Pharma and facebook: the cost of disengagement

Written by Silja on 16 August 2011 in pharma twittersphere - 33 Comments
Microsoft PowerPoint

Yesterday, facebook opened comments on all its fan pages and consequently closed a chapter in the book of pharma social media engagement.

As expected, (and brilliantly monitored by Jonathan Richman here) many companies, like Novartis, immediately shut down their fan pages in reaction to these changes. Other companies though, like Boehringer or JNJ, had enabled comments ages ago already and happily continued engaging on facebook. Still some others, like Pfizer or GSK seemed yet unsure as to how to handle this situation.

This made me wonder: How do you make the decision whether to stay on facebook? Will it make a difference to anyone that some pharmacos chose to leave?

As always, I had to delve into some stats to make up my mind up about these questions. Let us thus compare these four companies’ fan pages in terms of number of fans, posts and engagement (ie. Likes and comments received).

Just as on twitter, Pfizer is leading the benchmark with over 31k fans! Followed by JNJ with over 18k fans. Novartis had a disappointingly low number of fans, compared to their success on twitter, for example.

Next, I looked at how many times these companies had updated their fan pages this month.

Note: not only are JNJ and BI most active, but from looking at their posts, they clearly want facebook users to engage with them!

Boehringer Ingelheim on Aug 3rd:

We’re still trying to find that perfect name for our upcoming pharma game! Have you voted yet? It seems Pharmaland is catching up….whats your favourite? Vote on the Poll Tab on the left-hand side of our page…

JNJ on August 3rd:

BlogHer ’11  – YouTube | At BlogHer ’11 recording stories from attendees about how they use social media for social good. You can see the videos on our You Tube playlist:

These updates are quiet different from Pfizer or GSK posts focused on providing news and links. Novartis actually had no activity in this period, but I had to add one, so that it would show up in the graphic :-(

Next burning question is, of course, did it make a difference? Did Boehringer and JNJ succeed in attracting more engagement from their fans on facebook due to the nature of their posts?

Of course they did! And while these numbers do not seem overwhelming, they place Boehringer and JNJ into the sweetspot of those 0.5%-2% response rates that direct mailing companies dream of (see here). Kudos to Pfizer who immediately upon enabling comments, released a new post and got 6 likes (7 including mine)!

(Again GSK and Novartis allowing no comments, I obviously had to put in a number to make them appear on my graph.)

There thus seem to be three stages of maturity when it comes to pharma on facebook and social media in general. (Also check out Andrew Spong‘s post)

1. Disengaged: Those, like Novartis, that set up their channel one way initially, but then failed to work on internal processes to manage engagement once facebook opened the comment section. These companies had no choice but to pull out. And luckily so for them! If, by now, you have not been able to make the case to your legal folks that you need to engage, if you cannot post engaging content nor have figured out how to engage, it is safer, you end it here.

2.Guard railers: These companies seem to have made the case internally that it is important to engage in social media, but are not yet 100% comfortable. They are both still seeking their guardrails as well as communicating to their audience what to expect from their engagement. See this facebook update from Pfizer:

3. Engaged: If, like JNJ and Boehringer, the whole point of your facebook presence all along has been seeking engagement, facebook’s changes to their fan page comment policy did not matter to you at all. Comments had been turned on all along.


As you can see in this matrix, if you engage (x-axis number of posts), you will harvest engagement (size of the bubble). So far so good, but now back to my initial question: How do you make the decision whether to stay on facebook or not? And will it make any difference to anyone that some pharmacos chose to leave?

The reasons to stay engaged in social media for pharma are, of course, numerous: to improve reputation, inject humanity into the stiff corporate presence, provide support and information to patients and carers…and hoping that doing all of this better than your competitors will somehow give you an advantage with your stakeholders. Please also check out Steve Woodruff’s post and the great conversation in his comment section.

Yet, if none of these “touchy-feely reasons” do it for you, consider this: JNJ had 319 reactions or a response rate of 2% from its fans on facebook. According to this post, it takes about $5000 to get a piece of content approved and ready to go. So JNJ spent $15.67 per response obtained.

In comparison, getting out a press release to NEJM costs at least $23000. In order to get to the same cost and response rate, JNJ would need 3476 reactions to their NEJM press release!

…when was the last time you got fan mail from a NEJM subscriber?



33 Comments on "Pharma and facebook: the cost of disengagement"

  1. Kelley Howard 16 August 2011 at 18 h 48 min ·

    Silja: This is one of the best pieces I have even read on this subject-nice job of doing your research on this.


    Kelley Howard

  2. Shwen 17 August 2011 at 5 h 45 min ·


    Great blog post and analysis (as always! :-) .

    Pharma folks need more of these kinds of analyses to help them justify and understand the value of what they’re doing…As well as when there is NO value in what they are doing.


  3. Faith Busch 17 August 2011 at 7 h 35 min ·


    As always, great post! The analysis was very eye-pleasing ( :) ! ) and gave further clarification as to why engaging is vital. Also, it was nice to get some up-to-date graphs to show the teams here!


  4. Kim Bercovitz, Ph.D. 17 August 2011 at 17 h 26 min ·

    Congrats on this fabulous social media analysis! My recommendation is for the Guard Railer and Engaged pharma companies to invest in moderation and on-going analysis of the online conversations.

  5. Dan Munro 18 August 2011 at 8 h 49 min ·

    Great post – and insight. There was a panel on the Role of Social Media last week at the #HTNG11 event in SFO – where we touched on a little of this. My own sense is – we’re still at the very early stages – but those that do engage early – will be the beneficiaries of that engagement much sooner than those that wait (or leave). The genie’s out of this bottle – and trying to put it back in is simply the wrong direction (IMHO).

    Didn’t know if you saw the Twitter in Healthcare infographic from earlier this summer – but it also highlights the challenge of dealing very directly with negative brand sentiment. I hope the ones that left Facebook decide to come back at some point – and not hide behind the legality of needing to control what other people say or think.

  6. Bill Claxton 21 August 2011 at 18 h 21 min ·

    Great insights. Thanks for sharing this research.

  7. zanskar 24 August 2011 at 0 h 13 min ·

    Thanks a lot for this very interesting analysis, Silja. I will mention it in my next article on my blog about social media and pharma.
    The main problem to work with Facebook is the unpredictable way thay have to change very frequently the management of personal/professional data. It is very difficult to build a strategy of communication when things change so quickly and so often, although the tool itself has so many interesting fields of use to explore for pharma. Hope things will change.

  8. Silja 30 August 2011 at 14 h 36 min ·

    Thank you, everyone, so much for your great comments.

    I think we moved beyond pharma “dipping” the toes into social media. Companies all have had their first experiences now. They know the water is a bit frisky and their might be some currents ahead. Now’s the time to get in and swim…IF we all can make the case that its worth the risk of getting your feet wet.

    I know…been swimming in the Rhein too much lately ;-)

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