Chatting with the public is not in pharma's comfort zone. Drugmakers are adept at the one-way communication known as direct-to-consumer advertising, and some of them deal well with the media. Some even know how to work with patient groups. Back-and-forth with doctors? Pharma's daily bread.
But put your average, everyday drug company in the middle of a public conversation, and it freezes up. Worried it will say the wrong thing, sensitive to criticism, mindful of unintended consequences, drugmakers usually prefer to stand by the punch bowl and check their iPhones for messages.
You could say pharma has social anxiety.
In fact, of the 50 largest drugmakers worldwide, only half even dabble in social media. Only 10 use all three of the oldest, biggest social sites--Facebook, Twitter and YouTube--according to a new study by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. And within that small group, few are actually interacting with patients and the public.
The IMS Institute set out to measure that interaction and assessed drugmakers' reach in social media, their ability to capture users' attention, and their efforts to form relationships with others--and then plugged those numbers into a formula delivering a social-media engagement score. The 10 most engaged are ranked below. (You can find a detailed explanation of its methodology, along with the actual statistics used to calculated the engagement index, in the firm's report here.)
Drugmakers' usual excuse for remaining social-media wallflowers is regulation, or lack of it. The FDA's guidance on the subject is piecemeal and tardy; the agency has slapped companies for overstepping bounds they didn't know existed. But Murray Aitken, executive director of the IMS Institute, says regulators are only part of the story. After all, the 10 most-active companies face the same regulatory environment as the rest. And as Aitken points out, the rules will never be black and white, even after the FDA finishes its social-media guidance, which it promises to do by July. Drugmakers will have to be willing to work in gray areas, which, frankly, they do all the time in marketing.
So, that reluctance also goes back to pharma's fear of socializing with patients--and companies' willingness, even motivation, to overcome that fear. "What it reflects is different levels of recognition of the importance of direct interaction with patients," Aitken said in an interview. "Some view that as being important and central to their mission; others less so."
The fear isn't completely unfounded; engaging with patients is risky. Companies don't know what will happen next and certainly don't know whether patients' responses will be negative or positive, Aitken said.
Still, with so many patients turning to social media for treatment suggestions and, especially, emotional support, drugmakers really need to be "present and involved," he said. Companies don't have to jump in all at once. "Perhaps a good way to start is with a particular brand or product or disease area. We see companies that are very engaged, very focused in a disease area. … You can start gradually and learn as you go."
Meanwhile, pharma can also enjoy another sort of one-way communication: from the patient to the company, rather than the other way around. Many companies that aren't committed to the social-media conversation are spending time and money eavesdropping, to find out what patients are saying about their products. Some are even trolling for talk about side effects. Collecting information from social media--whether via patient sites like PatientsLikeMe, or directly on Twitter--also means analyzing it, so companies will need to confront the Big Data side of things. But that's another story, or maybe another report.
Aitken says the IMS Health Social Media Engagement Index is a work in progress; the firm would like suggestions for improving the measure. We'd like to hear from you, too. Share your social media stories and story ideas with us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, via the comments section, or through our LinkedIn group. And follow us on Twitter, too: @TracyStaton and @FiercePharma. If you start a conversation, we'll join in.
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