Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

What use is Social Media to the Pharmaceutical Industry?

by Daniel Siddle

Coming from a pharmaceutical background I’ve been keeping a close eye on the industry’s use of social technologies.  Whilst working on the inside I focused on social business and connecting people behind the firewall.  Now I’m on the outside I’ve switched the focus of my attention to social media and how some of the pharmaceutical companies are trying to get to grips with it.  Watching companies like J&J, Novartis, Boehringer, GSK etc is very interesting as they all have very different takes on social media, approach it in different ways and are making some great headway.  One thing however is common across all companies, they are trying to make improvements to something but it’s not immediately obvious what they are trying to improve or what problem they are trying to solve.  Having said that the majority of the companies are targeting social media as simply another method of marketing.

My personal opinion of using social media as a marketing tool is that it’s a little short-sighted and more than likely doomed to fail.  There is so much more to gain than product sales alone.  However, for this post I am going to focus on how I think social media can help pharma companies interact with their customers but before I do it’s worthwhile considering some of the major driving forces behind how pharma interacts with their customers currently.

Sales and marketing in pharma is traditionally a very expensive affair.
There is a milestone in the life-cycle of a drug which drives a lot of thinking in the pharma industry.  This milestone, the New Drug Application (NDA) approval, represents the point at which a drug sheds a significant amount of it’s financial risk.  It’s the point at which a potential drug becomes an actual salable, marketable, product.  Up until the NDA approval there is a significant risk that all the money invested in the drug could be wasted.  With sales and marketing being such an expensive affair it always occurs after the NDA approval, when a drug has the most potential to recoup the associated costs.

Regulatory agencies exert significant control over the interaction.
Regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMEA) have the best of intentions and attempt to make sure the public are not only well informed but also protected from the dangers of prescription medicines.  In the U.S. the FDA rules regarding direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing of prescription drugs and the associated fair balance considerations are intended to prevent the pharmaceutical companies from misleading the public.  In most cases these rules also have the side effect of preventing the pharmaceutical companies from releasing more granular and potentially more  useful information.  In Europe the situation is different as the authorities ban all DTC advertising, forcing all correspondence to go via medical practitioners.  This system then relies on health professionals being the gatekeepers of the information leaving them to shoulder the burden of both educating the public and dealing with pharmaceutical sales reps.  Along with DTC and fair balance rules the regulatory agencies also set rules regarding the reporting of adverse events (AE).  Whilst the interpretation of these rules vary they essentially mean the pharmaceutical companies are obliged to investigate and report any adverse events they come across.  Again, the intention is well-placed, forcing pharmaceutical companies to make the side effects of drugs more public.  However, these rules also have side effects but mainly closing the communication channels between consumer and company since the companies are fearful of being inundated with AE reports.

Pharma companies are extremely protective of the intellectual property (IP).
Even with the restrictions placed on them by the regulatory agencies the pharmaceutical companies still have huge opportunities to engage with a wider population.  As a drug approaches the market the regulatory agencies take more interest in it and exert more control over the conversation surrounding it.  However, prior to a drug making it to market the control over what can be said is primarily exerted by the company developing the drug.  At this stage the companies share little information for fear of losing their intellectual property and therefore their competitive edge.  In reality most companies know what each other are doing via competitor analysis so the only result is to restrict the flow of information unnecessarily.  This results in research papers being slow to emerge from pharma, communication being polished and lifeless and ultimately a void that should be filled with useful and interesting information.

So what can social media give the pharmaceutical companies and what can the pharmaceutical companies do to take full advantage of it?

Quite simply social media significantly reduces the costs associated with engaging with consumers.  This nullifies 2 of the issues above as it enables pharmaceutical companies to move the communication with their consumers prior to NDA approval since there isn’t the huge financial risk associated with traditional media.  Currently the impact of this is being underestimated for two reasons:

  • The sales and marketing departments are isolated towards the end of the drug development process having very little contact with their research and development colleagues, and
  • Without an actual marketable product the sales and marketing departments are at a loss as to what to sell.

The first thing the pharmaceutical companies need to do is realise that it’s no longer enough to simply sell products to consumers and as such it’s no longer good enough just to have the sales and marketing people talking to their consumers after the drug development cycle is over.  There’s plenty of examples now showing that consumers are starting to expect to be engaged throughout the product development lifecycle and the pharmaceutical industry shouldn’t be any different.  This means engaging with your consumers from idea generation, through lead development and candidate selection, into the clinical phases and finally into sales and marketing.

