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Attitudes, perceptions and regulatory restrictions within the pharmaceutical industry have a significant impact on its utilisation of digital media for the purposes of marketing products and communicating with customers. In a recent meeting of the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA), existing barriers to greater use of digital media and potential solutions were debated.

Healthcare professionals are consumers too

Kai Gait, from GlaxoSmithKline, asked the assembled audience “Where is it all going?” referring to trends in the usage of digital media, especially the Internet. He stated that the Internet can be used to build brands, manage relationships, develop products and enhance interaction with customers, in particular gaining their feedback on a number of issues. Although traditionally the pharmaceutical industry has been risk averse, largely due to the constraints imposed by the ABPI Code of Practice, Mr Gait commented that “We can do whatever we want… and change the way that healthcare operates”.

Currently, an estimated 96% of GPs use the Internet and 90% direct their patients to websites. In addition, NHS Direct uses Twitter to post announcements, advertise jobs and gain customer feedback; therefore, in this respect, the NHS is overtaking the pharmaceutical industry.

Mr Gait highlighted the phenomenon of online social networking. He asked: “Is social media the cavalry that will save pharma?” He emphasised, however, that the entire Internet is social media; social networking sites represent just one channel within this space. A key issue, therefore, is that because there are so many channels available, communications may become diluted. In addition, using social media is challenging as it requires the pharmaceutical industry to relinquish control, which is a potentially unfamiliar and uncomfortable proposition.

The advent of the Internet has made many of us into ‘instant consumers’ – we want answers quickly and get bored rapidly. Mr Gait suggested that pharmaceutical marketers need to develop a greater understanding of the capabilities and restrictions of social media, including how it can build or destroy products through opinions and communications. Marketers, therefore, need to go where the conversations are taking place and to join likeminded individuals in existing online communities, rather than trying to start new communities and then get others involved. Mr Gait emphasised that “We are all consumers, whether at work or at home”, including healthcare professionals. Within promotional and educational campaigns, digital media is often an afterthought, but consumers frequently use Google to search for new product information. There is a need to think creatively and do things differently in future, identifying what will resonate with customers. Conventional methods of market research may not provide an accurate picture of what customers are searching for or talking about. Instead, using online tools such as Google Insights may provide this information.

Reaching out to audiences

A different perspective on the use of digital media was provided by Laila Takeh, Online Manager for the British Heart Foundation (BHF). She stated that the BHF aims to raise money but also achieve behavioural change among patients and the general public: “We want to be the BBC of heart health information”. A recent campaign focused on heart attacks, the aim of which was to act as a call to action for the over-35 age group. The centrepiece of the campaign was an innovative 2-minute television advertisement, which illustrated the experience of having a heart attack (available at: Prior to its transmission, an online teaser campaign was employed, including banner advertisements, a Facebook group and digital previews for journalists and MPs. After the TV advertisement was aired, the BHF website was utilised to spread the word about the symptoms of heart attacks and what action to take.

A more recent campaign ‘Food for Thought’ has focused on diet and lifestyle issues for 13 year-olds in order to address the increasing incidence of obesity among this group. Children can make miniature digital versions of themselves – a Yoobot – with which they can discover the effects of diet and exercise on their weight and health and even their mortality (available at: This campaign uses a ‘fun first’ then education format and is accompanied by a Bebo campaign in order to reach the target population. Parents of these children are also communicated with through a blog linked to the website of The Guardian newspaper.

What limits pharma’s participation in the digital space?

Numerous barriers to wider use of digital media in marketing campaigns exist due to current regulatory restrictions. One of the key issues is pharmacovigilance, in particular adverse event reporting and monitoring, customer and patient privacy and protection of intellectual property. While pharma may feel comfortable with one-way communication, such as disease awareness websites and webcasts, which are limited to restricted communities, two-way conversations such as those conducted within online forums can present a host of regulatory issues, including determination of the limits of pharma’s responsibilities and a need to relinquish control over content. This fear of the unknown can present a significant obstacle to producing outputs within the digital space, and the need for input from multiple stakeholders can often complicate the creative process and dilute ideas. Unrealistic expectations of digital deliverables and how they can be evaluated also contribute to their currently limited development. Details of projects themselves can also hinder their delivery, such as language issues (and translation) and whether they are for a domestic or international/global audience.

Achieving change

Conversely, digital media can also present a number of opportunities for pharma and for its creative and communications agency partners. A key factor is that online deliverables can reach new audiences who are already receptive or interested, rather than conventional ‘cold calling’. This can form part of improved market intelligence and may even serve to enhance the reputation of pharma, in particular if safety issues are identified and acknowledged more rapidly. In addition, the speed of communication achieved with digital media outstrips that of other vehicles, e.g. print materials, and allows for more rapid updates or corrections, if necessary. This can translate into greater cost-effectiveness of online campaigns.

One of the practical solutions to overcoming many of the barriers to using digital media effectively is to employ an internal ambassador or ‘champion’ for such projects, i.e. a full-time person with the expertise and commitment to ensure efficient delivery. A willingness to listen to customers is also essential to achieve success and existing online tools such as Facebook or Twitter and search optimisation can be leveraged for this purpose.

The meeting attendees felt strongly that they deserve the “Right to have two-way conversations on the Internet” with their healthcare professional customers, rather than continuing with the current didactic approach. Sarah Matthew, Chair of the HCA and joint CEO of Virgo Health, stated that as a result of this meeting, the organisation would be convening a new Digital Working Group to assist their membership with some practical help and advice in the field of digital healthcare communications, and to collaborate with the Pharmaceutical Marketing Society from a broader industry perspective.