Dark Social: How Pharma Can Unveil a Hidden But Receptive Audience

Content that is shared among people through social networks is a phenomenon that has a profound impact on the reach, effectiveness and economics of marketing. And yet, since pharma-related content is, by its nature, more personal, much of it is shared in one-to-one communication where brands can’t see it.

When someone shares content or a link via email, an instant message or a forum post with a friend or family member they know the recipient has an interest in that information. This sharing is happening in the “dark” and it is simultaneously invaluable and often outside the grasp of pharma brands seeking to create relationships with consumers by providing relevant content. It’s called “Dark Social.”

Dark Social is Actually Pharma Friendly

This activity is elusive to the pharma industry, which—unlike other categories such as CPG or automotive—is far more regulated. Pharma brands must stay within The Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP) guidelines, insuring the privacy of their target audiences and making sure important safety information (ISI) is easily and properly communicated. At the same time, they need to promote their products effectively and communicate clearly to the market, targeting the right people with relevant content. But Dark Social sharing is, in fact, usable by pharma brands. It satisfies all regulatory concerns while providing a relevant, self-identified audience that is in need of and receptive to their messaging.

Dark Social information is collected when someone shares content. Unless you have a certain type of software installed on your sites, anytime the user sends content without using the “share” button—brands are unaware of who is sending this content and to whom. This is a massive missed opportunity for brands and they should be asking for access to this data in order to target additional users.

Brands Are Missing Out on a Receptive Audience

According to TPoll research in a study conducted by RadiumOne, close to 69% of all shared data points are done through Dark Social user actions such as copy and paste of a URL, a sentence from an article or a whole section of the article. That number becomes 56% of all shared content for health/fitness content.

At a recent ePharma conference in New York, brands discussed how many shares they were getting from their Facebook page in comparison to shares from the Brand.com site. Though the numbers were seen as significant with several thousand per month or quarter, it was pointed out that relying on a “Share” button only gave the brands access to about 20% of the their owned content to then leverage for marketing strategies. Yet patients and those that care for them are increasingly turning to social media to learn more about their diseases and treatments and also sharing information privately.

The Advantages of Tapping into Dark Social

How can pharma access this plethora of additional qualified users to and at the same time lock down data specific to their brands for the pharma company’s use only? The right tools can help. Technologies are readily available today that give pharma access to this targeted user pool.

Let’s look at a few examples to illustrate the power of “Dark Social.”

A caretaker of a diabetic sees an article on a new Basal Insulin product and shares that information with people she knows would be interested. Those people would likely have a similar interest, probably being caretakers or diabetics themselves, and they would then share the same information within their personal network. The same would hold true for someone sharing ulcerative colitis information, or information on various HIV treatments. Or a new class of cardiovascular drugs that combine treatments for multiple ailments into one dosage, helping to make it easier for patients to comply with their treatment. The list goes on and on.

How To Capture Dark Social

In order to capture dark social, you’ll need to partner with a sharing tool whose software can track all social actions on your site beyond sharing buttons, including users copying and pasting text from article pages and socially engaging with your address bar links. It’s important to find a solution that protects your users’ data by not collecting personally identifiable information or selling it for any reason. In addition, make sure the tools are simple to use and that only you, the client, can activate a campaign using the collected data.

“Dark Social” presents a unique opportunity for brands to get their message out to a much larger and relevant audience while keeping all personal information private. In addition, serving an ad in real time to those already looking for information and products related to a specific medication or treatment lays the foundation for a connection with the consumer.

Pharma companies understandably find that the creativity required for effective digital marketing is frequently at odds with the compliance required by legal regulations. “Dark Social” is the prescription—revealing audiences most in need of your product while keeping their personal information secure. It’s good medicine all around.

  • Michael Frick

    Michael Frick has spent 16 years in digital pharma working for several major healthcare groups including Medscape, WebMD, RightHealth, Healthgrades, among others, before joining RadiumOne. He works closely with all of the major pharma companies and their agencies, guiding them in finding innovative ways to reach their target audiences while staying within and abiding by all regulatory parameters.


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