Building A Successful Social Media Presence In Pharma – Andrew Spong Shares His Thoughts With H2onlinehu (Part 2)

In the second part of our interview with healthcare social media expert, Andrew Spong we asked him about the crucial steps toward a successful social media presence and focused on issues that pharmaceutical companies might come across when implementing digital solutions in their marketing plan.

Earlier in the interview you talked about some of the obstacles for pharma companies when it comes to social media conversation, for example the platform being so new. How can a pharma company take the first step, how to dive into healthcare-related social media?

I think they need to do a lot of things all at once which is never easy. The first thing is to get the buy-in of senior colleagues from across functions. So you need legal, you need regulatory, you need medical affairs, you need communications, marketing and more. Senior figures from all of those functions must feature in your initial task force. This is the team that will have to do the really hard work of defining and answering the „How? What? Where? Who? When? Why?” questions. Why do we want to use social media? Is it something that is going to take form in an integrated strategic plan for us or we’re just doing it because we think we should be doing it? All of those sorts of problematic but enlightening questions. The team must be able to provide compelling answers, which demonstrate to their business the critical reasons why it must participate within social media. There are many, and we already identified some of them, but they will need to be optimised in order to meet the needs of each business individually.

The next step (and ideally one which can be conducted concurrently) is to ensure that the existing corporate governance which is in place is fit for purpose, and it probably won’t be. It will need to be expanded in order to provide employees with a passport to the social web, to make them feel confident that they can express themselves on the social web. It must be made clear that they are not speaking on behalf of the company, as the communication function does that, but rather to help them understand the ways in which they can reach out to the communities of interest that they wish to communicate with in an effective and approvable way.

All of these are difficult, time-consuming, problematic issues for the industry. For the final step that we intimated before is to take all of those aspirations and those strategic objectives and incorporate them effectively into the existing strategic plan in order to make sure that social media isn’t treated as which sits outside of an integrated communications plan or marketing plan, but sits within it. This really should begin to show all the results that drive and fulfill the aspirations, that the architects of the company’s social media strategy believe they can deliver for them.

You mentioned that pharma companies need to find regulatory guidance within their companies. Is this a way to deal with or resolve the fact that there is little guidance from outside authorities?

It’s not that they’are going to reach out and find a lot of existing guidance. Firstly you need all of the people in the room at the beginning who may say ‘no’ at the end. There is no point doing all this work if you haven’t convinced people who ultimately have to sign off any plans or strategies that you want to implement. There’s no point in presenting a wonderfully crafted bundle of ideas and implementable actions that you come up with if senior colleagues are ultimately going to reject them. These colleagues’ concerns must be addressed at the beginning, and you need to get them and keep them on your side. You must keep talking about their concerns until they are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and all issues have been put to rest.

In order to achieve this aim, you will need to demonstrate to colleagues that there may not be a ‘Big Book of How to Use Social Media’ from you local EFPIA regulatory body or in the US from the FDA, but that doesn’t mean that existing regulation is not fit for purpose. Existing regulation – it has widely been claimed by pharma companies that are using the social web effectively – is fit for purpose. It is sufficient in as much as that it was designed to speak to all media, so in essence you make sure that you do not do anything on the social web that you would not do in any other environment and broadly speaking that means that you do not promote – it is as simple and as difficult, as that.

In your experience, what are the main concerns that pharma companies usually have when it comes to the social web?

They revolve around issues like regulatory, we just touched on one of them. But I feel like we just gave some insights on how that conversation can be managed. I’m not saying it is going to go away, because the industry always has to be aware of, and answerable to, the requirements of regulatory bodies. But it is certainly one of the issues that always comes up. Another example is adverse event reporting. „As soon as we get onto the social web we’re going to find a slew of extra adverse events that we’re going to have to report.” Well there’s a series of responses to that. Firstly, these conversations are taking place, if you believe that they are happening, those conversations are taking place anyway and it is beholden upon you if you wish to identify and respond to them. So it is a question of time management, rather than a question of maintaining your ethical responsibilities as a company. Well that’s not acceptable. Also, following Pfizer’s example of putting an AER link on their Facebook page, in terms of effective use of resources it makes a great deal of sense to provide a means of allowing reporters to convey their observations through the most successful and popular environment on the Internet which are delivered to a team of in-house experts waiting for their submissions.

A great deal of research has now been undertaken on the vast number of pieces of patient-reported information and data that are shared daily. There is a compelling body of evidence coming together that suggests that adverse events reports which meet the four standard criteria – a reporter, a reportee, a drug name, an identifiable adverse event – very seldom happen. This doesn’t mean that a company does not need an effective and functional response strategy to call upon when adverse events are identified. However, what is does mean is that the „fear” that companies are going to find tens of thousands of additional adverse events to report that they have not encountered previously is just not true. The data is suggesting this anyway. And even if they were, the industry has a duty of care to attend to them. It is in no-one’s interest to suggest that the industry would shy away from participating in the Social Web on the basis of a perceived concern that they may encounter issues that they are obligated to address. The fact is, however, that they simply won’t find them in the quantities that were feared some years ago.

The third issue is a big one, namely that „We’ve got no time to do this”, and „We haven’t got the money.” Another query that is often heard is „ what’s the return of the investment on the money we spend on the social web? Show me the cost benefit of using the social web.” Firstly, that’s the wrong question anyway because it’s not something you’re doing to drive revenues directly. It’s something that you’re doing to take care of any number of issues which are critical to your business that revolve around trust. But also going forward if we believe as many of the companies and startups have invested significant amount of time and capital in proving that patient reported information is going to change the clinical trial and drug development process and all of those issues feed back into the pressing question of why is it important for pharma to get into social media right here right now. But to loop back to the ROI question, there are two ways of looking at this. Firstly, you have to ask: „What metrics do you want me to measure? Because I can measure anything. The question is why do you want me to measure them and what are you going to do with the data that I provide you with? Are you going to implement it, and is it going to change your strategic plans in some way?” And usually the answer to that is no, which means the question isn’t worth asking in the first place. But the second response to that is „Why are we asking or probing so deeply into how much it costs to set up and maintain a Twitter account?” which frankly is not a lot. It costs nothing to set it up, and yes there are implications in terms of employee time in maintaining presences effectively but for a contemporary, progressive pharma company this is now quite simply an important part of the day-to-day work it must undertake as part of its broader strategic objectives, and should never therefore just be viewed in isolation. But more to the point that cost – as minimal as it is – is never measured against the 50 thousand, 100 thousand plus dollars, pounds, whatever currency, spent in setting up a website, for example, the benefits of which are seldom scrutinised in so exacting manner. Existing strategies that may deliver very poor ROI – like direct mail that no-one reads which just acts as a coaster for a coffee mug before being thrown in the bin  – are not similarly interrogated. Thus, a useful response strategy for pharma marketers would be „Well you show me the ROI of those iPads you bought, the BlackBerries your team uses, the memory sticks you sent out with some detailing to some GPs and tell me how many people actually got them, read them and got back to you. I’ll tell you how much it costs to make my campaign using social media.” And you can guarantee that on a cost basis, the results will be better for the virtual campaign.

(Connect with Andrew Spong on Twitter or on

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