Over the last decade, we’ve seen great strides in the opportunities social media provides to consumers, healthcare providers (HCPs), and related industries, such as pharma, to interact, share, and receive information, and to benefit from an ever-growing pool of data. As a nurse with a background in drug safety and regulated enterprises, combined with significant experience in digital strategy, I have witnessed firsthand the changes that have taken place over the past several years. With a perspective from “both sides of the fence,” so to speak—both as a healthcare provider and digital strategist—here are my thoughts on how pharmaceutical companies can best leverage social media as it continues to grow and evolve, to improve its products and processes, and ultimately, to better serve consumers and HCPs.
The Shift in Social Media Engagement
While I was still a bedside nurse, I was curious to explore the ways social media could fit into the healthcare industry. Back when only a handful of HCPs were diving into social media, in 2009 and 2010, I started the first Twitter chats for clinicians (RNchat and MDchat, respectively), primarily as a way to involve clinicians in social media and to plumb the possibilities and pitfalls of social media. My main takeaways from those early chats? Healthcare and social media were, in fact, a great team, despite the widespread concerns of maintaining privacy and respecting dignity.
It was around that same time that the Mayo Clinic started the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media as a way to help hospitals embrace social media, and I was fortunate to serve on their external board for about five years. The Center is a prime example of a major brand leading an industry in the adoption of new media while helping navigate the murky waters of heavy regulation and shifting consumer expectations.
Back then, pharma was still struggling to answer the basic question: Should we even give social media a chance? Is it worth it? In the last one to two years in particular, there has been an uptick in pharma’s willingness to participate, and a transition from viewing certain factors (adverse events, for instance) no longer as challenges, but rather, viable opportunities. Similar to how hospitals have evolved their use of social media, pharmaceutical companies can—and should—openly address the unique considerations and concerns that affect their industry, including FDA regulation and other compliance requirements.
Gleaning Valuable Data from the World’s Largest Focus Group
When considering the vast opportunities available on social media platforms, I often encourage pharmaceutical companies to view social media as “the world’s largest focus group” conducted 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It’s perpetual and unstoppable. With the right processes and technologies, the ever-growing universe of data can be transformed into valuable information that leads to novel insights and better decisions for taking action. Does the entire universe of data need to be monitored? No, it depends on your objectives. But there is certainly no shortage of opportunities.
When companies shift their mindset of social media from purely a communications channel to a focus group, they can begin to cultivate significant amounts of data that answer seemingly basic, yet extremely fruitful, questions such as: What kinds of conversations are consumers and HCPs having about health conditions, diseases, treatments, and management? What information, opinions, and experiences are they sharing? What trends, market signals, and topics can be identified for further investigation and research? How can our industry better serve consumers and HCPs and learn from them?
Specifically, let’s take a look at the three kinds of activities pharma can choose to explore when evaluating and developing social media programs:
1. Engagement with the Consumer: Social media interactions are limited by regulation, but still, companies can provide elementary responsiveness to consumer inquiries and complaints and port them into traditional channels for further conversation. This is crucial so that companies do not miss engagement opportunities through the consumers’ preferred channel of choice (that is, social media). Although pharmaceutical companies already may be interacting on social media, other uses may not be as obvious.
2. Monitoring Conversations: Taking it a step further, monitoring conversations can yield important insights on how to improve the consumer experience and to better understand what HCPs are discussing outside of the office. Has your company considered the following possibilities available from monitoring? It could mean monitoring to augment general business intel, to detect signals (for example, adverse events and product/packaging problems), to assess the competition, or to evaluate brand sentiment—that may include what’s being said about your brand as well as feedback on current marketing campaigns, such as responses to print advertisements or TV commercials.
3. Analyzing and Gaining Insights: From monitoring, your company can leverage a deep-dive analysis of conversations that further breakdown and classify data into meaningful pools of information that lead to awareness, insights, and actionable decisions. For instance, data can be classified into meaningful chunks of data, such as conversation type, topic covered, and post motive.
A simple rule of thumb when approaching or advancing social media efforts is to evaluate the properties and capabilities of the platforms, listing out their possible uses and then mapping them to current or future activities—for example, marketing, public relations, customer service, business intelligence, or other business areas.
Implementing Processes for Continued Success
While we have come a long way in social media innovation, it is still crucial to keep the regulatory fundamentals in mind when planning, deploying, and executing social media efforts. Patient privacy is of the utmost importance in the healthcare industry, and pharma in particular is highly regulated within healthcare. Well-thought-out strategies and processes that simultaneously enable valuable uses of social media and ensure expert compliance are critical. Designing adverse event identification and triaging processing is one of the first steps that enables the industry to begin monitoring conversations.
As the pharmaceutical industry implements more advanced social media strategies, expands its monitoring practices, and gathers more data, it develops richer ways to shape messaging, to improve intelligence on product quality and packaging, to assess the competition, and to get a pulse on the conversations among HCPs and consumers—and to discover what really matters to these key audiences.