am in the privileged position of being the chair of the judging panel. This means I’m among the first to hear about nominations for winners, which are submitted by anybody using email or social media, and together with my team I spend a lot of time analysing nominated initiatives, reviewing shortlists, and interviewing potential winners. For the month of January I feel as if I literally live and breathe the Healthcare Engagement Strategy Awards.

We encourage nominations to be kept brief – a simple tweet will do. This means we start with little information, but it also means that it is impossible to win an Award simply through a cleverly crafted entry. When we judge the Awards, we go deep into the strategy behind an initiative, to find out what was really achieved and what challenges were overcome. This is the most interesting part of the process, as shortlisted nominees share their personal experiences. And the knowledge they share leaves a legacy upon which others innovate.

For Pfizer in Israel, the lessons learned were about the possibilities of emerging channels like mobile and social media. Their Award-winning initiative, an innovative mobile application that allows people to find their closest public toilet and to rate it, combines location-based services with social media to connect with consumers in a relevant way at the right place and time, in a regulatory-constrained environment.

“Smartphones, and social media, open up such wide horizons that you can really start all over again. Suddenly you have more tools that you were not aware existed before”, says Tali Rosin, Public Affairs &amp, Policy Manager with Pfizer Israel.

Or consider Boehringer Ingelheim, whose Facebook page includes a wall open to public dialogue. This is a brave move for a company in an industry that for many valid reasons has traditionally preferred public communication to be one-way, broadcast only. But the open wall has provided a place where stakeholders from around the world can express their views openly, ask questions, and complain if they want to, and the company responds. John Pugh, Boehringer Ingelheim’s Head of Online Communications told me that despite all the positive dialogue on the page, the company had to quickly learn how to handle negative comments. “Certain people had an issue with us and tried to disrupt our wall. They took the argument into places we hadn’t even considered. At first we were caught by surprise and didn’t know how to deal with it. We didn’t have our process mapped with every conceivable event. We have now”, he says.

Like Boehringer Ingelheim’s Facebook page, AstraZeneca’s award-winning initiative also encouraged public dialogue in an open environment. But this time, the company had even less control when it hosted a live, open Twitter chat. Jen McGovern, AstraZeneca’s Director of Patient Assistance Programs, who led the chat, told me that it required a team of people behind the scenes during the live conversation: “We did experience a high volume of tweets that flowed pretty continuously during the course of the hour. From an operational standpoint, we found what worked well was to have someone focus on translating the content we wanted to share into the 140-character limit. That freed up one person to read through the tweets and be as responsive to as many as possible without also having to type up the responses”.

“A topic that’s hot one month might not be the next.”

Roche Diagnostics’ experience in their Award-winning initiative to engage diabetes bloggers also reflects the concept that you cannot ‘control’ social media in the same way as traditional communications. Rob Müller, Associate Marketing Manager with Roche Diabetes Care told me that this can be challenging for marketers: “I think as marketers you can feel that you have to control the message. And with social media, your biggest hope is that you can be a part of the conversation. You can’t control the message.”

The answer to this, says Müller, is to start by listening. “First, you’ve got to listen. Things change. A topic that’s hot one month might not be the next. Something that you think is very important, if you’re not listening, might not be resonating at all.”

The Healthcare Engagement Strategy Awards 2012 show that the leaders in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry are no longer lagging behind the rest of the world in their successful adoption of digital, social and mobile channels. With such a wealth of experience shared by the winners, 2012 looks set to be another year of innovation and success for pharmaceutical marketers and communicators using these emerging channels.

About the author:

Daniel Ghinn is CEO of Creation Healthcare, an independent global consultancy helping pharmaceutical companies to make informed decisions about digital engagement in a regulated environment. He can be reached by email at or by Twitter.

What successful adoption of digital, social and mobile channels within pharma have not noted?