Is Pharma Getting the Best out of Social Media?

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Pharmaceutical Technology Europe

Pharmaceutical Technology Europe, Pharmaceutical Technology Europe-06-01-2012, Volume 24, Issue 6

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.

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 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.

Bhaskar Sambasivan

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 ( 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.


Regulatory demand for accurate and timely adverse event(s) and off label reporting. Manufacturers, packers and distributors are required to submit all known reports of adverse drug side effects to regulatory bodies. Use of social media presents a risk of non-compliance because it is hard to identify the authenticity of the patient and the situation of the occurrence.

There is a legitimate concern that regulations will always be chasing the latest technology and communication medium and that by the time regulations catch up with existing social media activities, they may already be outdated. Proactive measures that may help the pharmaceutical industry to mitigate risks of regulatory non-compliance are:

  • Develop clear social media and ethics policies about the purpose of engaging in the social media.
  • Be sure you understand current legal restrictions. Stay in communication with legal team and keep an eye on the news for any regulatory changes
  • Encourage regulatory bodies to actively engage in social media with the industry to support and guide them to research and resolve issues through this evolving process.

Are there any other concerns that the pharma industry has with regards to social media?

There are several other concerns.

Undiscovered reports.Listening is tracking what customers are saying about pharmaceutical companies across social media channels rather than engaging customers in conversation. Listening to social media regarding mature products offers many opportunities to collect information on patient needs, physician treatment habits, product positioning and competitive intelligence. These products typically have narrower datasets and analytical objectives, aiming to glean customer feedback on specific products. This approach provides baseline sentiment and analysis for brands that are already on the market. This requires more planning and resources to ensure that adverse events and off-label information are appropriately handled.

Completeness of data by Therapeutic Area. Social media user engagement can vary depending on type and stage of illness. For example, evidence suggests that breast cancer patients are more engaged than diabetes patients, as diabetes may be considered more manageable and less life threatening than cancer or HIV/AIDS. Using social media to collect data about diabetes patients is difficult and could provide insufficient results and inconclusive analysis. This is something that pharmaceutical companies should bear in mind when collecting data through social media channels.

Liability. Another substantial concern of pharmaceutical companies focuses on their liability for inappropriate communication with patients through social media and the importance of not providing biased, incomplete or misleading information.

Bias and negative impact on reputation. Pharmaceutical companies have no control over antipathy in social media by public or various groups with vested interests and their ability to balance the “bad” or misleading information in public domain is another area where Pharmaceuticals have major reservations.

What are the limitations of popular social media platforms when it comes to using them in a commercial or professional context?

One of the biggest limitations of social media is the inability to moderate uncontrolled comments, which can be inappropriate and may not always be factually correct. In 2011, for example, many pharmaceutical companies were forced to shut down their Facebook pages—particularly those devoted to certain drugs—after Facebook stopped offering the companies an option to moderate public comments on the respective pages. All social media brand pages leave companies open and vulnerable to negative comments from disappointed customers and activists, which can be damaging to a brand's reputation.

What do you think is the next step in the evolution of social media platforms and technology in the pharmaceutical industry? How can pharma companies transfer their current experience with social media into more measurable data and results?

Today, social media provides potential components of an overall communication and marketing strategy. Currently the way in which it is being used demonstrates interest, but little overall harmonised use across therapeutic areas and geographies. The pharmaceutical industry is using social media mostly for the following:

  • Educating and engaging with patients
  • Brand reputation/brand awareness
  • Managing perception and informing the public about CSR initiatives

In future, it is Cognizant’s view that social media will be a significant component within global sales and marketing efforts targeted at healthcare professionals, as well as end users, and that consistently supports brand re-enforcement/reputation management and effective two-way product communication.

Pharma companies are also working towards benefiting from social media in the areas of:

  • Attracting and retaining talent; prospective employees may feel more inclined to apply for jobs at pharmaceutical companies that are using social media in a creative and innovative way
  • Crowd sourcing (innovation); Boehringer Ingelheim partnering with Kaggle, the platform that uses gamification to solve complex scientific problems, to create a new model relating to molecular development.
  • Cross industry collaboration, through tools that enable employees to interact in real-time, boosting efficiency and productivity
  • Creating online communities where customers can interact to discuss their experiences of pharmaceutical brands and social customer relationship management (CRM) - Social CRM also allows customers to interact with brands in real-time without the burden of email or customer service calls. In turn, organisations can better understand customer preferences and who influences those preferences online.

Can you give an example of a company that has used social media successfully?

In terms of widely-known social networks, Pfizer has the best kudos for its customer engagement on Facebook and Twitter. Pfizer has the most followers on Twitter and is the third most 'liked' pharma company on Facebook.

Meanwhile, Johnson and Johnson has created an active social presence that utilises a blog focused on stories of employees, wellness information, and corporate content. The blog contains robust content and is supplemented with YouTube and Facebook pages on corporate social responsibility initiatives and its involvement in social causes.

How important is it for companies to harness social media?

Most companies understand that social media is important, but the challenge is in making it work for the business. The majority of companies have established Twitter feeds and branded Facebook pages, but few have a complete grasp on exactly how to use social media to interact with consumers, improve products, services and brand recognition and, ultimately, drive sales and profitability.

The potential of social media is unlimited due to the diverse nature of available platforms, and with their experience in data collection and applied analytics, pharmaceutical companies are well placed to address the challenges of social media. However, pharmaceutical companies need to continue to invest in social media and exploit its use in new areas.

Pharmaceutical companies already have the experience required to manage data collection, applied analytics and generate businesses insights. Furthermore, new, flexible processes such as adaptive design provide frameworks that can be applied to other business areas, as well as enable more cost-efficient and decision-oriented ways of operating.

However, like other new technologies social media tools need to be managed into the workplace to release the process innovation potential and new ways of working within Regulatory constraints. The new ‘millennial’ workforce represents a generation of employees that are accustomed to using social media applications on an everyday basis, and by giving them the right tools to replicate their digital lives in the workplace, it can truly improve an organisation’s overall performance if coordinated. The main point is to identify those business processes that will benefit from a social application or improved social interaction, so they can operate more efficiently and effectively.

Pharmaceutical companies have always depended on technology partners for innovation and consulting capability to ensure coherence of new ways of working:

  • Partners and suppliers are making strategic investments to bring value to the ecosystem in social media and analytics. An example is Sanofi Aventis funding of, a behaviour analytics firm, who developed an innovative approach aligned to crowdsourcing. It works whereby a big pharmaceutical companies is asks patients, physicians, and any other stakeholders what they think matters most and that pharmaceutical company funds external developers to come up with ideas to address the problem as the crowd would like to see it addressed.
  • Cognizant has been working with pharmaceutical customers for the last decade, and has invested heavily in adopting social media technologies as part of key business processes and IT environments.

Bhaskar Sambasivan is vice president and head of life sciences, Europe, Cognizant.