Pharma social media? Or pharma engagement in social media?

Written by Silja on 2 July 2010 in other musings - 13 Comments

“Weltmeisterschaftssiegerbesiegter”- That’s one LONG word! It is German and means “We lost the worldcup, but it is ok, because we were eliminated by the current worldcup champion” (Hat tip to all my Spanish friends!). All of sudden, the word does not seem so long anymore, hun? This German lesson is to illustrate how important words and their meanings can be.

If you followed the healthcare blogosphere lately, you should not have missed Jon’s brilliant white papers 10 Things I’m Tired of Hearing About Pharma Social Media followed by 10 Things I’d Like to Start Hearing About Pharma Social Media. Jim Lefevere added to this, sharing his great Real Lessons from the Frontline: 10 things I’ve Learned About Pharma Social Media. I truly enjoyed reading these posts and encourage all of you to do the same. They are full of useful insights and advice on how a pharma company can get started with social media. I also agree with their message: Yes, we are going around in circles on many issues. Yes, many social media presentations lack concrete opportunities to advance the conversation with a broader set of stakeholders (…and yes, I could not resist a shameless #hcsmeu camp plug here ;-) ).

Yet, the term “pharma social media” kept gnawing on me. What does this mean: Pharma social media?

Pharma is one of the industries with the most complex mix of stakeholders. It therefore always had to carefully chose how to communicate with each of them. Each pharma marketing and comms department has dedicated resources for each of stakeholder, because it is crucial to generate targeted content and messages for each carefully and  responsibly.

Yet, all of a sudden, when we talk about “pharma social media”, we lose this focus. In an instant, one youtube channel or twitter account features amazing patient testimonies targeted at patient education alongside hard-core quarterly results presentations aimed at seducing financial analysts. This phenomena is easy to comprehend: Many pharmacos started their engagement in social media through one corporate communications account. I believe this was a great start, but it has to be refined, evolved and integrated to the existing communications plan now. It is time to differentiate pharma’s social media messages and channels by stakeholder, because this is the only way to create engagement via social media.

Social media is a conversation that is ALREADY happening. Pharma companies can rarely generate it, they can only identify and add to. In short, any successful social media initiative by pharma is one that manages to create engagement with the stakeholders targeted. Social media for pharmacos therefore should be entirely about getting the right amount of information to the right patient, physician, regulator, payer, journalist or financial analyst etc. at the right time.  Sort of a personalized medicine approach to social media. Lisa Emrich from Brass and Ivory , for example, describes the MS social media community like this:

bloodcellsWe … are like blood cells which flow through a body. If we all congregated around one hand within the body …, the rest of the body would die. And if we isolate ourselves and never venture back to the lungs where we find personal nourishment and rest, we would individually die off. Although my travels online may never take me to the left foot, I am comforted to know that others feed that community and that it thrives.

I could not have found a more fitting and magnificent metaphor! It makes the implications for any pharmaco seeking to engage with stakeholders via social media so perfectly apparent: Depending on the community pharma tries to engage with, its activities might be welcomed or rejeted by the community’s “pharma anti-bodies”. Pharma thus has to be very clear which parts of the body it wants to engage with how and on which topics.

One-size-fits-all channels cannot achieve this nor are they flexible enough to interact with the diverse stakeholders in the body. Also on a much more practical level, if you have one twitter, facebook, youtube etc. account for your company, it usually means you have ONE (or even less than one) full-time equivalent responsible for the entire communication to all stakeholders! That is a hell of a job… and impossible to maintain! If pharma truly wants to have engaging, real-time conversations online with its stakeholders, it has to at once integrate and expand its social media approach throughout the entire organization.

Social media can revolutionize the way we deliver health care. I believe the right dose of pharma engagement plays an important part in this revolution. Yet, I believe that if we continue to call it ” pharma social media” we are sending the wrong message. The term “pharma social media” for me implies it is owned by pharma, aimed at everyone, maintained by one or two employees and by definition mostly one-way. I thus propose we move away from this word and use “pharma engagement in social media” instead.

What do you think? Am I being nit-picky here? Does it matter what we call it? Are there valid reasons to keep on calling it “pharma social media”? Or should we call it something completely different altogether?

