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.