Is Pharma Getting the Best out of Social Media?

With social media receiving increased focus as the pharma industry strives to make the most of new communication technologies, we speak with Cognizant's Bhaskar Sambasivan to find out where pharma is when it comes to social media implementation and what more should be being done.
May 31, 2012

Many pharmaceutical companies use social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, as channels to distribute press releases and other company announcements. Is the industry exploiting the full potential of these public platforms?


Bhaskar Sambasivan
The majority of Internet users actively use social media. Social networks have transformed the way we communicate and, more importantly, they offer a platform that is one of the biggest, most diverse and probably the most powerful medium of communication observed to date.

For the pharmaceutical industry, social media can bridge the gap between companies and drug end users. As a direct consequence, approximately 74% of pharmaceutical companies have adopted social media platforms ( http://www.cognizant.com/InsightsWhitepapers/Adaptive-Social-Media-in-Life-Sciences.pdf ). However, social media is only one key component in a communication strategy, and not a complete replacement. The level of adoption and maturity in implementation of social media is relatively low and inadequate in the pharmaceutical industry because of various factors. In particular, the regulatory environment in which the industry operates is a challenge.

Despite the challenges, many pharmaceutical companies are broadening the way they use social media. For instance, as well as using platforms like Twitter and Facebook for distributing press releases and other company announcements, companies are also using them to promote awareness of health issues and diseases, manage corporate affairs, share corporate social responsibility initiatives and engage with customers while providing them with efficient service in real-time.

Social media can:

  • enhance a company’s reputation by demonstrating chronic disease leadership
  • mitigate the reputation vulnerability of research transparency with a commitment to product safety, transparency and pricing
  • collect data providing insight into customer preferences and behaviours aligned with the data-driven approaches adopted through the business models of pharmaceutical companies to remain agile and customer-centric
  • collect information on patient needs and physician treatment habits
  • cast a wide net for data collection and analysis that can then be focused on specific clinical, attitudinal, geographic or set of financial topics.

Many pharmaceutical companies use social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, as channels to distribute press releases and other company announcements. Is the industry exploiting the full potential of these public platforms?

The pharmaceutical industry is heavily regulated so it is no surprise that strict regulatory and compliance demands are a fundamental inhibitor to the adoption of social media. Currently these demands do not explicitly recognise the potential use of social media platforms and fall into two broad areas:

Direct-to-consumer marketing.. As an example, in the US, pharmaceutical companies are bound to adhere to the guidelines of the FDA’s Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications (DDMAC), which aims to ensure that prescription drug information is truthfully conveyed to the public. While the communication guidelines for print and broadcast media are explicit, the guidelines fail to adequately balance the management of advantages and risks arising from use of new and fast evolving social media channels, in terms of supporting innovation, educating and engaging with patients versus the risk of non-compliance and antipathy. While waiting for clear, revised guidance from regulatory bodies, most pharmaceutical companies have been attempting to adopt use of social media within existing DTC rules. Though social media involves direct interactions, most companies treat social media as a channel equivalent to television or radio.

The German drug maker, Boehringer Ingelheim, provides an example of an innovative way in which companies can adhere to regulations and still reach out to the drug end user. The company’s Twitter feed is filled with articles and retweets about more than just prescription drugs with some high profile celebrity tweeters, such as Lance Armstrong and Stephen Fry. The content ranges from studies, articles, blogs and video interviews on YouTube promoted in twitter. It has more than 10,000 followers. In Europe, in general, however, direct-to-consumer advertising is more heavily regulated.