Motivational speakers never tire of reminding us that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of characters for “danger” and “opportunity”…usually skipping quickly over the dreary danger part to get to the exciting opportunity.

But while there is an opportunity in this, the worst crisis pharma has faced in over six decades, the danger is far more dangerous— and far less understood—than most realize.

The biggest danger for pharma marketers is not media hostility, consumer skepticism, or regulatory pressure. It’s not even the patent cliff.

It is irrelevance.

Fact: 90% of Americans who can skip TV commercials do.

Fact: 90% rate peer recommendations as their strongest purchase influence.

Fact: Social media now lets consumers consult thousands of peer opinions and experiences.

Fact: Most pharma marketers remain uninvolved with social media—or, worse, view it as just another promotional messaging channel.

Fact: Social media is not a channel. It’s a conversation.

The online health conversation is big. Over 50 million Americans now connect to peers—or to content created by peers—around health. It’s been going on for over 25 years—back to the days of dial-up bulletin boards. It ranks more prominently in search than most pharma websites. And it’s uniquely influential—rated credible by 70% of consumers.

Yet in this big, long-standing, influential conversation, pharma is largely a no-show— even though studies repeatedly show that consumers want and expect appropriate pharma participation.

How can pharma participate appropriately? The same way we all learned to participate in face-to-face conversations.

  1. Listen before you speak. When joining a conversation you didn’t start, it’s not only good manners but smart to listen closely to those already speaking. What are their concerns? The conversational tone? The influential speakers? Today’s social listening research can tell you all this and more, while providing insurance against faux pas.
  2. Show you’ve been listening. When the opportunity comes to speak, don’t change the subject. Respond to the conversation already in progress. What information, services, or resources do you have that are relevant to the needs, concerns, and questions raised by the other speakers?

Listening and responding demonstrate that you understand others’ needs and can put them ahead of your own. It lets people know you can be trusted to bring value to the conversation. And it’s what gives you the standing to introduce new topics, as well as the confidence that those topics will be relevant and valuable.

So what are the areas of mutual value for pharma and consumers in the big conversation? Some frequently expressed consumer needs—like tools for comparing drugs—are beyond the ability of any manufacturer to deliver. Conversely, pharma’s need to “get the message out” is essentially valueless to consumers. But there is an area in which our needs and the needs of our customers coincide.

The value becomes mutual when we provide consumers with:

  • Objective information—not promotional messages—about our products
  • Answers to individual questions—not FAQs—about our products
  • Access to the services—such as patient assistance —that support our products

Consultants tell us that pharma typically trails other industries by three to five years. We stand today where our counterparts in packaged goods, travel, retail, and financial services, stood in the mid-oughts—on the cusp of engagement.

One by one, they discovered that they really didn’t have a choice about whether to engage if they wished to avoid the danger of becoming irrelevant to their customers. Beyond that, they discovered that listening and engaging brought measurable upside in terms of mindshare, market share, and even share price.

That’s the opportunity before us. Let’s not blow it.

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