13 Comments on "Pharma social media? Or pharma engagement in social media?"

  1. Andrew Spong 19 July 2010 at 16 h 44 min ·

    Hi Silja

    Thanks for this thoughtful post on a subject that is seemingly occupying all of us at #hcsmeu at the moment :)

    I think all of our categorizations are breaking, ‘pharma social media’ being a key example, because a) they don’t mean anything, b) we’re happy to use them nevertheless, and c) the more we cite them, the more we appear to validate them, reify them, and confer the illusion of sense upon them.

    Ultimately, there is communication, and that’s all.

    It’s just that communication has become a) ubiquitous, b) simple, and c) global.

    If we weren’t great at communicating through broadcast media, then the increased volume and frequency of interactive web-driven media is going to shine a harsh light upon our shortcomings.

    So: where next?

  2. Miguel 19 July 2010 at 16 h 57 min ·

    Nice reflections, Silja. I fully agree with your central message: One-size-fits-all channels is not a good approach to interact with the diverse stakeholders in pharma. However I think only a few pharma companies have integrated the web 2.0 concept. Some of them are just starting to figure out what it is. And many other still live in the 1.0 world. Even big pharma companies like Abbott or Merck & Co (as far as I know they don’t even have a single twitter account). So I wonder if it is too early to ask pharma companies for a ‘personalised medicine’ approach. In any case I support your cause.

  3. Neil Crump 19 July 2010 at 17 h 18 min ·

    Super post – and just a small point…

    The ONLY reason to refer to the topic as ‘pharma social media’ is that it helps focus the mind of blockers or doubters of social media. As you say pharma is in a unique position in relation to its stakeholders and there are many people, for many different reasons who can and do block – often for resourcing reasons. By having a topic called ‘pharma social media’ on the table it means that it is something for the doubter or blocker to ignore. Otherwise it is easy for people to say for example “well that is something that Coca Cola can do but it is inappropriate for us…”, or “my daughter uses Facebook, but doctors just don’t.” This is the type of discussion that I have heard – it is nonsense but it is what is said by the doubter and blocker.

    The key thing is not to get bogged down in semantics – let’s just work to share best practice and support our friends who work in pharma to make sound decisions to integrate social media, where it will work, in the right way to their overall communications. We need to facilitate the chat, the right chat, a productive chat.

  4. Phil Baumann 19 July 2010 at 17 h 18 min ·


    I wanted to say “Gesundheit” when I saw your opening. :)

    The more I discussions I have and the more exposure I get to specific implementation projects, the more apparent it’s becoming to me that (externally-facing) Social Media really shouldn’t be the focus of how Life Sciences should look upon these technologies.

    Social Media is revealing things: about us, about how we get things done; about how businesses work or don’t work.

    In regards to Pharma, what social media are revealing things like these:

    - Process designs need radically re-viewing and re-building
    - Traditional communications are losing their value
    - People are more willing to share their stories than decades ago
    - Regulatory promulgations need a whole new re-think
    - The culture of the Cog must be replaced by the culture of the Polymath

    I could go on here. My point is this: In spite of the realities of today’s communication where anyone in the world can say whatever they want and get attention, it’s more important than ever for organizations to develop the *internal* musculature needed to be remarkable externally.

    At this point, anything that many companies do in Public Social Media will be limited to the talent behind the Tweet button.

    Yes, there could be external efforts via Twitter and Facebook and blogs and forums – but for most companies it would have to be a small and focused team – and even then, the effort would basically be a spackle job.

    So I say: forget about words. We’re just talking about software that enables connection and networking and communication.

    Pharma doesn’t have to do what Old Spice or Nike or Zappos do.

    The greater value in social media for Pharma is to be found in the internal propositions and the opportunity to understand better the need for redesigning business process.

    Having better ways for life scientists, biologists, nurses, doctors, engineers to network and research and collaborate will go a long way to creating the pipelines of products needed to sustain the industry.

    In the meantime, hopefully we’ll see the emergence of a few players with the leadership and vision and aptitude to safely and effectively talk with the public and share their stories.


  5. Rob Halkes 20 July 2010 at 12 h 02 min ·

    Hi Silja!

