Healthcare is trending. In 2012, tweets related to healthcare increased 51%, according to an October blog post by Rich Meyer, Principal Healthcare Analyst with eMarketer and PM360’s expert on all things DTC. This, of course, represents a great opportunity for pharma to engage with an audience that is yearning for more information about healthcare, diseases and, yes, treatment options. However, this doesn’t mean that pharma needs to suddenly get its act together and join Twitter—the industry is already heavily represented.

“It’s important to recognize that pharma is already participating in this conversation as all of the top 10 biopharma companies have Twitter accounts and are using them to varying degrees across a variety of topics while targeting different audiences around the world,” says Whitney Poma, Social Media Analyst at GSW Worldwide. “That being said, the industry still has a long way to go before reaching a level of engagement that benefits both sides of the conversation.”

There is no doubt that the industry is tweeting and Intouch Solution’s TweetPharm is a useful tool for tracking pharma’s engagement with the social media site as it ranks companies by the number of tweets, number of followers, number the handle is following, retweets received, number of tweets that have been favorited (listed count), and retweets given. However, activity does not always equate to engagement.

Currently, most pharma companies are using their Twitter accounts as outlets for investor-related news, according to Poma. But she also mentioned that in 2012, a handful of pharma companies broke away from the pack by redirecting their social strategies to patients, caregivers and HCPs instead of investors. If other companies are interested in following suit, here are a few tips that Panorama collected from pharma marketing insiders on the best uses of Twitter.

 It’s Time for Real Engagement

Leerom Segal, President and CEO of Klick Health, believes that the next level for pharma companies and Twitter is real engagement, and in order to achieve that next level pharma’s frame for Twitter should be based on three things:

1. Regulatory and customer relationship integration. At its essence, Twitter is about speed so responses need to be right (regulatory) but they also need to be fast (customer relationship). A robust collection of pre-approved responses is a must to avoid sounding like a robot, and so you have more than one pattern of responding to a given topic. Plus, an expedited channel for regulatory approvals is needed for custom responses.

2. Listening and thoughtful response. The best process in the world won’t help you if your content is off-target. The editorial group needs to be listening to the conversation to pick up on the themes being surfaced so they can be approached proactively. If everyone is asking about side effects, put them up front. If they have questions about interaction with foods, add that to the regular editorial schedule with information to the website. Make the corporate communication a full feedback loop.

3. Identification and proactive engagement with opinion leaders. Not all voices in social media are equal, as the influence map is “spiky” with every condition and channel having its opinion leaders. Identify these voices, then consider what they are saying, both positive and negative, and finally engage with them. This engagement is a partnership. You have something that no one else has—access to the science and truth behind the therapies you sell. Influential voices cannot be bought, but they can be educated.

Advertising Opportunities

Sean Nicholson, Director of Social Media at Intouch Solutions, agrees that right now increasing engagement with patient communities is pharma’s best approach for using Twitter.

“Ideally, [companies] should be finding ways to engage in the conversations and provide assistance or valuable information to the Twitter community,” says Nicholson. “It’s not about just sharing brand information, it’s about listening to the things that are important to the community and showing that there are real human beings behind the ‘big pharma’ façade.”

Over time, however, pharma will have the chance to utilize Twitter in another way—advertising.

“As adoption of social media evolves and as more health conversations occur in the Twittersphere,” adds Nicholson, “it’s likely that the executives at Twitter will follow the lead of Facebook and YouTube to identify opportunities for pharma to engage from an advertising perspective.”

Customer Service

According to Joe Shields, Global Strategic Marketing at LifeScan (a Johnson & Johnson Company), Twitter is no different than the other new media channels available in that pharma must consider the use of all of these channels on a case-by-case—and brand-by-brand—basis in order to balance risks with rewards. But there is one area where companies seem to be having success with the online platform.

“Companies that view Twitter as a customer service platform instead of a promotional one have been successful in using it to simply send ‘help seekers’ to more established channels like call centers and web chat, where customers can find more complete and private answers to their questions,” explains Shields.

 Corporate Reputation

The limitations of 140 characters can make it difficult to have a true conversation with patients, but Eileen O’Brien, Director of Search & Innovation at Siren Interactive, stills thinks that pharma has already found a useful application for Twitter.

“A variety of biotech and pharmaceutical companies are already using Twitter for corporate reputation,” O’Brien says. “These accounts are used to share information around disease awareness as well as company culture, philanthropy and press releases. I think Boehringer Ingelheim (@Boehringer) is doing an excellent job of engaging in conversations with people on Twitter. For example, I was tweeting from a conference this week and mentioned them and very quickly received a reply.”

Companies also need to be prepared to invest in order to ensure that they have success in any social media endeavors.

“The biggest obstacle for pharma is definitely investing in the resources needed to create and maintain a successful social strategy,” says Poma. “The companies that are performing the best in social media are those who have been investing in social media for several years now.”

 Stick With the News Feed

Not everyone agrees that pharma can successfully use Twitter as a marketing channel as the limitations of micro-bite content, the challenges of rapid response, the potential for stepping over the regulatory line and Twitter’s rather lopsided audience demographic all leave a lot to be desired, according to Ellen Schuller, Director, Strategy at StoneArch.

Schuller also points out that according to analysis by social media analytics platform Beevolve, 74% of Twitter users are between 15 and 25 years old. While a Pew Internet study found that Twitter use rates are 9% among people ages 50 to 64 and only 4% among people 65 and older. Another report, this one from Yahoo! Research, revealed that 20,000 elite users—aka wealthy celebrities—account for almost half of all posted URLs and people following people like them. In other words, most of the people using Twitter are not an audience that pharma has much interest in reaching.

“All this being said, one has to question the cost-benefit of Twitter for most pharma and medtech companies,” says Schuller. “Using Twitter as a supplemental newswire or secondary search engine might make sense. But Twitter as a full-fledged marketing channel? Maybe not.”

However, others will continue to argue the opposite.

“I don’t think that there is any question, pharma must get involved in the conversations happening on Twitter,” says Jared Shechtman, Business Development & Social Media Extrovert at extrovertic. “As we say around extrovertic: ‘Not answering a tweet is just as bad as not answering a ringing phone.’ The easiest route for pharma to get into the conversation will be to approach Twitter the same way Nurse Support Lines are approached, with trained professionals working within the context of an approved conversation guide (not a script).”

In the end, the question is not whether pharma should be tweeting, but what is the best use of Twitter. Whether it is engaging more with patients, waiting for advertising opportunities to arrive, increasing your corporate reputation or providing a constant stream of news, pharma must be doing something. As always, it comes down to what is right for the company and for the brand.

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