Tunnah’s musings: Social media in the pharma boardroom

Attending the Boehringer Ingelheim annual press conference, Paul Tunnah took the opportunity to catch up with its head of sales and marketing, Allan Hillgrove, to understand what is behind the company’s innovative stance on social media.

About six months ago I wrote a piece for Healthworks Collective entitled ‘Does Pharma Get Social Media?’ that explored a video released by Boehringer Ingelheim to celebrate its 50,000 Facebook likes. To cut a long story short, the video generated a bit of debate, with some viewing it as proof that senior management in pharma did get social media and others viewing it less positively.

Here, in April 2014, it is clear that an increasing number of individuals working within the ranks of pharma do understand the value for engagement via social media, but with digital budgets still being fairly limited questions are perpetually raised about how much real support there is from the C-level for such activities.

“A well informed patient is of benefit to everyone”

The central figure in the video mentioned above was Allan Hillgrove, Head of Marketing and Sales at Boehringer and a member of the corporate management board – basically, the top man leading the commercial activities of the company. So while attending the annual company press conference yesterday, it seemed the perfect opportunity to ask him directly.

Speaking with me after the main presentation, Hillgrove explained how Boehringer recognises that social media has fundamentally changed the way people find health information. “Patients, like all of us, are continually in touch with the internet somewhere and to have a source of accurate and good quality information is important”, he stated, adding that “a well informed patient is of benefit to everyone”.

Boehringer has also worked with third party social media channels, such as patientslikeme.com, to better understand patient education and needs, with Hillgrove describing such activities as “crucial for customer understanding”, while also endorsing the fact that engagement has to be on the customers’ terms – and via channels that suit them.

In his area, this also extends to communications with medical professionals, where he sees the ability offered by digital to tailor information to individual prescribers and deliver it in a time-efficient manner as being extremely valuable in supporting traditional sales force activities.

But what about return-on-investment (ROI) and how to measure success for social media engagement?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, direct impact on revenues does not factor into Hillgrove’s list of key outcomes to measure, which include levels of interaction, quality of interaction, responsiveness of Boehringer, understanding how it is meeting customers’ needs, the quality of information they are getting and, of course, the level of trust being built.

“But what about return-on-investment (ROI) and how to measure success for social media?”

Specifically on the latter point, Hillgrove commented that “from a corporate point of view it’s important – we’re all having discussions around trust and building the image of the industry”. He sees effective communication of the value pharma brings to society as integral to rebuilding trust in the industry.

None of these responses surprised me, given my interactions with the company (to be transparent I have worked with Boehringer on a number of social media projects, including Tweetchats), but it was good to hear that the philosophy permeates through at every level.

I was also interested to understand more about how a culture has been built that allows for some of these more innovative activities to take place. What has been the secret formula that has allowed Boehringer to try things like Tweetchats where some other pharma companies have been more reluctant?

“It’s about the people”, says Hillgrove, before explaining how they have pursued a program of bringing in talented people who are enthusiastic about digital / social media and want to get involved. He also realises the importance of giving people space to manoeuvre, although he was keen to point out this must be within regulatory guidelines!

“It’s pretty hard to innovate within too tight a circle”, Hillgrove acknowledged, before adding that he felt it was important to create an environment where people can “be willing to try some things and know they won’t all work”. So he might not have actually used the term #failbetter, but his comments captured its essence.

In concluding, Hillgrove also explained how the innovative approach that underpins Boehringer’s social media activities also extends into other areas. Within the company, an innovation group, which sits outside sales and marketing, has a remit to explore new business models and ways to innovate within healthcare. While the ideas they come up with may be linked to medical products in the short-term, this could go further than the typical ‘beyond the pill’ activities in the longer term.

“He might not have actually used the term #failbetter, but his comments captured its essence.”

Every pharma company is seeking some competitive advantage in today’s difficult markets. Some are expanding into new, niche therapy areas; others are exploring new markets or expanding beyond medicines into diagnostics and devices, or even technology.

For Hillgrove, social media itself can give Boehringer Ingelheim that edge. “We see that as a way we can differentiate ourselves if we do it really well”, he sums up.

So it seems the value of social media is gradually making its way into the pharma boardroom, which can only be good for the industry.

Until next month, I hope to see you on some Tweetchats and stay well.



About the author:

Paul Tunnah is CEO & Founder of pharmaphorum media, which connects thought leaders and ideas across healthcare to support the pharmaceutical industry in delivering innovative medical solutions. It combines industry-leading strategic and tactical media services with the globally recognised news, information and insight portal pharmaphorum.com, working with pharmaceutical companies, service providers and broader healthcare organisations to help communicate their thought leadership and connect them with relevant stakeholders.

For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

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