The good news for pharmaceutical companies is that they already have a wealth of staff who want to do this.  You only need to take a look at the publishing rate of some of the more successful companies to see that their research and development staff are clamoring to get their research into the public domain.  They already understand how important it is to be published and to use it as a way of building their own personal brand.  Not only that but the companies already know that it’s good to have research published to attract new talent into their organisation and improve their brand amongst peers.  To improve the corporate brand, rather than just the personal or scientific brand all it will take is publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals to be supplemented with direct publishing into the public domain, across the internet.

However, there is bad news for the pharmaceutical companies.  None of the above can happen without a huge change in corporate mindset.  When the industry is still fearful of adverse event reporting, which should be a simple automated process, they’ll find it very tough to deal with any of the much bigger issues.  The breakdown of organisational silos to enable sales and marketing to be something the whole company can do.  The decisions around intellectual property and what is more valuable inside the company versus outside the company.  How to deal with the privacy and protection of their employees in the new era.  These ar
e all logarithmically more difficult to solve than AE reporting.

To me it seems like there is a perfect storm brewing in the pharmaceutical industry and the company that manages to navigate through it will find themselves in a much better place, not just financially.  To watch it is going to be very interesting but if you’re lucky enough to be part of it then you’re in for some exciting times.  Me…I’d love to be part of it so if you need a hand, some different ideas or someone to challenge your existing mindset just give me a call.


23 Responses to What use is Social Media to the Pharmaceutical Industry?

  1. By John Mack on June 29, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    I like your premise about using social media to reach out to patients before a product is even launched. Pharma typically does this via PR and with investors and physicians, why not with the general public?

  2. By Jonathan Richman on June 29, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Nice work with this. Some really good new thinking. I like this particularly: “Quite simply social media significantly reduces the costs associated with engaging with consumers. This nullifies 2 of the issues above as it enables pharmaceutical companies to move the communication with their consumers prior to NDA approval since there isn’t the huge financial risk associated with traditional media.”
    A new angle for me to think about. Thanks.

  3. By Lee Provoost on June 29, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Done a project in the past for a pharmaceutical company and what struck me is that the way they work internally during the clinical trial period is quite static and could use some help of social media tools. Even more, enabling and facilitating communities around certain topics without too much own branding on it could also be a good idea. Some pharma companies are doing this already for quite some time.

  4. By John Pugh on June 29, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Great article Daniel. I can’t comment about other pharma companies but at Boehringer we’ve given quite a lot of thought to establishing an adverse event reporting process that our drug regulatory team were not only happy with but could manage effectively. Like you say, its about processes.
    I think things have been speeding up this year. Look at the top 10 pharma companies – 7 of them are on Twitter. All of them (bar Novartis – 2008) joined this year.
    But, it can be tough to move quickly for the same reasons you raise, plus more. I think changes are down to enthusiastic individuals driving the agenda rather true corporate belief. The industry have been happily (and profitably) doing the same things year after year, so convincing some people that change can be good, is a challenge.

  5. By Daniel Siddle on June 29, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to comment guys, I really appreciate it. Individual replies on their way.

  6. By Daniel Siddle on June 29, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Hi John,
    Typically drug development, from idea to market, will take around a decade and cost close to $2billion. That gives pharma a long time to build a community around a specific therapy and you could do it for less than 0.005% of the total cost of drug development.
    It’s a shame that the focus of communication is so far away from the end consumer but I guess that’s an artefact of regulation and traditional process.

  7. By Daniel Siddle on June 29, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Hi Jon,
    Thanks for the compliment.
    I think social media has so much potential when used in the pharmaceutical industry and it’s a shame to see people focus solely on late stage marketing.
    I’m very happy to chat more about it if you’re interested.

  8. By Daniel Siddle on June 29, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Hi Lee,
    There’s definitely a lot of things that can be done with social business (behind the firewall) in the pharma industry. Having worked in the industry for a good while I could reel off a long list of processes that could be improved by social technologies. Things start to get interesting when you start thinking about things like clinical trial recruitment via social media and they get even more interesting when you start to think about crowd-sourcing data interrogation.
    As I said, there’s a perfect storm brewing and the company that hooks up a good social business implementation with a good social media implementation stands to benefit a lot from it, not only in sales but also in process efficiencies and more.

