Tunnah’s musings: five things I hear about pharma social media

Paul Tunnah


Well, I’ve finally been cajoled into writing a monthly piece for my own website. It might seem a little odd that I haven’t done this before, but to be honest we’ve been blessed with an increasing volume of great pieces coming in from external authors. However, it seemed somewhat remiss that I should get away with not contributing a few thoughts of my own (especially as the Editor Rebecca is now doing her own monthly piece), so each month I’ll be sharing my perspective on some topical industry events or issues.

For my first column I’m going to be a bit predictable and talk about social media. Yes, I know we all hear far too much about it every day and that many of you reading this may well have firm opinions that it has no real business purpose in the pharma industry (or elsewhere). That said, I’d urge even the most sceptical to read on, because there are certain things I hear said a lot about social media and I want to use this piece as a chance to present my views on them. You might find these are things that you hear a lot too, or even find yourself saying.

So here are my top five social media comments and questions.

1. What’s the return on investment (ROI) of social media?

This one came up again just recently in the regular #hcsmeu Friday Tweetchat session, prefaced with the old “what do I do if my boss asks me…” plea for advice. To me, this is a really interesting question because it emphasises everything that is wrong with what people perceive as ‘social media’. Let’s just step back to Marketing 101 for a second and consider the basic elements of successful promotion: delivering the right message, to the right customer, through the right channel and at the right time (or with the right frequency).

“Social media isn’t a thing in its own right, it’s a channel (albeit a very powerful many-to-many one) so the ROI depends on what you do with it.”

Whilst there are all sorts of varying definitions for social media (which I won’t go into here), for me social media in the sense of things like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on is a channel. Therefore, to ask what the ROI of a channel is, without any context, is a bit pointless because the answer is “well it depends what you do with it”. A telephone is a channel too, another way to reach your customers by picking it up and calling them, but I doubt anyone’s boss would ask “what’s the ROI of having telephones” with a straight face.

Quick answer: Social media isn’t a thing in its own right, it’s a channel (albeit a very powerful many-to-many one) so the ROI depends on what you do with it.

2. What’s the best social media channel?

There’s a real quick answer to this one and it’s along the same lines of the above question – “it depends on who you are trying to reach and what you want to do”. For sure, you can quantify social media sites in terms of overall visitor numbers, meaning that Facebook has more potential reach than your personal blog, but in reality it’s all about understanding the demographic of the audience you are trying to reach with a particular message and finding where they are likely to be. Fish where the fish are, as the old saying goes.

As an aside, beware of phrases such as “LinkedIn is for business users, Facebook isn’t” and “you can’t communicate detail on Twitter”, because such generalisations lack substance. Social media is constantly changing and those fish can move around pretty quick, plus the line between social and business is becoming increasingly blurred.

Quick answer: The best social media channel for you depends on who you want to reach and why.

3. Pharma is too regulated for two-way instant online conversation

Now this has to be one of the most repeated statements I hear and it always makes me wonder whether the people repeating it have stopped to consider whether it’s true or not. We all know that pharma is heavily regulated and for good reason – both patients and prescribers need to be protected from misinformation in an industry where life and death is at stake. So the argument goes that there is no point using direct two-way communication channels like Facebook to engage in pharma, because you can’t respond without breaching regulations and inviting the wrath of the regulators.

“…don’t wait for the drug regulators to issue guidance before you do something, because they’re waiting to see what you do first.”

However, the statement is too often used as an excuse to shy away from social media by those who find it unfathomable and there are two very simple pushbacks. Firstly, setting the scene and laying down the ground rules is important with interactive sites and many pharma companies do this already by stating that they cannot discuss individual medicines through their channels. Think of it a bit like a live meeting where you announce at the start that the presenter will not be addressing question on particular topics – if someone then chose to ask about this they shouldn’t expect an answer and the same goes for social media sites.

Secondly, this is where good training comes in. Two-way medical conversations have been happening for a long time in places like doctor’s surgeries and with patients on adverse event reporting hotlines. The reason why they can happen there is that the rep or medical adviser engaging with the doctor or patient is trained to know how to deal with the conversation and understands what they can or can’t say. So why can’t the same apply to social media?

And, by the way, don’t wait for the drug regulators to issue guidance before you do something, because they’re waiting to see what you do first.

Quick answer: As in offline communication, clear ground rules and adequate training can ensure regulatory compliance with social media communication.

4. We can’t allow comments, people might criticise us

This one not only applies to companies who are reluctant to open up blogs or Facebook pages themselves, but I’ve also heard it said to me as a reason why some companies don’t want to publish articles on pharmaphorum. The concern is that by providing content in a place where people can comment back that they might get criticised or abused.

My immediate answer is “yes, there is a chance someone might disagree with you”, but that doesn’t make it a good excuse to not take part.

The vast majority of social media sites where users can comment provide clear guidelines on what is acceptable and non-acceptable to say, or allow other users to apply their own moderation guidelines (such as Facebook and LinkedIn). So, if people are being abusive and refuse to play by the rules it’s pretty simple to remove comments or block them.

“The fact is that negative feedback is often much more useful than positive feedback…”

However, the more important question is how you react to someone who is critical, but in a non-abusive way and within the rules. The simple answer is to just listen to them. If someone doesn’t like what you’re saying and you stop them being able to comment on it as comeback then it won’t stop them not liking it. In fact, they’ll find somewhere else to criticise you and you probably won’t even see it. The fact is that negative feedback is often much more useful than positive feedback and should always be considered carefully to see if something needs to be changed. Plus, if you can engage with your critics and address their concerns they could well become your biggest advocates.

Quick answer: People are talking about you whether you listen or not, so isn’t it better to be hear your critics and be able to address their concerns?

5. Social media just wastes time

We all know people who are on Twitter or Facebook all day, talking about what they had for lunch or their own personal interpretation of last night’s television. I have no doubt there are people who spend many hours of the day on social media channels, most of which is not in the slightest bit productive from a business perspective. If this is happening during working hours then yes, social media is a massive waste of time for your business.

In the same way though, getting reps to detail a drug to doctors who don’t see any patients with the relevant disease is also a waste of time, as is having meetings without agendas or purpose, or spending time building a robust bottom-up budget model only to have management come in and ask for 50% more at the last minute. All these things happen in our workplaces all the time.

“The point is that many things, including social media, can be a waste of time if not used productively.”

The point is that many things, including social media, can be a waste of time if not used productively. So if you’re using social media in a business sense, make sure that what you’re doing is productive, its impact is measurable and you set aside dedicated time for doing it rather than get drawn into it all day.

Quick answer: Social media doesn’t waste time, disorganised people do.

So there you go, that’s my top five social media comments and questions. You may agree or disagree with my perspectives on them, either is absolutely fine, so feel free to share your observations and comments below!

See you next month and stay well.

You can view the next part of Tunnah’s musings here.

About the author:

Paul Tunnah is Founder and Managing Director of www.pharmaphorum.com, the dynamic online information and discussion portal for the pharmaceutical industry featuring news, articles, events / company listings and online discussion. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

What do you hear most about pharma social media?