Why pharma struggles with social media

Dr. Andree Bates


Every man and his dog is talking about social media right now. Social media is the biggest revolution to have happened in eMarketing over the past decade and a half. Everyone talked about things being revolutionized but not much happened…until social media rapidly took hold and started exploding onto the scene.

Social media is a great method of pharmaceutical marketing – it’s cheap and provides high ROI on marketing investments if done correctly. It imparts personalised experiences to users and creates higher engagement. It’s highly targeted, with the ability to tap into behavioural, demographic and psychographic profiles.

So what’s going wrong? Why is it not revolutionizing pharma results and exploding our sales?

Well, let’s say you want to create a real explosion, for the sake of an example, not that I do…

What do you do? Well, I guess one would take two explosive chemicals and mix them together, right?

But what if you took Na + Cl and mixed them together. What would you get? You’d get salt.

What’s worse is that no explosion would be created.

And you’d be a ‘failure’.

The more you tried to create an explosion with Na + Cl, the more you’d fail.

And the more you fail, the more you’re going to fail. And this slides us right into why many pharma marketers fail to create serious market sale or sales impact from their social media programs. They try a bit of this and a bit of that and keep adding a little more. Is that what they taught you in your marketing?


It’s critical to think of social media not simply as marketing pieces. Instead, social media are tools that can enable you to better communicate with and understand your customers. This will result in more efficient marketing—which will also lower your costs—and make it easier for your customers to understand and trust you. The trick is understanding how to maximise the individual elements alone, and determine how they can interact with others. How does Twitter work best, and how could its strengths mesh well with email marketing? How does a blog integrate well with Facebook? How can all the disparate pieces fuse into a powerful movement forward?


“The trick is understanding how to maximise the individual elements alone, and determine how they can interact with others.”


To illustrate how this can work, we can examine a shining example from the non-pharma world: the successful U.S. presidential campaign for Barack Obama.

Case Study: The Obama Campaign

When the results came in on November 4, 2008, millions of people in the U.S. justly felt that their vote had gone farther this year than ever before. In a historic election, the firsts were rattled off for weeks by media outlets and excited citizens the world over. But one of the firsts provided an impressive example for businesses.

The Obama campaign was the first to utilise a fusion of traditional marketing means with the leading edge of Internet marketing. Through a combination of regular Internet and new social media tools, the Obama campaign converted voters, but also activated them to advocate. In brand terms, they acquired millions of customers so loyal that they opted to make referrals, and even conduct their own marketing.


To implement this three-pronged approach – acquisition, activation and advocacy – the campaign first moulded messaging around the people, not simply the man. They created a brand that encompassed the individual and the community, focused on “hope” and “change.” Beyond simply electing a charismatic and talented man to be president, the campaign emphasised the individual power to make change.

The campaign also focused on some of the key qualities that customers want today, on-line and off. Messaging emphasised transparency, consistency, and up-to-date information, working to develop trust with those listening. The messages were disseminated across multiple platforms, reaching users where they preferred and where they lived.

The campaign also clearly asked for what they wanted. They provided supporters with opportunities to learn more, and to ultimately advocate for their chosen candidate. Moreover, the campaign asked for involvement, tying volunteering, contributions, door-to-door canvassing, or even simply wearing t-shirts to Obama’s eventual success.


“Messaging emphasised transparency, consistency, and up-to-date information, working to develop trust with those listening.”


This last aspect of the campaign was especially powerful and revolutionary. In encouraging supporters to advocate for Obama, the campaign provided them with tools to develop their own mini campaigns. They allowed supporters to share, post and repurpose all campaign content as they needed. They offered descriptive how-to’s on everything from planning a voter registration drive to knocking on doors to hosting a debate party, but also the freedom to determine the best message and method. Ultimately, the campaign capitalised on the most addictive part of social media tools – the ability to build on existing information and create something entirely new.


Obama’s campaign used a wide variety of tools to create their cohesive eMarketing push:

Website: The main Web site at BarackObama.com was a powerful starting point for the campaign. Every state had a specific website, and versions were available in Spanish and closed captioning. The pages featured copious content to educate and enliven, including speech transcripts, press releases, specific campaign promises, information on special issues, and more. A blog was included to build a connection between users and Barack, Michelle and Joe and Jill Biden.

True interactivity came through the My.BarackObama.com portal, in which all the promotional collateral and campaign information could be used as resources for supporters to start their own campaign. Users could create their personal page to host events, send invitations, keep a personal blog, access data bases for phone banking, and download materials to use on other sites.

Finally, the website included links to the campaign’s other pages on Twitter, Facebook, and more.

Facebook: The campaign set up a main page for both Barack and Michelle, but also set up groups for every state and special interest group. The Facebook groups were significantly larger due to its bigger user base, and more supporters created their own Obama profiles, including “One Million Strong for Obama” and “One Click for Barack Obama.” On each page, shareable photos, videos and notes were available, along with events to which supporters could RSVP.

