Patients look to family, peers, and fellow patients—“people like me”—for information much more frequently than they look to manufacturers. Well thought out, patient-centered social media programs can put your brand into the mix.

Every year, millions of people in the United States are diagnosed with a disease. Some are more serious than others, but almost all diagnoses arrive with similar feelings: uncertainty, fear, anxiousness.

What do people do after receiving the news? They attempt to relieve their uncertainty, fear, and anxiousness by finding answers to their questions. Healthcare professionals can, and do, provide answers, but today patients are turning to the Internet for that relief, and roughly 80 percent of people start their Internet journey on a search engine.

As good as today’s search engines are, they still bombard people with more information than they can consume. Clay Shirky, NYU professor and social media thought leader, said, “Consumers today don’t face information overload, they have filter failure.” So what’s the filter that helps patients sort through search results?

Increasingly, it is “people like me” (i.e., people with the same disease). According to Nielsen, 90 percent of consumers trust recommendations of friends and family, and 70 percent trust recommendations from other consumers. Only 18 percent trust businesses. Those trusted “people like me” are found in social media.


One day Mary woke up with numbness in her right leg. It persisted through the day and then another day. She went to her doctor. He diagnosed sciatica. Two months later, she started losing vision in her left eye. An eye doctor diagnosed optical neurosis. She experienced double vision. Later, the numbness spread to her other leg. Her doctor set up an appointment with a neurologist. She felt increasingly worried so she Googled her symptoms. The results were all multiple sclerosis-related sites. Now, she was really scared.

Mary isn’t real, but the story is. We found it on YouTube, along with thousands of other patient-generated diagnosis stories. And even more stories for even more diseases can be found in blogs, forums, social networks, tweets, and podcasts.

Because social media sites contain fresh, relevant content, and often inbound links, they are presented with static websites in search results. For example, Google’s new “Search, plus Your World” functionality is customizing search results to deliberately serve up results from consumers’ social circles.

Maybe patients will visit your brand site, but studies suggest it’s highly likely they will visit a social site instead, because it contains real stories from real people taking your drug.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, 33 percent of consumers use social media sites for health-related activities. Forty percent have sought reviews of treatments, physicians, and other patients’ experiences, and 45 percent say information from social media sources would affect their decisions.

The patient journey is no longer a straight line from awareness to consideration to purchase to loyalty. It’s a loop-the-loop, in-and-out, forward-and-backward trip through Google searches, diagnosis, conversations on Facebook, talking to the doctor, filling a prescription, forum research, taking medication, tweeting, and watching YouTube videos. How do you make your brand relevant in this chaos?


Your company may not be ready to engage in social media, but the people you serve are ready for you to engage. Patients, caregivers, and doctors expect pharma to be part of the conversation. Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, said, “[Consumers] don’t think about why pharma is absent from the conversation, and they don’t care. They assume it’s because the industry has something to hide or that they’re afraid of mixing it up with real people in real time.”

It is in pharma’s best interest to utilize social media; connect with patients, caregivers, and HCPs on a more human level; and provide services that complement products and enhance the lives of customers. It will open up a new communications channel that over time can enhance patient advocacy and reduce customer service and market research costs. There’s also the possibility pharma’s participation in social media could improve the industry’s reputation.

There are pharma companies that have taken this plunge and are doing a great job. But, it didn’t come easy. They spent many hours listening to their audiences and developing their policies, strategies, response plans, and content. Look at Roche’s Rob Muller and Sanofi’s Laura Kolodjeski1 to see just two examples of how community managers are finding success in the diabetes online community through social media.

It’s not a question of “if,” but “when.” So when your brand engages in social media, here are the three main challenges you will face, based on our experience helping brands enter the social space.

Innovative Follower. The heads of marketing want brand managers to bring new and innovative ideas to the table. They also want examples of other pharma companies that have “done this before.” Unfortunately, this catch-22 will never go away. But it will take courage and persistence to overcome. New ideas are just that—new. Make sure you understand the technology. Show how you will keep your company safe from FDA scrutiny by implementing processes, procedures, and policies before you enter the space.

Stereotyping. Even if you are a brand manager who is willing to make the commitment, you must fight the battle against social media stereotypes:

  • It’s free.
  • It’s only for “kids.”
  • There’s no ROI.
  • The requirements are overwhelming.
  • The risk is too great.

Knowing your business makes all the difference. Once you know exactly what your business goals and marketing objectives are, you can properly allocate resources, mitigate risk, hire the appropriate partners, and produce an ROI.

Longevity. Social media is not a campaign. It’s a commitment. It’s understanding that having a relationship with your customers requires trust. Most pharma brand managers have tenure of less than three years on any given brand. Trust does not happen when the person who manages your reputation in the social space continually changes. Brand managers must either decide to make the commitment to their customer communities or plan for smooth transitions.


As pharma marketers, we must take responsibility for the state of social media in our industry. We will likely never get the explicit guidance from the FDA we desire. And we should be OK with that. We know what a violation looks like. And we can all rattle off examples that include solutions encouraging the free flow of conversation with our audience that at the same time make our MRL teams feel safe.

We believe the risk is in not acting. Brands can absolutely utilize social media in their marketing strategy if they understand their audiences, objectives, company culture, and the technology.

1. See, for example,!/accuchek_us, and (overseen by Muller), and,, and!/diabetes_sanofi (overseen by Kolodjeski).


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