If anyone had any lingering doubts about an unprecedented era of inclusion and transparency promised by pharma’s newfound, if tentative, embrace of online social media, then last month’s Digital Pharma Europe conference must have gone some way to soothing them. Here, Novartis companionably took the stage with Boehringer-Ingelheim, Roche sat happily alongside AstraZeneca, and they all — along with representatives from other rival companies — were warmly welcomed into the Bayer-Schering headquarters in Berlin to swap stories, explain strategies and generally offer each other support and advice with regard to the latest phenomenon in pharma communications. Indeed, if I was less cynical a person, such a display of harmony and co-operation might have brought a tear to my eye.
But there remained a niggling doubt that echoes celebrated screenwriter William Goldman’s oft-quoted comment about Hollywood: nobody really knows anything. A scan of the conference participants’ job titles either confirms the healthy buoyancy of the industry’s approach to this revolution in patient, physician and corporate communication, or reflects the fact that everyone has their own conflicting ideas: Director of Social Media, Head of Corporate Internet Presence, Head of Digital Marketing, Lead, New Media Communications and, not forgetting, the good old Director of Corporate Communications. Still, the very fact that the industry now has some recently re-titled Heads and Directors of Social Media underlines its long-awaited recognition of the importance, or finally its growing fear, of Web 2.0 and what it means for online strategies.
Not surprisingly, the conference saw attitudes to social media’s place in a pharma company vary fairly widely, from “social media is just another communication channel” to “no, it’s not a channel, it’s a platform” (this from speakers in the same company) to “social media shouldn’t be in our job titles, it should be ingrained in all our communication activities” and “there’s no such thing as a social media strategy.” All of which highlighted the concern expressed by more than a few members of the audience: is pharma’s engagement with Web 2.0 still an ‘experiment’ or is it a genuine attempt to spread the social media culture?
Colin Foster, Novartis’ Director of Social Media, told the conference that his role was both to experiment and to spread the culture. “But it soon becomes a question of how you embed social media into the organization,” he said. Novartis has advanced further down this path than some companies. It was one of the first companies to establish an alliance with PatientsLikeMe, an online community for people with ‘life changing conditions’ that has a current membership of around 45,000 patients and which logged over 360,000 posts last year. In 2008, it engaged PatientsLikeMe’s multiple sclerosis (MS) community to boost its registrations for its MS clinical trials. More recently, the company has helped establish an organ transplant community on the site and will use the information gleaned from its discussions in its future research.
But Gillian Tachibana, Merck Serono’s Director of Social Media, seemed to contradict Foster’s stance, saying pharma social media “is not about experimentation. Internally, it’s about education; externally it’s about having a strategy, a vision.” Merck Serono is perhaps more cautious after having had its fingers burnt by one online community it was involved with. Tachibana explained how the company “had a crisis on a message board” when someone made harsh criticisms of a rival company. “We didn’t deal with it too well,” she added. Merck Serono simply shut down the forum, a move that was soon picked up — and criticized — by the press.
As with any discussion of social media, Facebook could not be ignored. But again this was a bone of some contention. The virtues of the site as an important method to build opportunities for dialogue were duly extolled; Facebook, it was noted, has become one of the biggest drivers of traffic to websites; in some cases more so than Google. And it has over 1000 communities for people with chronic illnesses.
But Alex Butler, Communications Manager at Janssen-Cilag UK, reminded us that people on Facebook are there to have fun, not to be sold something, or even ‘educated.’ And with public trust in the industry at an all-time low, is it a good idea for Big Pharma to try and generate ‘friends’ on Facebook? “People don’t want an intimate relationship with a pharma company,” noted Alex. But what pharma does need to do on social networking sites, commented Marianne Gries, VP of Marketing at Merz Pharmaceuticals, is “listen, inform and engage.” Unfortunately, the acronym she uses to convey this message is ‘LIE.’
So, differing opinions reign. But I’ve been to enough pharma conferences in the past five years to know that inconclusiveness is usually the order of the day. I’d probably feel short-changed if I came away with any definite ideas about anything. Still, that doesn’t mean Digital Pharma Europe wasn’t a relevant and potent forum for a very healthy exchange of ideas — indeed it was. And, in fairness, there was resounding agreement on some inescapable Web 2.0 facts and observations (with thanks to FD Santé):
- A decade ago, product launches didn’t even take account of patients; now they are at the centre of the campaign.
- Younger doctors and medical students comprise a generation that only knows online CME. Now every medical education campaign must include a social media element.
- It is pointless running a symposium unless you are going to broadcast it on the web.
- If we wait for official regulatory guidance on social media, we could be waiting forever, so industry leaders must write it themselves.
All of these topics, and more, we hope to pick up in Pharmaceutical Executive Digest Europe, over the coming weeks and months. Whatever your thoughts are on where online social media sits and how it should be defined within your company, there’s no denying that it’s out there and it’s huge — and it’s not going to go away.