Some four years ago when it was suggested that social could be the next tectonic shift in consumer marketing for healthcare there were incredulous looks on many medical, legal and regulatory colleagues’ faces. Of course, since then several significant changes have occurred. Sales forces have been downsized as sales rep access to healthcare professionals (HCPs) has become a very rare commodity. Consumers of all generations have swarmed to the social networks and, to some extent, abandoned traditional channels. And, arguably most importantly, the FDA finally provided some (albeit still draft) guidance to the industry on how it can participate in interactive media (aka online) and in social media.

A new era of patient-centric digital marketing is underway and social media is at the very core of it. Many of us are clear on why but, in short, the consumer has tuned out of traditional DTC advertising. It is now all too easy to avoid traditional advertising by skipping channels, muting or fast forwarding through the ad sections. TV, radio and print have simply become less relevant. Let’s face it, if you are watching your favorite show, how relevant is an advert for a COPD drug? Probably, hopefully, not much.

Consumers are empowering themselves in new ways. The Internet is an easy place to find information. Social networks are easy places to share and discover information from others with similar needs or ailments. Sharing what works, what does not work or what might work is just a few clicks away. Of course misinformation is a risk and therein is the opportunity for the healthcare industry to play an important role in providing appropriate, compliant information.

Social On The Corporate Level

So how is the industry leveraging social media as a channel for marketing directly to consumers? Well, first let’s clarify that social media is considered a channel and the way the industry uses it must conform to the same rules and principles as traditional channels. In other words, there must be fair balance and no substantiated claims. Both the FTC and the FDA have been very clear on this point. Moreover the social networks also have strict advertising policies for the healthcare industry.

Broadly speaking, there are either branded activities that tend to be more corporate or unbranded activities that are more patient directed. Many companies have or are creating social footprints at the corporate level. These social accounts are generally carefully curated and limit the degree of consumer engagement.

Who’s Doing It Right: Novartis’ Facebook page and Gilead Sciences’ Twitter page are a couple of examples of companies with a strong social presence (see Figure 1). Both pages are well curated to address a variety of global health, disease-specific and research topics versus trying to sell their corporate values. Both have sizable followings although the organizations are quite large and it’s not possible to discern the mix of internal versus external followers.


Authentic Branded Campaigns

Branded campaigns are faced with much more restrictions by social networks. It’s strictly prohibited to directly advertise a drug on Facebook. On Twitter it’s possible only if certain criteria are met, but there are limitations. Branded campaigns also raise the possibility of unwanted dialogue (e.g., off-label discussions or reportable adverse events). Notably this was one of the earlier areas where the FDA gave draft guidance in 2011 (

Who’s Doing It Right: However, despite the restrictions there are non-corporate branded accounts in social media that are used to create a level of brand authenticity but are not generally used for direct promotional purposes. A good example is the Facebook page for GenomeDx’s Decipher ( On the Facebook page (see Figure 2), GenomeDx is using inbound and content marketing techniques to provide informational value to the prostate cancer community. This draws attention to the new diagnostic and its relevance to those at risk or diagnosed with prostate cancer. The underlying objective is to empower patients to discuss the new test option as part of their treatment course.


Listening To Your Audience

Online healthcare dialogue is dominated by disease-related discussions. Specific brand mentions are uncommon—generally less than 2%. This intelligence is surfaced by the use of social listening tools. Social listening is a tactic whereby publicly available online dialogue is aggregated for intelligence purposes and displayed in a variety of formats to the user.

Social listening in healthcare is now more commonplace as compared to a few years ago. Many companies have added internal guidelines and policies governing the use of such tools to conduct social landscape analyses. The main objectives of social listening are to determine the primary themes that the disease communities discuss and to identify potential nodes of influence amidst these communities.

How To Do It Right: When selecting a social listening platform keep three things in mind: Relevance, Scale and Action. It’s very important that you are not flooded with noise, spam and junk—there’s a lot of it! Once you have started to identify the themes and disease personas that contribute to the target online community, the ability to scale the audiences is critical to driving a return on investment (ROI).

