How to Use Social Technology in Pharma Marketing

Yes, You Can Do It Without Getting Fired

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Josh Bernoff
Josh Bernoff
Advertising Age's Marissa Miley and Rich Thomaselli say pharmaceutical companies are taking big steps forward to reach patients with social applications. I wish I could agree.

Based on the interviews I did for Forrester's report on the topic, the level of paranoia among pharmaceutical companies is epic (and I talked to 10 of them). Fear runs the marketing in this industry, and that's a shame, because people with health problems really want to connect -- and drug companies really want to help. Every single company I interviewed told me, "We are the most conservative company in the pharmaceutical industry." One person I interviewed for this report called back extremely worried about getting fired if I spoke about the company's application, even though it's right out there on the internet for everyone to see.

If you are a pharma marketer, you can carefully take heart from what we found. There are applications; in fact, there's a wiki full of them. But if you get up a head of steam about this, you're just going to run full speed into your regulatory staffers. Suggestion: Get those staffers on board before you start.

Another thing: Not all pharma marketers have the same opportunity. Go forward depending on your risk.

For example, if your medications treat depression, obesity, sleep disorders, chronic pain or migraines, Forrester's data show that your potential customers are more active than average in the groundswell of social technologies, and they'll be helped by going online and talking about it. You should be working the hardest to get started. While Alli is over-the-counter, what GSK did with it is a great example of what's possible -- a true community with discussion, moderated to screen out off-label use and adverse events regulators would have a problem with.

Pharma chart

If you treat a condition like cancer, arthritis or diabetes, be aware that the people you are trying to reach are below average in use of social technologies, and it may not be worth the effort to try to create a full and open social community; you're better off with sites that don't allow open text fields.

And if you treat osteoporosis or erectile dysfunction, your customers are below average in social participation and don't want to talk about their health problems, so taking these risks with a social application isn't worth the trouble.

But health marketers need to keep an eye on this space. Regardless of risk, they should be listening to what people are saying, using a listening platform like TNS Cymfony or a private community from Communispace. And networking with doctors on Sermo is appropriate for all life-sciences companies.

It sure would be great if the FDA would set some clear policies on this. If you need to convince your boss, you can get the slides from my presentation at a recent social-media-in-pharma conference in Boston. But please proceed with caution.

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Josh Bernoff is the co-author of "Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies," a comprehensive analysis of corporate strategy for dealing with social technologies such as blogs, social networks and wikis, and is a VP-principal analyst at Forrester Research. He blogs at

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