Slow, safe steps into the sticky new world

Slow, safe steps into the sticky new world

Emma D’Arcy

In July 2009 I published the results of a series of interviews with pharmaceutical companies about their understanding and use of social media (SM) with the conclusion that the industry was slow to embrace the opportunity for ‘engagement intelligence’ (EI) with their customers and stakeholders. I repeated these interviews with 30 companies at the beginning of 2010 to see how fast the field is developing. There are three main conclusions from this research.

1. A lot of buzz outside, but little action inside

With the cacophony of facts and figures about pharma and SM that seems to Tweet, Linkedin and forum at us every day you might well think that pharma is completely comfortable and immersed in the digital conversation now. Take, for example, the very fact that this update is published here (and only here) in this community with the opportunity for feedback and connection rather than in print as per the original research. You would be right – and wrong.

There is a groundswell of interest in the value of SM, most companies are ‘engaged’ in some way with some sort of platform, and there are clear ‘EI/Digital Champions’ like Len Starnes, Alex Butler and John Pugh at Bayer, Janssen-Cilag and Boehringer Ingelheim respectively who are commendably trying to convey that digital is doable.

But industry as a whole is still playing it safe. Who can blame them? For example, the recent coordination by the UK’s PM Society to consolidate and give the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) (the ABPI’s arm’s length body who guards the industry Code of Practice in the UK) case studies and examples of how pharma want to use SM was met with a desultory response and reluctance to generate guidance on SM for members, despite updating the Code next year, the PMCPA have said that new ‘digital-specific’ clauses will not be introduced.


“…there are clear ‘EI/Digital Champions’ like Len Starnes, Alex Butler and John Pugh at Bayer, Janssen-Cilag and Boehringer Ingelheim respectively…”

Social engagement strategy and basic understanding is low through industry employees with a small number of internal experts trying to cajole their colleagues into the dark digital place for every day, all day, many way, multi-channel integration. There are still too many risks perceived to be associated with SM activities for it to be approached confidently or for it to be a feasible spend given the legal complexities and convolutions that agonizingly protract and frequently prohibit the execution of EI creativity.

On an everyday level, many apparent SM activities are simply a slight turn-up of relatively perfunctory (and safe) didactic web projects. Advertisements, provision of information, participation in polls, or forum postings are still guarded, approved and controlled. Pharma realizes that the information push is over, but, understandably, struggles to ‘let the content go’ as is one of the principal dictates of SM engagement. The popularity of ‘Apps’ exemplifies this – ideas and activities are still controllable within an app, there is little or no online, real-time interactivity between pharma and stakeholders.

Several ‘big pharma’ companies have a ‘defensive vulnerability’ approach to SM where employees have had training courses about the perils of revealing too much information on mainstream SM sites. In some cases this even includes limiting employees’ access to sites and regularly monitoring equipment to ascertain the user’s use, access and participation in SM. This is in stark contrast to companies who have approached the SM shift as a ‘change-management’ exercise with confidence inspired by an internal ambassador for the engagement environment.

2. The struggle to categorize social media slows internal acceptance

We live and work in an era where pushing or promoting your message/product/company is outdated thanks to the democratizing, user-generated power of the internet and SM tools coupled with the new discipline of ‘consumer conversation’ that now sets the benchmark for information digestion.

There has been an unprecedented rise in the demand for product and company transparency in all business sectors, it is now the ‘customer’ (physician, patient, the public) who is in charge and determinedly wants product, pipeline and people/company insights. For the pharmaceutical industry (already the most stringently-regulated sector with multiple layers of ethical and legal guidelines — where governments, trade associations, professional societies and individual company codes of practice apply to protect scientific integrity), this ‘entitled-generation’ is adept at discerning between overt brand promotion and services that ultimately help them to live longer, healthier (and happier) lives.


“We live and work in an era where pushing or promoting your message/product/company is outdated…”

If anything, the pharmaceutical industry is struggling to adapt to this new real-time, ‘trusted engagement’ environment because their activities are already so highly moderated that being a part of ‘the conversational age’ feels alien to employees at the grassroots level. Hence, with the exception of a handful of pioneers (who have been cited as having “deeper pockets to cope and adapt if a SM campaign goes wrong”) many companies are passing a SM assignment from department to department with reluctance to take responsibility for execution of the discipline.