  9. By Daniel Siddle on June 29, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Hi John P,
    Kudos to you guys for tackling the AE problems head on. I’d be interested to hear how you guys are getting on. If I’m being honest I think it’s a pretty poor show of the FDA to ask for AEs to be reported and then not provide a robust online tool to do it. It doesn’t surprise me though.
    It’s good to see some companies getting in on Twitter. I hang my head in shame that my previous employer aren’t on there and didn’t have the foresight to claim their name either. You can see it’s early days for Twitter and pharma companies though, they seem much more at home on the blogging circuit, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
    I’ve also got to agree with you. It’s very tough to implement change in organisations of that size. If you ever need a hand then give us a call. It’s essentially what we help people do. We can put together business cases, implementation plans and more so don’t hesitate to call. Salesman hat off now, if you do go it alone then I wish you well, I know the challenges out there aren’t trivial.

  10. By Cyndee on June 29, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    I clicked through because I was interested in how regulations are affecting social media… While I don’t have Pharma experience, I think that some of the underlying issues that you describe are not exclusive to the Pharma industry. Sales and Marketing departments are often distant from the ‘production’ side of things which hinders results.
    ~ C

  11. By Matthew Hunt on June 30, 2009 at 9:48 am

    You’re absolutely right that this relies on just a few enlightened individuals, John, who are trying to break down silos within their pharma companies and trying new marketing tacks. There are so few of you, though, who understand strategic marketing and broader business dynamics rather than short term tactical sales.
    From a corporate attitude point of view, we all know that people recruit people who are similar to them. So it’ll be good to see these new enlightened pharma marketers recruit people in their own image rather than more short-termist sales folk.
    Because the pure sales model, and the focus of activity, as this article says, at the end of the process is fundamentally bust. But in my view the marketing challenge operates on at least one more dimension than just earlier in the process…
    Take the challenges of greater financial accountability, cost scrutinising, the paucity of blockbusters and the advent of live licensing: everyone in healthcare will have to be more focused on proving that their product actually works.
    And by works, I don’t mean just clinically in trials, but in terms of return on investment in the longer term: fewer people in acute care, and a greater humanist return – more people back to work, earlier, and controlling their chronic diseases.
    So it’s incumbent on pharma to develop genuinely meaningful and measurable adherence / persistence / support programmes. Ones that genuinely enrich the pools of data currently available on which payers make decisions as to whether or not to stock / recommend a drug.
    Because if a pharma company has developed a drug that people are happy to use and fully supported on, then their outcomes are likely to be better.
    So my challenge is: how can we use social media in ‘AFTERSALES’ when we legally can talk to patients? How can Twitter help people share experiences? How can it help them keep a record of any changes? How can it work in AE reporting? How can existing social networks be piggybacked IN ASSOCIATION with more traditional direct comms to give people the support, reminders, context, updates and info they need to persist in their therapy.
    And how can this data, qual as well as quant, be fed back into the system to prove efficacy against a more meaningful set of longer term clinical, financial and humanist criteria?

  12. By Daniel Siddle on June 30, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Hi Cyndee,
    I think you’re right. The issues of having isolated marketing departments are just starting to show themselves and as such not many companies have made the move of integrating sales and marketing into the product development lifecycle, be it in pharma or other industry. I guess the exception is in the software world where we see endless streams of beta software.
    I guess in most industries the expense of advertising is one of the major causes of leaving marketing until the end but, as I mentioned, now there is the chance of building a community prior to the product launch. The smaller companies are already realising they can harness the passion of their research and development colleagues but I think it’ll be a while before the big companies can move in that direction.

  13. By Mat Morrison on June 30, 2009 at 11:31 am

    There’s an interesting take on this issue from my colleague Peter Pitts over on PR Week:
    (Ed – The link above goes to PR Week US, a paid subscription site. If you’re a subscriber then go for it but if not you’ll find the same content on (

  14. By John Pugh on June 30, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Hi Been thinking about this:
    Typically drug development, from idea to market, will take around a decade and cost close to $2billion. That gives pharma a long time to build a community around a specific therapy and you could do it for less than 0.005% of the total cost of drug development.
    In theory this is nice, however in practice there are some big questions that need answering.
    At what point does a pharma company start the communication process for a new product. Phase 1, 2 , 3?At any of these stages the molecule could fail, and often they do. So, is it sensible for a company to begin investing in a community that they may not eventually ‘need’. And what happens if a community is established, the molecule fails and there is no budget for the community?
    Also what is the legal position of establishing a community when there is no licensed product in that therapy area? What is the FDA position – will it be seen as pre-license promotion? Are companies responsible for all the information in that community, even if it submitted by the community?
    Gosh, now it sounds like I’m defending the industry’s social media inertia. I don’t mean to, I only mean to highlight these points and see what other have to say about them.

