Pharmaceutical marketing has always been an extremely challenging enterprise, given that it is highly regulated, difficult to target and expensive, yet still varying in terms of its cost effectiveness. Timing is another consideration, as marketing campaigns for new drugs are not launched until the New Drug Application (NDA) has been approved.
In an effort to expand the tools at their disposal, many pharmaceutical companies are exploring social media as an alternative channel to traditional marketing, be it Johnson & Johnson’s You Tube Channel, active Twitter participation by Pfizer, GSK and Novartis or Sanofi-Aventis’ video news website.
Indeed, the attraction to social media is not surprising as it presents three key benefits:
- Significantly lower costs associated with online marketing (vs. traditional channels) allowing companies to increase awareness prior to NDA approvals (right through the product development cycle).
- The “multiplication or viral effect”—after the launch of a company’s specific social media initiative, when done effectively, other public platforms and industry blogs may continue the conversation or dialog about the product, effectively augmenting the marketing promotion efforts on the part of the company.
- Improved ‘participation’ on the part of the broader ‘consumer base’ resulting a step beyond the traditional one way nature of traditional communications. For example, online communities that feature patient testimonials (GSK’s online community for the drug Alli) increase public awareness of the drug. Additionally, more mature social media channels such as You Tube and Twitter provide outlets for patients to publicly share their experiences. This effectively increases the brand awareness of the drug while reducing expensive promotional costs.
Clearly, social media can help create buzz around a drug release providing a truly measurable and cost effective tactic to be added to the marketing mix. However, it is not without its risks:
- Potential for lack of control of the message/campaign—this is the flip side of the viral nature of social media; the organization does not and, more often than not, cannot retain control of the message once it is “out there.”
- Integrity of intent and of the message is key—social media is a self-policed, two- way communication platform and any perceived attempt to not offer “the truth” or overtly “sell the benefits” are spotted easily and reacted to quickly, potentially tarnishing the company’s reputation.
The key is to remember that while social media may start off as a planned and controlled dialog between the corporation and its target audience, the true authority or power will always remain with the public voice, not the corporation. Any attempt to shift that balance (without a sound, impartial fact basis) will lead to negative results.
A NEW DIRECTION?
This self-policing principle of social media, plus the absence of clear regulations around it, led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to hold a public hearing in November 2009 on how drug companies use the web and social media to promote their products. The FDA’s hearing outlined social media usage guidelines and the key takeaways were similar, in principle, to other forms of marketing:
- Companies would be held responsible for all content that they control or influence.
- Marketers are required to mention all product safety related information with embedded links in social media (and, for example, the use of abbreviated links due to the space restrictions associated with Twitter).
- Companies would not be held responsible for content on 3rd party websites.
After taking inputs from the public hearing into account, the FDA is expected to provide regulatory guidelines by end in December 2010. “This will be the first of many guidelines to come,” said Thomas Abram (head of the FDA Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications (DDMAC)). The guidelines themselves will be broad in nature, addressing social media issues as a whole and will not address specific social media promotion through websites such as YouTube, Twitter, etc. Once the guidelines are in place, it is likely that pharmaceutical companies will be even more willing to adopt social media.
Author: Anshuman Mirani