    And Yes, you got the very right feeling: we do see the dawning of a new approach from pharma to social media and determine how to engage through these with stakeholders. Jonathan was the first to speak that out in the open!
    As we have seen most of pharma companies having embarked on early trial activities with social media (e.g. ref. your twittersphere blogs), we can evaluate and reflect on what to and what not..
    Certainly, dealing with multiple stakeholders is one. Surely, the embedding of social media approaches in brand originated communications, as well as in the brand’s marketing plans are challenges that come to mind, as Phil Baumann so nicely put in his comment and how Jim demonstrates it from his insight pharma view! Pharma sees the shift of the business paradigm coming up! Heavily debated, but sure to come. So, yes, there’s more to it than just semantics.
    As for the aspect of engaging in social media in the context of this change of business model for pharma, we have gathered a lot of knowledge as Jonathan demonstrates.
    But how then should we move forward? What helps us to create a design for this engagement in line of your referred to metaphor by Lisa Emrich?

    I suggest to start from the underlying dimensions on which classic and new communications, even better: interactions, differ from each other.
    To start with, I suggest a view, maybe that can help to set of the search and discussion you initiated!

    First, there’s the aspect of public versus private. That’s the dimension that initiates so much debate and the discussion from regulatory (#fdasm), promotion limits, DTC versus not, etc. etc.
    This is a strategic relevant dimension to pharma. If not allowed to inform and communicate in public, how then might patients profit from pharma knowledge about accurate use of medicines. (And everyone working in the branche knows how pharma has the best sources of information about that!)
    Second, there is your traditional concern of targeting stakeholders, indeed! Public authorities, health care insurers, pharmacists and patients, to name a view: all have different stakes to pharma’s information. You cannot just pile that into one channel!

    But, to demonstrate the challenge here: When being a consumer I am not that interested in pharma’s drug or indication info, when I ‘m healthy. But the more I will, when sick. But, when sick: do I want to enter a public conversation regarding my specific condition? Do I aim for general information or would I prefer specific communication from my tending health care professionals, privately and not just out there in the open? I guess I would.
    Picture that against the public aspect of social media and, I happen to think, one can see that social media is better be attended if designed in the frame work of pharma’s strategy, brand plan and communication mix. Different stakeholders, different messages, or better interaction, and different channels and means.

    So let’s search for more dimensions that picture the differences of communication designs. They could help to suggest what pharma could do when “engaging”!
    I’m working on a blog, elaborating that more into depth, and I hope to be ready soon?
    So, the more open to your comments on this line of reasoning, of course!

    Thanks for having me triggered !
    Rob Halkes

  6. Varadharajan Krishnamoorthy 20 July 2010 at 12 h 35 min ·


    Just about the title:

    Right from the beginning I felt inadequate when I read “pharma social media” and it should be “Pharma and Social Media”.

    Social Media is a set of tools designed for online social interactions. Pharma using Social Media tools for various engagement with stakeholders can be called as “Pharma and Social Media” to discuss how Pharma uses Social Media tools.

    What say?

  7. @edrneelesh 20 July 2010 at 17 h 45 min ·

    Great Post. Here are some of my instant reactions:

    Social media is a conversation that is ALREADY happening. Pharma companies can rarely generate it, they can only identify and add to.- Not True.

    Social media can revolutionize the way we deliver health care. — True

    The term “pharma social media” for me implies it is owned by pharma, aimed at everyone, maintained by one or two employees and by definition mostly one-way- Sad but True

    I thus propose we move away from this word and use “pharma engagement in social media” instead.– Second that whole heartedly

  8. drneelesh 20 July 2010 at 17 h 48 min ·

    Another Great Post

  9. Angel Gonzalez 25 July 2010 at 20 h 36 min ·

    Hey Silja,

    Firstly congrats for your great post charged of savvy thoughts that leads into and invitation to reflect from the right perspective.

    When we do our best to pave a way of whatever mission is worthdoing to wonder if things are driven by not missleading principles. And you point it: pharma social media should be changed by pharma engagement in social media.

    And this is not an slight difference, but a relevant one. I remind that the first time I heard about the term “engagement” it was said that you could only reach that status by conveying in your communication both like and listening skills.

    Like and listening skills!, easy to say and state as communication objetive for a brand, even if it is a pharma brand…but really difficult and rare to achieve.

    There is a large emotional gap between pharma´s and many of their stakeholders, and this is being faced worldwide…and its a classic. Can Social Media be an opportunity to fill and overcome that gap in this so particular industry?

    I think so, and it is up to all the players of the value chain in the Pharma sector. But only if embracing Social Media is directly link into creating and feeding honest engagement.

    Just do it…just start to like and listen.

    Thanks so much for your post Silja.

    Best wishes.


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