No, Pharma's Digital Future Isn't All Social Media

Here's What My Crystal Ball Looks Like

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Jonathan Richman
Jonathan Richman
A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me a simple question: What will digital pharma marketing look like in five years? Naturally, I have a view on this -- and it turns out that it's not all social media.

No question social media is the hot topic in pharmaceutical marketing. Some companies are taking a few baby steps, but everyone is worried about FDA regulations -- or lack thereof, because there aren't any specific to social media. Industry watchers have demanded the FDA create them or hold a public hearing on the issue, but my prediction? Neither will happen.

The FDA will continue to maintain the position that it's the message, not the medium. In other words, the same rules apply whether it's social media or a print piece. So accept that and move on. You don't have to stop using social media, but you might have to take a some risks. A few companies will get warning letters, but most won't. And all of the cases will help set the precedents that will eventually empower more companies to use social media.

In five years, it'll matter less whether a company chooses to engage in social media as more tools like Glue are introduced. Think of Glue as a portable version of your social network. As you navigate around online, Glue automatically displays reviews and recommendations from your group of trusted friends based on where you are right now. Eventually, patients can take their social networks with them, and every site can become a social-media one, even yours. People will be able to share their comments about your products and discuss them with others -- all without your involvement.

They'll also be able to better connect with each other. Consider: The adoption of electronic medical records and personal health records is increasing, thanks to the government economic stimulus package. You'll see the birth of companies and services that use this information to match patients with others in similar medical situations -- kind of like "The Dating Game," with a medical twist.

Instead of searching forum after forum on multiple websites, patients can simply make a few opt-in selections to make public certain pieces of their medical records and be matched with a group of patients just like them. The number of matching parameters will be astounding -- not just demographic data like age, weight and disease type but also specific disease-related parameters, like past medications and side effects experienced. They could also be matched based on their treatment goals and prognosis.

While the website continues to be the center of attention for every brand in digital and not just in pharma, most people still prefer to get their health-care information from a neutral third party, a trend that will only continue in the future. To combat this, at least one pharma company will take a leap and completely eliminate its site and instead syndicate all of its content to a handful of the health-care-related sites that create personalization through aggregation.

These systems will be able to create highly relevant newsletters customized to your exact needs. In health care, this could change the way people get information about their diseases. Instead of searching for hours, people can supply a few quick points about their condition and know that they'll get back relevant, credible and easy-to-read information immediately. Moreover, they'll get updates as often as they want. You can already do this in music with sites like Idiomag. So why not pharma?

This has all been about patients so far, but what about doctors? Social networking for physicians continues to become a standard practice -- and there will be one more development in the future that will ensure almost complete participation: An insurance company will pay doctors for social-network use.

Consider a site such as Sermo, where physicians can weigh in with their opinions on difficult-to-treat cases posted by other physicians. I predict that within the next five years at least one large insurance carrier will agree to pay physicians for participation in these networks. For each opinion a physician supplies for a real-world patient case, the company will offer a small but meaningful, consultation fee (just like an office visit). This will be a brand-new revenue stream for physicians.

Why would an insurance company do this? This participation could possibly reduce the number of medical errors and improve quality of care when recommendations from these sites were used to treat patients. It's "crowdsourcing," used to improve medical care -- something the industry has tried to create for years.

Want more clues on what pharma will adopt in the coming years? Keep track by watching watch other industries, as pharma is always slightly behind the technology curve because of regulatory and other issues. Hopefully the best digital stuff we see today will be standard practice in pharma -- soon. Maybe even sooner than five years.

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Jonathan Richman is the author of Dose of Digital, a blog focused on e-marketing in pharma and health care. He is director of business development at Bridge Worldwide. You can follow him on Twitter @jonmrich.

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