Twists & Tweets for Big Pharma

There's one thing you can say about the pharmaceutical industry: It's not shy about pushing its products. Between stuff to make you happy and stuff to make you sleep, ads for pharmaceuticals have become ubiquitous.

So why are these same companies so shy about engaging with their customers?

While other industries have latched onto the opportunities offered by social media, pharma companies have been hesitant to do so, research shows. And it's not because they have any doubts about its potential value.

A recent study by Cutting Edge Information found that 82 percent of the big pharma companies surveyed recognize the advantages of using social media. But many of those same companies conceded they're keeping a cautious distance due to concerns about regulatory issues and return on investment (ROI).

Does it pay to engage in conversations with your customers? Cutting Edge researchers contend that demonstrating ROI has long been a shortcoming of digital marketing in general, and social media in particular -- across the board, not just for pharma.

In fact, when asked about the importance of "demonstrating ROI," survey respondents rated it 7.2 on a scale of 1 to 10.

As everyone with an interest in analytics knows, it's not easy to measure ROI in social media -- at least compared to traditional channels like print and television. Social media -- and the data it generates -- is a different animal altogether, isn't it?

Some people understand that: They acknowledge that social media is more about listening and engaging with customers. While that's hard to translate to dollars and cents, it does create other long-term benefits, like a better understanding of consumer behavior.

Because of this, some pharma companies are jumping in, creating patient and healthcare professional communities, Facebook pages, YouTube channels, and Twitter feeds. According to a September report from IDC Health Insights, "Worldwide Pharmaceutical Social Media Analytics 2012 Vendor Assessment," pharma marketing departments are "starving for new ways to measure market sentiment, competitive analysis and promotional effectiveness" in areas that were previously difficult to gauge.

The report notes:

While spend on outbound social media marketing is lagging in 2012, investment in social media analytics software and services is growing and expected to increase significantly for the next several years.

More health-related conversations to come? What do you think? Are you comfortable discussing your treatment options for something like wrinkles on Facebook? What about a life-threatening disease? Do you want to engage in casual conversation with other people who may or may not know what they're talking about? And what can the pharmaceutical companies learn from the conversations?

Noreen Seebacher,

Noreen Seebacher, the Community Editor of Investor Uprising, has been a business journalist for more than 20 years. A New York City based writer and editor, she has worked for numerous print and online publications. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Post, New York’s Daily News, The Detroit News, and the Pittsburgh Press. She co-edited five newsletters for Real Estate Media’s and served as the site's technology editor.

She also championed the commercial real estate beat at The Journal News, a Gannett publication in suburban New York City, and co-founded a Website focused on personal finance. Through her own company, Stasa Media, Noreen has produced reports, whitepapers, and internal publications for a number of Fortune 500 clients. When she's not writing, editing, or Web surfing, she relaxes in an 1875 Victorian with her husband and their five kids, four formerly homeless cats, and a dog.

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Re: So Old School
  • 1/2/2013 11:11:34 PM


Beth writes

Anne Hale, senior director of analytics at Pfizer, summed up the pharma industry quite nicely .... "We're like the Mad Men of industry. We're struggling along in many ways in 1950s mode because of our industry and business model." While so [many] industries are dealing with big-data, pharma struggles with "no data," she quipped. Listening to Hale it seemed pharma may have bigger fish to fry than social data. (Hard to believe, right?!)


Given the increasingly competitive environment of Big Pharma, I'd think you could lay money on their jumping into social media, sentiment analysis, etc. bigtime in a frenzy to try to get an increasingly precise handle on what new pharmaceutical delicacies they can concoct, or at least how they can make their current offerings ever more attractive to medically hysterical consumers...


Re: Marketing drugs
  • 12/28/2012 7:08:08 AM

I'm not a pharma user at all (knock wood) but I suspect those taking drugs may have some aversion to checking twitter for 'latest' news about a drug product.

TV commercials, and print advertising is a way to sell products to a huge audience. Shotgunning the message seems to work well. Using Twitter might just be a bit of a stretch to efficiently make sales or keep customers buying. But testing ROI can't hurt.

Re: Marketing drugs
  • 12/8/2012 10:14:42 PM

Twitter also is more targeted because it can use followers, where TV broadcast commercials are simply put out there for people to see and hear, or not.  Twitter isn't the most highly tailored marketing channel, but its more refined than simple broadcasting.

Re: Marketing drugs
  • 12/8/2012 6:47:19 PM

@ mnorth - True, but commercials are broadcast to chosen markets, which hopefully  are in compliance with the law in where they are being broadcast. Twitter however, is international.  

Re: Marketing drugs
  • 12/7/2012 10:40:47 AM

"...almost impossible to see who exactly you are tweeting to..."

Couldn't the same be said for TV spots?  It's impossible to know who you're communicating to when you run a TV ad that says if you have x, y, and z symptoms, you should talk to your doctor about (drug).  How does a pharm know when they've crossed the line from marketing into medical advise?  I suppose the courts will tell them on a case-by-case basis.

Re: Marketing drugs
  • 12/6/2012 8:33:17 PM

I understand that it's marketing, but two way communication via social media could be viewed as giving medical advice, 

Case in point when Bayers ran into legal trouble with it's tweets. Bayer case puts the brakes on pharmaceutical firms use of twitter ...

Per the article "One of the tweets in question, relating to the launch of Sativex, read: "Sativex launched in UK for the treatment of spasticity due to Multiple Sclerosis." and the problem lies here. Unless you certify and screen every person who follows you, as Bayer failed to do, then it is almost impossible to see who exactly you are tweeting to. This means that firms could be marketing prescription drugs to the wider public, the main thing the law intends to stop."

Marketing drugs
  • 12/6/2012 11:45:35 AM

The way I see it, social media is hip-deep (or more) as the new medium for marketing, and big pharmacies have been puring billions into marketing for years, so why not add this channel to their marketing stream?  I've gotten to know a number of doctors over the years through a residency program at our local hospital, and they have told me stories of pushes by the big pharms that would make you queasy (such as bald-faced kickback offers).  The docs have told me that you'd be surprised how often they hear a patient say something like: "I saw this ad on TV for _____(fill in drug name here)_____, and I need you write a prescprition for it."  Now it will be, I read on Twitter some research that says I need...."  You get the idea.  It's marketing.

So Old School
  • 12/5/2012 7:36:52 PM

@Noreen, Anne Hale, senior director of analytics at Pfizer, summed up the pharma industry quite nicely in a presentation she delivered at last month's Predictive Analytics Innovation Summit (hosted by IE). "We're like the Mad Men of industry. We're struggling along in many ways in 1950s mode because of our industry and business model." While so industries are dealing with big-data, pharma struggles with "no data," she quipped. Listening to Hale it seemed pharma may have bigger fish to fry than social data. (Hard to believe, right?!)