From discussions with folks in several pharma companies last week, I got the feeling that the business case for social media has become very clear to most companies (also see Impactiviti article outlining this quiet nicely). Therefore engaging with social media has found its way into most of the big pharma companies strategic initiatives this year.
Companies have thus shifted from asking “What social media can do for us“ to “how can we engage with this“. At the moment pharma companies, work on three fronts to make social media engagement possible:
1. defining clear and legally sound guidelines on how to engage reponsibly and effectively with social media
2. educating employees (especially marketeers) about the potential of social media with the goal to create internal “demand“ and to ensure financing for social media projects and initiatives in the future
3. building the organizational capabilities to be able to engage, like aligning IT infrastructures, allocating resources to the projects and redesigning internal processes in order to be quick and responsive enough for the rapid-fire blogosphere.
This “social media“ awakening is exciting to witness and definately an important step in the right direction. I believe, however, that it is crucial not to lose sight of the spirit of social media in this effort to “institutionalize“ it. Social media is more than just a new channel to promote your brand. It is a business-transforming media that depends on interactions in which people (in this case lets focus on patients) exchange their stories and experiences to build shared meaning among their communities, using highly accessible and scalable technology. (see wikipedia). Social media also has a strong value code based on genuine openness, transparency and collaboration.
The social media landscape is thus not empty, unchartered territory. As a matter of fact, if pharma companies think about engagement with this channel today it is precisely, because thousands of patients are profoundly engaged in online communities already.
I thus believe that, if pharma companies build their social media guidelines and infrastructure around “what social media can do for them“, they will not succeed. While it is exciting to finally have clear guidelines on how to engage with online communities, broadcasting traditional messages to blogs and forums, or building “pretty-looking“ social-media sites will disappoint the online communities and thus will not create the impact hoped for.
The starting point of a successful social media strategy is to ask “what pharma can do for social media”. It is essential that companies, before crafting their social media strategies, thouroughly identify and understand the influential communities they need to engage with in each specific disease area. What are the (fill in the blank: Diabetes, cancer, CF, HIV, HepC, transplantation, etc.) communities needs? Which expectations do they have for pharma participation? Are they open to collaborating with pharma and if so in which ways?
The answer to these questions can greatly vary depending on the treatment: its role in patients’ lives, its costs, its impact on quality of life, as well as the past relationship with your company and brand. And the only way to answer them is by reaching out to the online community or the key influencers within it.
A succesful social media strategy, in my eyes, will be created in collaboration with the online community from the start. This is the only way to create high quality, relevant content that is tailored to the needs of the community. The real challenge will be to then create this targeted content constantly, consistantly and timely (well, at least quicker than your competition .