The struggle to compartmentalize SM is reflected in the multitude of job titles that are emerging for internal SM practitioners such as ‘Digital Initiatives Manager’, ‘Online Community Manager’, ‘Multichannel Communication Manager’, ‘Interactive and Relationship Marketing Director’ and ‘Head of Dialogue Marketing’. Interestingly, no company actively asserts a clear ‘Social Media Director’ title (or other derivations), which is perhaps a reflection that a business or serious healthcare intent is preferred rather than a title that could be interpreted as a facile or wasteful resource in the face of the serious nature of medicine, particularly amidst a global economic downturn where the cost of delivery of medicines is always of combustible concern.

3. The industry is approaching a conceptual critical mass

Although the research seems to present a gloomy set of conclusions about uptake of and enthusiasm about the value of SM, this is the ‘public face’ of pharma in this field. Behind the scenes, it is reassuring to learn that conceptually, pharma is several steps forward. During the past 12 months there has been a distinct shift in mindset amongst the industry at least towards the necessity (impending and current) to engage with customers using SM platforms as part of a multi-channeled digital approach. ‘When, how and who’ not ‘why’ a digital campaign is needed and executed are the key questions. But this needs to permeate through to all the different disciplines within a pharmaceutical company. Ironically, the collaborative power of SM needs to bring a company together first before attempting cohesion to the more experienced (and expecting) communities outside pharma’s walls.

This is evidenced by internal activities that were common across the 30 companies interviewed such as:

1. Creation of SM/digital roles

2. Assignment of SM Task Forces

3. Establishment of personal SM use policies

4. Increased allocation of a digital budget

5. Procurement participation to price and benchmark ‘normal’ SM functions

6. Increased requests for ideas and support from service agencies

7. Willingness to share case studies and obstacles

8. Lobbying of self-governing organizations to prepare guidelines

9. Actual SM participation

10. Generation of metrics to determine and measure ROI on SM activities.

Even though the sector is still comparatively (and surprisingly) ignorant about specific platforms, audience reach, technical feasibility and legal parameters, an inevitability accompanies all discussion around SM with acceptance that SM outreach is already important and will assume a core place for company and brand strategic communications within 12–-18 months according to company size and resource.


“Behind the scenes, it is reassuring to learn that conceptually, pharma is several steps forward.”

Standard Operating Procedures , internal infrastructures and internal expertise to construct and deliver meaningful SM campaigns are glaringly absent in most companies – but almost all companies expressed that the sector is approaching ‘critical mass’ whereupon visibility of a few successful SM campaigns will be the final driver to persuade all companies to integrate SM unequivocally.

In 2009 I asked the question, “are you sticky with or stuck about social media?” which generated a perplexed farrago and incomprehension about the opportunities offered through the new forms of digital dialogue. Midway through 2010 the perplexity prevails – because pharma now ‘gets’ how important engagement intelligence is but is getting tied up in how to execute the engagement itself.

About the author:

Emma D’Arcy is a communication strategist for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry with a heritage in medical communications. During the last 5 years, Emma has been campaigning about the value of social media channels to create a new era of positive and visible networking between healthcare professionals. Emma founded the first social networking site for positive industry-physician interactions, co-chaired the inaugural EU conference on KOL relationships and organises Expert Sessions that address the challenges of appropriate conduct between the medical community and the pharmaceutical industry. Emma authored a landmark White Paper, “Sticky or Stuck” in 2009 that consolidated industry thinking, concerns and desires around the use of social media. Accordingly, Emma has been invited to contribute to the ABPI’s ‘Trust’ initiative about the perils and pleasures that engagement via social media permits. Since April 2010 Emma has lead a group of pro-soc channels, including medpharmaconnect, which have a membership reach of &gt,1.6million healthcare professionals. Emma will use this platform to continue to encourage ‘Good Relationship Practice’ between pharmaceutical and medical professionals and to provide a repository where case studies of social media excellence can be highlighted.

Is your company organising its SM infrastructure in readiness for the turning-point in engagement intelligence?