The Obama campaign also took advantage of the application capability on Facebook, and created their own. The application urged users to show their support by adding the box (featuring links to campaign stories and videos) to their profiles, helped them find their local Obama groups, encouraged them to get involved, and even allowed them to sort and contact friends in battleground states.

MySpace: Obama’s campaign set up 57 MySpace profiles, including one for each state, for students, women, African-Americans, Latinos, veterans, military families and more. Through these specific profiles, the campaign could send messages relevant to each specific population. Each profile contained general and group-specific blog posts, videos, links, and embeddable code to copy. The campaign also created a MySpace Video channel with 15 videos. Outside of the official campaign, supporters were encouraged to create their own promotional profiles, including “DJs for Obama,” “1 Million Strong for Obama,” “Social Workers for Obama,” and more.

LinkedIn: The campaign connected with business professionals through LinkedIn’s groups and Q&amp,A section. Campaign staff and supporters could answer specific questions and respond to discussions initiated by the site’s users.

Twitter: The campaign sent links to new videos and media interviews to followers, updated supporters on campaign news, and reminded supporters about upcoming rallies or news show appearances. Tweets were posted on an increasing basis, until they were several times a day before the election.

YouTube: The campaign established an Obama YouTube channel, adding these event and other videos to total nearly 1,800 videos during the campaign.

Video: Using the easy streaming capabilities of Ustream.tv, supporters could capture speeches, debates and events with a mobile, landline or Wi-fi connection. The campaign encouraged supporters to record and post video, and to share it with all their on-line communities. The campaign made sure to post every event to keep consistency, and heavily publicised each video with posting on YouTube, announcements via blogs and tweets, and more.

Flickr: The campaign posted pictures of Obama and family, events, and supporters to Flickr, and others followed suit, uploading hundreds of thousands of photos of their own.

Mobile Messaging: The Obama Mobile campaign focused on reaching voters through the burgeoning means of mobile messaging, and won a 2008 Golden Dot Award for Best Mobile/Text Messaging Campaign in return. At the core of the campaign was extensive texting that used a dedicated short code (62262, spelling out “Obama”) and over 50,000 unique keywords for supporter interests and demographics (including “JOBS,” “IRAQ,” and state codes). This enabled consistency and the ability to quickly text back to supporters to answer questions and provide tailored information.

Users received 5-20 text messages a month depending on the depth of involvement and stage of campaign. The campaign collected all information for detailed supporter profiles, to develop valuable insight but also ensure correct messaging.

Others: Obama also utilised iTunes to offer speeches, podcasts and endorsements for free download. The campaign used the new file-sharing site Scribd to give full access to campaign documents, and encouraged users to submit them to Digg, reddit, StumbleUpon and Delicious. The campaign also developed their own iPhone application, offering complete national news coverage, campaign photos, videos, and the ability to determine user location and direct them to local events or campaign offices. Finally, the campaign utilized niche networking sites specifically serving distinct demographics, such as BlackPlanet.com, AsianAve.com, MiGente.com, Eons.com (for baby boomers), Disaboom.com (for Americans with disabilities) and Faithbase.com.


After a hard fought election, Obama finally triumphed, and experts are convinced his massive marketing campaign, prominently featuring eMarketing, was a major support. The results from the eMarketing campaign were staggering:

• More than 22 million blog posts featuring campaign and user-created videos.

• Over 3 million supporters on the main Barack Obama Facebook group

• Over 356,000 supporters for special-interest group pages on Facebook

• Over 920,000 supporters for the user-created Facebook group, “One Million Strong for Obama.”

• Over 1 Million friends on main MySpace page

• Over 44,000 friends on special-interest group MySpace pages

• 114,500 subscribers to the YouTube channel

• 18.4 million channel views

• Over 2.9 million subscribers to mobile messaging campaign

And let’s not forget the main results that net the key objective – actually being elected President of the United States!

So why did it work?

Instrumental to the campaign was fusion. Campaign workers used cross-promotion relentlessly to make users of one specific channel aware of all other resources. Facebook pages, for example, contained links to the other campaign Facebook pages, but also the YouTube channel and main MySpace profile page. Television commercials featured the dedicated mobile messaging short code and related keywords. By interweaving multiple social media applications together, they created a major movement for information, fundraising, conversion, and even advocacy.


“Instrumental to the campaign was fusion.”


Since the election and the inauguration, the Obama administration has kept their ties with social media and marketing. The MySpace and Facebook lists are still growing. The website Change.gov launched immediately after the election and offered visitors multiple means to connect and keep in touch with their president. Obama also uses YouTube to deliver his weekly Saturday addresses.

The major take away from the Obama campaign for other marketers is their dedication to communities, their participation within communities that established confidence, and their trust in users to create their own content.

About the author:

For more information on this topic, please contact the author, Dr Andree Bates, at Eularis (www.eularis.com).

How should pharma be using social media?