A lot of social media pundits (me included) have laid out a convincing plan as to why social media enhances the marketing program of a pharmaceutical company. We’ve talked about measures like ROI and Return on Health (ROH). We have made a convincing argument that Health Information Seekers turn to the Internet in droves to educate themselves on diseases, treatment options and available medication. We have worked tirelessly to dispel the adverse event myth and made suggestions on how to handle off-label discussions. We even formed a united front and marched to capital hill to tell the FDA why it should issue guidance on how pharma companies are permitted to engage in social media.
All of this outlines a compelling picture as to why pharma companies should consider social media. But we haven’t touched on why pharma companies need social media. As any marketer knows, there are two fundamentally different approaches to marketing—one based on wants and one based on needs. Each has its merits and place in the marketing mix but a needs-based approach is the greatest motivator. If a person doesn’t need something they can always choose an alternative. So why does pharma need social media?
In order to tackle this question, we need to start by acknowledging the fact that the reputation of the pharmaceutical industry has been on a steady decline in recent years. Right or wrong, the public at large has a distrust for pharma companies that has been mounting for years. It’s a shame because there was a time when the pharmaceutical industry was revered for its impact on curing diseases and improving human health.
So where did it go wrong?
Many point to the FDA’s decision to allow Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) advertising as the tipping point for the industry. The thinking at the time was that by allowing DTC ads that included fair-balance and a location to find more information, the consumers would be better educated. As it turns out, the result has been exactly the opposite. Presumably because of the inundation of information, patients are less educated than ever when it comes to their health and treatment options. Not too mention, the link between DTC ads and prescriptions is tenuous at best. To compound the issue, the ads that tend to stick in people’s minds are the ones that are highly emotional, such as male baldness, erectile dysfunction, etc…The perception that developed was drug companies were more interested in chasing the blockbuster drug than contributing to the overall improvement of societal health. While in most cases, that does not tell the whole story, this was the reality that consumers formed based on a combination of DTC ads, pharma’s blockbuster drug strategy and the types of ads that first hit the airwaves. It’s touch to argue that DTC ads did not play some role in damaging the reputation of pharmaceutical companies. This is not to say it was solely responsible, or even that we should abandon DTC ads entirely, but some thought needs to be given to what weight they should play in the overall marketing strategy.
If DTC ads played a role in cultivating the distrust that currently exists, doesn’t it stand to reason that only a shift in the way pharma marketers approach building awareness will help rebuild that lost trust? This is why pharma needs social media. The very nature of social media is built on a foundation of trust and transparency. It demands a level of engagement and investment in the community that does not exist with traditional DTC advertising. More importantly, it takes an investment in patient health and a commitment to listen to the community.
These are noble goals. But they are also the reason pharma needs social media. Social media will allow pharmaceutical companies to begin the process of repairing a damaged reputation where it should start—with a dialogue.