  15. By Daniel Siddle on June 30, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Hi Matt H,
    Wow, lot’s to think about in your response. I’m not sure where to start. You’ve taken my point and extended it out the other side of marketing by the same distance. If you’re not careful you’ll extend it to the point where pharma companies are doing harm by treating disease and slowing the development of the human race. A topic for another discussion maybe?
    My first reaction is to wonder when the responsibility of the pharma company ends? How far do they need to go to prove a safe and effective medicine and what determines an effective medicine? How does a company keep proving the worth of their product when they have a known limit on how long they can make money off of it due to generic competition? How do you not only capture adverse events but also positive events and how do you present/use that data.
    Lot’s to think over. I’ll be chewing on that one for a while I think.
    Since you’re in London next time you have some time we should grab a coffee and have a chat.

  16. By Daniel Siddle on June 30, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Hi John P,
    It does sound nice doesn’t it! Spend a few grand here, build a community and then sell a load of product at the end of it. In reality we all know it’s not that easy. There are some huge questions that need to be answered and lot’s of hurdles to overcome along the way.
    When should you start to build a community? Phase 1? Phase 2? Who knows. As Matt H mentioned, with the advent of live licensing do we even know if the phased approached to clinical trials will still exist in 10 years?
    Right now we’re talking very high-level stuff, there’s a lot of grunt work to do before we get there. As I said, exciting times!

  17. By Lars Plougmann on July 1, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Interesting arguments raised by John Pugh. It strikes me that if you build a community around a molecule (pharma company thinking) then you are running a big risk but if you are building a community around an illness or symptoms (human nature style thinking) then the effort is not lost if a particular molecule fails to deliver.

  18. By Ana Roji on July 2, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Very interesting conversation.
    The point John Pugh is raising also reminds me of other areas of the drug product development. As far as I know pharma companies are very defensive in their research process, being very careful to keep it in the dark for other competitors. Until what extent would they be open to share that openly? addressing it to patients or maybe more towards the medical community?
    At the moment pharma marketing campaigns do not only focus on promoting the product within patients, who may not be able to get the product without prescription, but mostly to doctors. Maybe these social tools could be initially targeted at that community and from there move it to a wider audience? this “conservative” intermediate step might help… just a thought…

  19. By Lee Provoost on August 24, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    just got this link:
    bit like what we’ve discussed earlier…

  20. By Daniel Siddle on August 24, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Hey Lee,
    Yeah, I saw that the other day. Looks like a nice step forward. A tentative one but a good one.

  21. By Angela Connor on September 4, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    This is a really interesting perspective. Many industries are struggling with exactly how they can use social media but are not willing to change that mindset you mention above. I know it all too well but from a traditional news media perspective. You have some great ideas and it sure would be nice to see more of that interaction and engagement with customers, particularly with products they don’t necessarily understand. I like the way you think! I hope that some of what you mention is being considered. Perhaps you know that it is given your background.
    Angela Connor
    Author, “18 Rules of Community Engagement”

  22. By bandsxbands on February 3, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    Reading these kind of posts reminds me of just how technology truly is ubiquitous in this day and age, and I think it is safe to say that we have passed the point of no return in our relationship with technology.

    I don’t mean this in a bad way, of course! Societal concerns aside… I just hope that as the price of memory drops, the possibility of transferring our brains onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It’s a fantasy that I dream about all the time.

    (Posted on Nintendo DS running R4 DS SerVo)

  23. By Andrea Rubei on March 24, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Hello Daniel,
    I have seen an interesting use of social software on Clinical trials.
    Specialized Patient Recruitment firms and Pharmaceutical companies are starting to develop Clinical Trial Networks to recruit patients and collaborate over results.
    Here some examples (without names):
    Network 1:
    The concept behind this network is for Nurses to be able to collaborate with site staff and the sponsor company about aspects of a specific clinical trial.
    Each network is specifically geared towards one protocol (clinical trial). The collaboration involves questions about trial design; effects of the study drug(s), and training on how to successfully execute and recruit for the trial.
    Network 2:
    This is an online clinical trial recruiting portal site, including subsections for various studies.
    This clinical trial recruiting portal is to be the foundation for all trials, and helps in fielding potential patients, pre-screening, matching and referrals.
    It shows that there is an interest from Pharma and Services companies in this direction.