The rise of digital marketing: pharma and social media



Social media is a prerequisite for most businesses, but how has the historically reticent pharma industry been adapting?

Graeme Smith

Managing Partner, Fortis Pharma Consulting

The highly–regulated nature of the pharma industry has led to a very cautious approach to using social media, but those companies who have been willing to invest in this new approach have found that it has given them a competitive edge over traditional digital marketing techniques.

Perils of public interaction

Among the major challenges to a pharma company kickstarting its first social media marketing campaign is the need to convince stakeholders and introduce new internal processes. One concern that can be overcome in well-designed campaigns, but is naturally very powerful, is the possibility that comments from the public interacting with social media campaigns may lead to compliance issues.

Cautiously confident

As pharma gains more confidence in using social media tools, we think that industry will be bolder in the content that is distributed. Sometimes the caution of internal regulatory departments can lead to ‘vanilla’ messaging on social media, but so long as we keep to our obligations to communicate accurate information appropriate for the target audience, there is plenty of potential for stronger messaging.

Smart thinking

We emphasise to our clients that the benefits of social media can be worth the effort of effecting change, especially as the barriers to future campaigns are typically much lower once a successful campaign has been run. Key to the success of these campaigns is the ability to tailor content to the right audience at the right time.

Social media marketing fits much more intuitively and less intrusively into an HCP’s daily routine compared with ‘traditional’ digital marketing. For example, email shots can be seen as unwelcome harassment, and generally come at a much higher cost per click than newer social media approaches. A smart digital campaign can take this concept further by integrating aspects of both social and traditional digital approaches in a way that is intuitive for the target HCP. Go to

Chris Finch

Managing Director, earthware

Most pharma companies use social media channels to broadcast content rather than converse with their audience. Typically, this follows two themes; broadcasting corporate news including regulatory approvals, appointments and disease awareness, and releasing other notable items, such as the latest data from congresses or stats on epidemiology.

Unlike many other industries, there is little attempt to use social media as a platform for conversation. This is primarily a result of the regulatory challenges faced by the industry.

There is still little in the way of true innovation in digital marketing across pharma. For most companies, having an e-detail, brand website and corporate twitter account ticks the digital boxes. Digital remains an afterthought of the marketing plan after the exhibition stands, symposia and patient leaflets have been ordered.

Fear of the known

The risk of not adhering to industry codes of practice means there is an inherent fear of digital channels and, in particular, social media. With most companies requiring approval of all external communications it is very difficult for pharma to converse over social media and certainly not with the immediacy that users demand.

Trust issues

There are a couple of key issues that reduce the impact pharma can have over digital channels. Firstly, social media users are used to engaging in conversation and debate. Pharma’s inability to engage in this way means their social media presence is far less engaging for patients and doctors than other content providers.

Secondly, there remains a distrust of industry. Deloittes’s report on pharma’s adoption of social media* highlights the challenge, with 75% of doctors surveyed indicating a lack of trust in pharma.

Pharma companies should consider partnering with third parties who are trusted by their target audience. Partnering with professional bodies or third party networks offers great opportunities for industry to provide access to clinical data and insights which their partners are not able to deliver on their own.

HCP engagement

The rise in popularity of platforms such as, Medscape, Epocrates and Sermo indicate that like any consumer, HCPs are using digital platforms to engage with the content they want. In addition, HCPs are increasingly using digital platforms as a way of receiving medical education, whether via webinars, or new platforms like twitter’s Periscope. Tools like Skype are also being used increasingly by HCPs in their day-to-day working, including conducting MDT meetings with remote colleagues or even patient consultations**.

As the traditional access to HCPs continues to increase in difficulty, perhaps a mix of online and face-to-face conversations will enable pharma reps to be more efficient.

Where the journey begins

Listening is key to developing digital solutions that meet the needs of HCPs and patients. Social listening, for example, by searching the web to see what’s being said about your company or products is a great way to gather insight and there are many free tools out there to get you started, such as Google Alerts***.

Speaking to HCPs and patients and asking them to describe the patient journey and mapping out the challenges and gains at each point helps identify where solutions are needed. Co-create solutions with HCPs and patients rather than stopping at co-design. Co-creation means involvement at each step of the process as you design, prototype, test and refine solutions. Start small, get something out there and learn as you go.

Go to