Influencer Marketing or Patient Activation

The results of these social audits or social blueprint analyses are to drive two types of marketing campaigns, often done in parallel. The first is Influencer Marketing, working on the premise that certain influencers can ignite disease and/or brand awareness and credibility via their large networks of followers. These influencers, often patient advocates, have a significant online presence and following via their blogs, websites and social media networks. Think of Influencer Marketing as an amplification tactic. The influencers help spread the word and, if done well, can create considerable reach for a branding message.

Industry influence or sponsorship of the influencer received a lot of emphasis in the more recent FDA guidance documents released this year and a considerable amount of commentary by industry. It will be interesting to see how the final guidance emerges on this topic.

The second type of marketing initiative is an unbranded campaign designed to activate patients. The principle of Patient Activation is to create a substantial movement. There are many successful examples using these techniques but none more so than in the rare disease and oncology markets.

Who’s Doing It Right: Great examples include psoriasisSPEAKS, Global Genes Project and Cushing’s Connection (see Figure 3) all of which have generated substantial followings.


What Is Social’s ROI?

Many still question how ROI can be measured from a social media campaign. It comes down to generating a path to an action that is meaningful to the brand or franchise sponsoring the effort. The desired action may be to provide access to tools to facilitate a diagnosis such as a symptom-tracking tool which can be presented to and shared with the patient’s HCP. Another action might be to provide monetary relief for a specific treatment such as co-pay discounts. Or connecting patients to appropriate specialist physicians, surgeons or facilities.

It can also be as simple as raising awareness of a treatment or procedure option not previously widely known by the patient population. Just as long as the action is quantifiable by the brand or franchise there will be a measurable ROI.

Using the social networks to market directly to patients can effectively make the patients a brand’s best detail aid. In many cases the cost of a fully burdened sale person is the same as a targeted digital campaign. Remember how hard it is to get sales reps into the HCP’s office. Well patients, versus reps, are guaranteed to see their HCP. Empower your target patients with accurate, compliant information and they are more likely to take it to their next healthcare interaction. The lifetime value of that interaction can far exceed your investment. That’s golden.

Control Your Social Content

By using targeted advertising you can avoid another area of focus that the recent FDA guidance documents addresses—the control of content. Once released, interactive media can get out of control. The FDA has provided a reasonable stance on this deeming that while it may no longer be directly under the control of the company, it has an obligation to correct misinformation. However, by using targeted techniques to activate patients, while strictly adhering to the FTC and FDA guidelines, you avoid even the potential of generating a place for misinformation to be propagated.

Bringing this all together really boils down to a few key actions that can make social your most important new DTC channel. Find the target patients by listening strategically. Deploy a listening tactic and program that connects you to relevant healthcare dialogue that is actionable. Develop an action plan for the target community to take that adds value to their specific needs and converts your investment to a measurable return to your franchise.

Sidebar: Who Are The Social Media Butterflies?



By Caroline Howe, Managing Partner, Ogilvy DigitalHealth

We wanted to unravel some of the myths surrounding social media and pharma and explore how pharma companies are interpreting guidance and engaging with their audiences on social channels. We conducted an audit of corporate social media activity for 14 leading pharma companies that examined how they are responding to and engaging in dialogue with their communities, and how stakeholders react to the information companies are sharing. All companies received a relative score, and companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Boehringer Ingelheim and Johnson & Johnson came out as obvious social butterflies.

These companies have a clearly articulated vision and purpose for social media engagement and identifiable community or social media managers who provide a warm (and often witty) human voice to their social channels. Content is key to their engagement—the social butterflies create and share interesting, informative and entertaining content relevant to their community. Most importantly, they offer quick and helpful responses to comments and questions whenever possible. We also saw an overall increase in social media activity and engagement from 2012 to 2013—and we anticipate this will grow yet again in 2014. From our research, it seems the key question is no longer, “Can pharma engage in social media?” but, “How can pharma best engage in social media?”

  • Malcolm Bohm

    Malcolm Bohm is the Founder & CEO of Liquid Grids. The Liquid Grids platform is the industry’s only Direct to Patient Social Targeting designed specifically for the healthcare industry.


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