Yes, Pharma, You Can Play in the Social Media Sandbox

June 17,2015

Change is inevitable in marketing. We struggle daily to keep up with the constant twists and turns of digital life. Every day, we sift through the content spiraling everywhere to help our clients land on something simple, meaningful and almost instinctual. What we must remember is that, at the end of the day, we’re all consumers.

Successful publishers like The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed rely on one simple rule for social media content: make it shareable. They think like consumers instead of marketers. And consumers—as just plain human beings—like uplifting, funny, moving, unbelievable stories. They’re exciting!

The question I answer most is, “What if you’re marketing something boring?” I think back to a meeting with Locemia Solutions in which our client talked about his son’s challenges in college as a person with diabetes. This man was certain that the severe hypoglycemia rescue treatment his company is developing would ease that struggle for people in the future. I believed him. And as a result, I felt a spark of passion and goodness at being a part of something that could change lives.

Let’s be honest: Marketing drugs to the masses isn’t always riveting. It’s the stories that live behind the drug that touch your heart.

The social media takeover
Our world has been taken over by social media. As Biogen executive Shwen Gwee wrote in a recent presentation, “What was a monologue is now a conversation; what was individual consumption is now group participation.” When it comes to marketing, attracting publicity has given way to pursuing interaction—which lives on social media.

The pharmaceutical industry is fearful of this highly regulated environment, in which participating in social media seems scary and uncomfortable, like walking on a tightrope. The FDA gave some ideas about how to stay on the wire with its social media draft guidance. But that advice doesn’t come close to fully addressing the issues that prevent most pharma brands from getting involved in social media.

What about fair balance? What if patients talk about their adverse events? What if we get off-label comments? Until the FDA provides further details, companies have little hope for a branded social media campaign around a drug.

What we can do about it
So, how can we use social media to make pharma information shareable and exciting? The answer is twofold: A corporate presence and an unbranded disease awareness and education campaign.

The corporate presence allows a company to elevate its story and discussion above the level where product brand issues are a primary concern. It helps to set a foundation for interaction with a variety of audiences—from patients to peers and the media—on subjects that may include safety and sustainability efforts, research work and publications.

An unbranded campaign takes things one step further, letting you integrate into social media in a way that makes sense for you and your audience, and that uses channels in ways consumers expect. For example, you can use an unbranded campaign to inspire patients, friends and family to share stories about living with their condition—without ever mentioning a drug.

Disease awareness doesn’t just mean passing along your knowledge, it means empowering patients, making them feel like part of a community and pointing them toward the path to diagnosis and treatment. Social media, with its focus on transparency and authenticity, was built for this.

Check out these unbranded campaigns to see what I mean:

  • psoriasisSPEAKS uses a fact feed to end misconceptions about psoriasis.
  • Go Red For Women is working to eliminate stereotypes about heart disease.
  • GILENYA Go encourages people to speak out against multiple sclerosis.

The takeaway
Change your thinking. The pharma industry gets wrapped up in lead generation and what it can gain from social media efforts. But, to teach is to learn. We all feel a connection to patient stories. Invite those stories in through social media. Learn from them. Then let that information inform your continued strategy, online and off.


Megan Cornell is a member of the Digital Strategy team, where she specializes in social media strategy and execution for both pharma and commercial brands.

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