Social media and corporate influence: the case for a thoughtware shift?

Richard Heale

The Thoughtware Group

(Continued from “The death of the pharma salesman”)

What currently appears to be on the senior corporate executive mind is the question:

“How can we, as a corporation, influence the social media debate about our brands and the marketplace for our products within the existing rules, guidelines and business ethics we aspire to?”

Answers to the previous front of mind questions of:

“What value can social media add to our corporation?” and “Can useful information be discerned from social media communication?” would seem to have been answered constructively and positively.

Executive thinking would seem to have moved on – or has it?

Have executives missed the key to social media and the Thoughtware shift it requires to develop marketing opportunities and returns?

Can a review of the anthropology of marketplace communication prove useful? Will an understanding of the realistic possibilities for corporate influence of social media and the exciting, but challenging, alternatives provide corporate executives with the answer they seek?

“Would you choose to communicate with a known influencer who was only interested in their own profitable ends?”

Back to Basics

Social media has in part re-created an age old phenomenon:

The Marketplace Conversation.

Whether it was in a tribe, village or town the marketplace provided buyers and sellers an opportunity to converse with each other. Buyers would talk with each other and express their opinions about a whole variety of market factors and social phenomena: “Have you heard about Mrs Brown: WELL ……”

Could sellers influence that communication between buyers?

Only by open participation in all of the various types of communication could influence be brought to bear.

Those sellers who were sociable and communicated openly and honestly tended, over time, to be respected and consequentially could thrive. The ability to influence was built on reputation. Those who did not were swiftly labelled by buyers as anti-social or at worse underhand, bullying or purveyors of misinformation.

Retribution was brutal as buyers spread the reputation word.

Popular sellers didn’t always make money but they never lost trade because of their reputation as a communicator.

It’s fundamental: When you are having a conversation do you like to be influenced or manipulated? Would you choose to communicate with a known influencer who was only interested in their own profitable ends?

As our communities outgrew towns to become cities and our cities became the global marketplace, effective buyer to buyer communication tended to be lost or to become inconsequential.

Consumer communication shifted out of the market square, to over the garden wall, into the laundrette on to the telephone and finally to email. However, these communication channels were not adequate replacements for the market square. Nor were they a strong enough countervailing force for the increasing social isolation of the growing urban conurbations.

“Pharmaceutical companies are looking for better solutions, leading to the use of other channels or efficiency-promoting tactics.”

Whilst the corporate water-cooler did, to some extent, provide a focus for communication, it didn’t really provide a suitable consumer forum replacement.

Meanwhile, seller communication became the corporate science of marketing and communication. The dynamics and consequential power in the marketplace fundamentally shifted in favour of sellers.

Advertising became the medium of influence.

Social media challenges those modern day marketplace communication dynamics. It potentially changes the status quo of market power. Buyers have returned to preferring peer-peer recommendation to advertising messages and jingles. People trust people.

Social media re-creates tribal communication dynamics albeit on a global scale.

The potential for influence

Social media platforms facilitate buyer communication. They integrate social dialogue with marketplace perspectives. Social media challenges the marketing and communication status quo. The power of the buyer is dramatically increased. Transgressions by sellers are swiftly communicated and retribution can be as devastating as it was for the sellers of “Mother’s Own Snake Oil – The One &amp, Only Cure All” in olden times.

“So what do we do if we can’t influence?” you may hear the corporate executives ask.

“Can’t we masquerade as consumers and join the social media debate and engineer it to our purpose? “

“If guidelines, rules or ethics prohibit such behaviour can’t we get a third party agent like our public relations company to act on our behalf in such forums?”

“Can’t we donate influential sums of money to reputable organisations that can communicate our point and thereby influence consumers?”

Corporations have proposed and some have practised all of the above!

“Executives need to appreciate that applying the same old marketing and communications thoughtware is not the only answer.”

But the answer to these questions in every case should be an emphatic – NO!

Executives need to appreciate that applying the same old marketing and communications thoughtware is not the only answer.

The possibilities of new thoughtware

The opportunities corporations are afforded by the advent of social media are exciting but challenging. They include:

• Listening to and understanding what buyers are openly saying on the social media platforms

• Entering into those communication environments and openly expressing opinions

• Creating ‘closed’ and ‘semi-closed’ forums that are valued by buyers where the corporations constituents are facilitated and encouraged to communicate

• Developing new forms of business partnerships with buyers that deliver opportunities for both buyers and sellers

• Redefining loyalty programs

But at the core of all of these possibilities needs to be a fundamental Thoughtware shift in the minds of corporate executives:

Social Media gives End Buyers a Voice

That Voice Needs Listening To



*The author gratefully acknowledges the cartoon contribution to this article of Jock Macneish (Thoughtware Group) and the editorial skills of Oxford PharmaGenesis™ Ltd.

The next article in this series will be published on the 24th August

About the author:

Richard Heale is President of The Thoughtware Group (

The opinions expressed above are those of the author.

The Thoughtware Group are represented in the European and North American Pharma Marketplaces by Oxford PharmaGenesis™.

(See: – Tel Chris Thomas (+44 1865 390144), Gordon Muir-Jones (+1 215 497 9699))

How can corporations influence social media debate within current regulatory boundaries?