Psoriasis 360: how pharma can do social media

Paul Tunnah interviews Alex Butler


It seems like everyone is talking about social media and how a new paradigm has been set for the way in which businesses communicate with their customers. However, within the heavily regulated world of the pharmaceutical industry, companies have so far been slow to adopt a medium which presents distinct challenges around avoiding patient promotion and monitoring adverse events.

Despite these issues and a continued lack of formal guidance from the regulatory authorities some pharma companies are making their first steps into digital engagement with patients. Of course, there have been some prominent failed attempts, but gradually pharma is learning to adapt its business model to this new media, gaining patient trust in the process.

Alex Butler, Digital Strategy and Social Media Manager at Janssen, took the time to talk to pharmaphorum about one of his major projects, Psoriasis 360 – a website and social media platform for psoriasis patients. As a leading pioneer in this space and winner of pharmaguy’s inaugural “Social Media Pioneer” award, we were interested to hear his thoughts on how pharma can get it right in the world of social media.

Interview summary

PT: How would you describe the Psoriasis 360 project?

AB: It’s an integrated social media project in the sense that it’s a hub and spoke strategy, using social media as a means of curating information. At the centre we have the Psoriasis 360 website and then a Facebook page, Twitter account, YouTube channel and mobile applications around it. Basically the idea is to get more people to be able to see the information that would have been found on just a simple website before.

PT: Has any one channel been more successful at reaching people?

AB: Because we’re using the social media channels to feed into the website, the key thing is the number of referrals. Facebook has certainly been very successful, with around 500 people liking the page and 35,000 post views within a short space of time. Twitter has also worked well with over 200 followers, which stands up very well in comparison to psoriasis based twitter accounts that have been around for a much longer period of time. This is all bearing in mind the project only went live in October last year.


“In truth, terms like community, engagement, social media are just clichés really – people just want information and they get it from lots of different sources.”


PT: When did you first start developing the idea?

AB: Whenever you enter a marketplace it’s a duty to provide high quality information to patients, but the idea for Psoriasis 360 as an integrated social media project was probably first developed about two years ago. It then took about 18 months to get to a stage where we could launch.

PT: There are perceived risks for pharma in getting involved in these projects, so how did the process of gaining internal approval go at Janssen?

AB: Pharma is by nature conservative, which is understandable because it’s so highly regulated. What we do is very serious, so we have to make sure that we don’t promote to patients or come between a patient and the prescriber. But if your objectives fit within those parameters and other things, such as pharmacovigilance reporting, then there should be no issues. So it took a while to write the processes and principles, making sure people felt comfortable that we were living up to the ethical standards of our business. The truth is that it is possible to do if you are passionate about making it happen as a business.

PT: What were the key objectives for Psoriasis 360 when you started out?

AB: The principle objectives were to build awareness amongst psoriasis sufferers about three key things, based on insights we have about the therapy area. One was the severity of their condition, as people often don’t realise how severe their psoriasis actually is so they self-manage and can suffer a lot without always getting the support they need. Secondly, to highlight the impact psoriasis can have on people’s lives. For example, people with psoriasis might not realise they can’t go swimming or wear the clothes they like, plus there is evidence to suggest a high correlation with comorbidities such as depression, diabetes or cardiovascular risks. Thirdly, we wanted to give people some information on how to speak to their healthcare professional, how to express the impact it’s having on their life and obtain the right treatment. In essence, helping patients express themselves in a way doctors can understand. At a high level we also wanted to add value and information where we thought it might be missing from existing platforms and conversations. In truth, terms like community, engagement, social media are just clichés really – people just want information and they get it from lots of different sources.

PT: Did everything go to plan when you launched?

AB: Yes, in essence, but we didn’t really know how it would go. We certainly got the level of engagement we had hoped for, with over 30,000 post views and over 250 interactions on the posts already. More people have used Psoriasis 360 than would ever see a regular website, so it’s probably been even more successful than we imagined.


“It’s not easy to implement a fully integrated social media strategy but we’ve learnt a lot from doing it.”


PT: Are there surprises in how people are using it?

AB: No. There’s a lot of talk with social media about things like “contact is king”, phrases that you hear trotted out at any conference, but nothing has changed in the world in the sense that if you want to have interaction then you have to provide something of value. Within pharma there are obviously constraints with regards to the kind of conversations that people have, but it’s amazing how people do follow an etiquette of a page and we’ve removed very few comments. It’s not the place to talk in detail about drugs or talk about individual medications, but it is the place to talk more broadly about psoriasis, which gives it a different community feel to other sites. We need to now provide dynamic content, which means you almost become a publishing house, and encourage the community to write more to maintain interest. That’s something you quickly realise once you start running these projects.

