By projecting the current trends in social media we can make six predications about how the social media landscape will evolve over the course of this year.

In order to determine the next phase of pharma in social media we can take two approaches: 1) we can look to Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies to see what is working outside the wet blanket of the FDA regulatory regime or, 2) we can look at the trends inside pharma to see what the logical progression will be.

While CPG can provide “aspirational” goals for pharma, the likelihood of regulated drug companies getting to that level of freedom is approaching zero. So let’s look at the likely future by projecting the current trends from which we can make six bold predictions.

 Guidance and Guidelines Version 2.0

It’s a safe bet to say that nearly all pharma companies have some kind of first version of their own social media guidelines. These documents can range from one-page “crib notes” that contain how to behave as an employee of the company to more than 150-page monoliths that detail the changing environment across the full social landscape.

The differentiator for companies now will be the “version 2.0” of their guidelines. Presumably the organization will have come to some internal realizations about social media, and version 2.0 of the guidelines will allow it to weave these realizations in the corporate fabric.

Prediction #1: The companies that develop these “version 2.0” guidelines will outpace the industry as a whole in terms of social engagement.

 Team and Skills Enhancements

The focus on guidelines for extended periods has a secondary benefit as well. The teams that work on them end up sharing information and opinions on the channels, and this enhanced internal communication can spark cooperation and ideas that might otherwise lay dormant. In effect, the teams working on the guidelines are more likely to engage in advanced social programs than they would if the guidelines weren’t written.

Also, teams have simply had years of working, reading, researching and watching the social channels as the industry has slowly evolved to this point. Those within pharma interested in social are “chomping at the bit” to try new tactics and will look for any opportunity to find release.

Prediction #2: The number of employees eager to launch and engage in social channels will increase in every pharma company.

Branded Properties Make an Appearance in Force

The work at the Digital Health Coalition ( on the Social Landscape database has gathered a lot of industry attention. This effort made it clear that, contrary to popular opinion, there are branded initiatives going on in every major channel.

The new properties will end the fears of endless comment spam, out-of-control posts and account hacking. They will also show what social media users are looking for and provide a test bed for different editorial styles.

As the best practices are highlighted and communicated throughout the industry, more social media projects will be approved. It’s just easier to get approval when the team can point to properties from Novartis, GSK, Pfizer, J&J and others on the channels.

Prediction #3: The number of branded properties jumps as the pent-up demand is unleashed by the existence of the pathfinders.

The FDA Continues Its Close Scrutiny

To date, there have been three pivotal FDA letters and one guidance document to help pharma companies judge the mostly hidden regulatory landscape. The pivotal letters told us about meta data, YouTube-hosted patient testimonials, and how social channel connections such as Facebook Likes are interpreted as links. The guidance document discussed social media in terms of how pharma should respond in public and private channels to restrict the distribution of off-label information. Taken together these messages allow followers of the FDA to get a sense of the agency’s guardrails.

We don’t expect an explicit and restrictive directive from the FDA of the types we’ve seen from the PAAB in Canada and the PMCPA in the UK. In fact, we don’t expect FDA guidance on social media until 2014 at the earliest.

The FDA cannot simply shut the social channels off for pharmaceutical marketers, but it will be watching closely. It looks like the current direction of social media being taken by pharma companies is mostly compliant and the aforementioned social landscape by the DHC tackles this directly by including a regulatory component in its analysis.

Prediction #4: The FDA issues a letter against a social media channel owned by a mainstream pharma company. The fallout is enhanced learning for the industry, but only a minor bruise for the company.

Customer Service Dips a Toe

Social media is being touted as the next frontier for better, cheaper, more engaging customer service and for good reason. When a customer asks a question on a public forum it is much easier for others with the same question to find. So, the answer to one customer can touch many others on the social channels. Also, more informed customers are more likely to be happy customers; this is as true in healthcare as it is in CPG, albeit more complex in the pharmaceutical industry.

The trap waiting for customer service groups is the danger of a small set of approved messages—often much smaller than the call center is allowed to give. If the set of answers is too small, the social account comes across as a robot with no depth and no desire to help.

The current best practice is a three-tier approach to the relationship between the social team and regulatory:

• “All clear” topics that do not need to go through review
• “Packaged” messages to known or common questions that are pre-approved
• “Expedited” review process for questions that do not fit the other two categories

Using this structure, the “Packaged” answers get populated by the “Expedited” decisions and the social channel grows and matures over time.

Prediction #5: Customer service initiatives will be tentative and experience regulatory-induced growing pains.

 Listening Gets Added to the Insight Toolbox

Social media listening is a mature market with a large number of robust tools to help the analyst make sense of the cacophony out on the social channels. The numbers of tools are consolidating as the market searches for sustainability, but the leaders such as Sysomos (Marketwire) and Radian6 (Salesforce) are providing good products at an affordable price.

The developments in the research groups center on the realization that some meaningful insights are available through social media that are not as easily found through other research techniques. Because the social analyst is “listening” to people “in the wild” they get a raw view into the issues they face on a daily basis.

Groups that are found on social media listening engagements cover the gamut of pharma’s customers, including consumers, patients, caregivers, physicians and allied health. Typically, the findings from social listening are directional as the most powerful artifacts are the quotes that surface during the research.

Prediction #6: Listening finds its way into the standard planning cycle as an important insight activity.

Now that you have an outlook of what to expect this year, feel free to email me your questions on more specific concerns surrounding social media.

  • Brad Einarsen

    Brad Einarsen is Klick Health’s Director of Digital Insight, supporting the agency’s Strategy, Accounts and New Business groups to gather, disseminate and make accessible knowledge about clients, their products and the markets in which they operate. He writes for and manages Digital Rx, the Klick Health blog, and writes the Klick Wire weekly letter.


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