PT: What did you find worked well in terms of raising awareness of the site and getting patients involved?

AB: We didn’t really do much proactive reach out, such as advertising or seeding, although it did get some industry coverage which helped raise awareness. It was more important to understand how people responded to it naturally, understand their issues and respond to them within our processes and the regulatory environment. As we produce more content in the future we will do more to encourage involvement, but a lot of it is just down to making it a useful place to be and I don’t believe in massive advertising campaigns for this kind of thing.

PT: Have you encountered any scepticism toward the site because it is run by a pharma company?

AB: No, not really. We know that pharma sometimes gets a bad reputation, but then people also don’t completely trust information on Wikipedia even though we all use it, or trust organisations like Facebook, even though it has changed the way many of us communicate. We weren’t really concerned with overcoming scepticism, more in sharing something of value in an honest and open way. If we do this then people will welcome it, because you overcome scepticism by consistent behaviour over time, not by single actions. We haven’t received any complaints or had people raise objections about Psoriasis 360, I think because it’s clear the objectives are focussed on trying to help people.

PT: What value do you think the site has delivered for Janssen as a company?

AB: We often produce things, such as disease information, just for the sake of it, albeit in with good intentions to support patients. However, with Psoriasis 360 it’s shown Janssen that we can deliver information direct to people and that we can operate safely and ethically in the social media space. The whole web is now socialised and Facebook, now the most visited page in the US, is all about curation. Pharma can do this where the landscape is right, where the risk-benefit ratio is appropriate and where it has credibility – but only if it’s adding value. It’s not easy to implement a fully integrated social media strategy but we’ve learnt a lot from doing it.


“…social media won’t really be talked of as a separate entity in the future, it’s just media and another part of a marketing and communication strategy.”


PT: What were the biggest challenges for you personally in getting it live?

AB: I’ve only ever been supported within the business and we’re all very aligned about putting the patient at the heart of it. So the biggest challenge was getting the process right, making sure it was robust, ensuring ethical behaviour and making sure we protected people and the business. Once that was agreed, everyone was on the same page.

PT: Is there anything you would do differently next time?

AB: Obviously, things could be done quicker next time as we’ve learnt some key things. Firstly, the major thing is the network, using social platforms effectively to reach people. Then, ensuring you have good content that adds value to the patients. The final thing is accepting that nothing will be successful all of the time and you have to reassess the concept of success and risk – be aware and understand that projects could fail. We’ve been successful so far, but the only way businesses learn is to implement something. I also don’t believe that this will open the floodgates for social projects, but more help us understand where we can add value. A case of doing less but doing it better.

PT: Finally, what changes do you see coming for pharma in the next few years that will impact on these types of projects?

AB: Who knows exactly where the regulations will go and I assume that there will be a period of discomfort for some people. But social media won’t really be talked of as a separate entity in the future, it’s just media and another part of a marketing and communication strategy. If people don’t use it they will become marginalized and lose their voice. The major issues will be around content ownership, content curation and how information is translated into knowledge. If you want to provide real value you have to combine information from lots of sources, websites as well as applications, maybe none of them yours and maybe even some from other pharma companies. So I think that’s going to be the major challenge, and that’s something they I don’t think pharma is ready for at all.

PT: Thanks Alex and best of luck, it’s certainly going to be an interesting two or three years.

About the interviewee:

Alex has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for over ten years, currently working as Digital Strategy and Social Media manager for Janssen in the UK. He has worked in sales, Market Access, Marketing Management and Corporate Communications. As product Manager he developed and implemented the first fully digital integrated marketing campaign within Janssen. Within communications he launched the UK’s first pharmaceutical company twitter account and developed a ground breaking virtual newsroom harnessing social sharing and dynamic content.

Recently he launched the first integrated disease support campaign utilising multiple social platforms for people with psoriasis. This included the first ever disease focussed facebook page to allow comments without any form of pre-moderation. He was named by john Mack as the Pharmaguy Social Media Pioneer in Pharma Marketing News in October 2010. He is a regular contributor in the pharmaceutical press including PharmaFocus, Pharmaceutical Marketing and PharmaTimes.

What’s pharma waiting for with social media?