In March of this year, Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) announced that it was working with Infosys and Fabric to sharpen up its digital strategy. In the same month Janssen announced that it was closing its pioneering Psoriasis 360 Facebook page. The two stories provide complementary and quite different perspectives on the Life Sciences industry’s adoption of social media.
GSK’s goal is to work with its new partners to strengthen its online presence and improve its use of social media. The aim is quite business-specific, centred on achieving better digital engagement with consumers and healthcare professionals leading to ‘rapid growth and deeper customer engagement’. GSK is an example of a company that is engaging with social media and looking to the future.

Janssen’s story on the other hand, illustrates some of the challenges that social media can pose and how much more complicated it is to realise its potential. When Janssen launched Psoriasis 360 in October 2010 it was a pioneering social networking site. Then it was the first in the Life Sciences industry to allow post-moderated comments (assessing comments only after they had been posted), something that Facebook’s new terms has now made mandatory.
Since breaking this new ground, Janssen has faced major challenges managing the forum effectively. David Keown, senior communications manager explained to an industry trade journal that they were having to remove around one third of all posts each month because they mentioned prescription-only medicines and in some cases, because the posts were offensive.

Janssen is not giving up on social media but it is reassessing how to get the best out of it. In a final post, the team wrote, ‘we are proud to have provided this forum at a time when they weren’t as widespread as they are today. But instead of our original intention of facilitating meaningful conversations, our experience shows that we are actually hampering conversations that could take place freely on a page run by a patient organisation.’


Time to engage

Two companies, two different stories, but one common theme and that is the need to engage with this complex new world! The industry is doing a lot of interesting new things in the field but despite some pioneering work, the Life Sciences industry’s engagement with social media is still in its infancy. At least that is the view of social media expert, Robert Dossin, global head of Life Sciences & Healthcare at Digital agency InSites Consulting.

In his view, there is still a long way to go because social media is neither integrated into the marketing function nor the business as a whole. Appreciating the true potential of social media tends to stop at the level of Marketing Director. There seems to be a feeling that the regulations governing communications in the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors somehow legislates against its use in the industry. We recognise the special regulations in pharmaceutical marketing, in particular dealing with healthcare professionals and patients, but that should not be an excuse not to engage.

Doing nothing is not an option and to be fair, the industry is moving ahead and engaging with new media. Since Johnson & Johnson launched the first industry blog – JnJ BTW – in 2007, six of the top pharmaceutical companies have followed suit, including Boehringer Ingelheim’s pending ‘The Future Just Happened’ and Lilly’s new Canadian blog LillyPadCA. In fact Lilly is also pushing the boundaries with its Clinical Open Innovation Twitter blog. Robert believes that the Life Sciences industry must change because social media provides far greater access to key stakeholders and this in turn, enables more effective decision-making and better policy-making. It is not just about communications and marketing but the business as a whole. For example, social media has a role to play in research and development where it can provide a perfect counterpoint to ‘scientists working blind, in a world governed by molecules’.

In fact, Pfizer has been using social media to facilitate trials in the USA. Social media was used as the means to recruit and run home trials of its Detrol LA bladder drug. The plug was pulled when it failed to persuade enough people to participate but the company was adamant that this should not be considered either failure or withdrawal from the use of social media. This is the time to experiment and learn what works and what does not.

Valuable insights

Drawing on his experience from other more evolved industry sectors, Robert’s advice to the Life Sciences industry is to be bold. Effective engagement over social media can provide invaluable insights into a changing world which is now populated by empowered consumers and patients. Ultimately, this is the intelligence that will enable better decision-making at all levels.

Like the Life Sciences industry, financial services are highly regulated and commensurately cautious and conservative. So it was interesting to find a recent post on the Forbes Advisor Network, which identified social media as one of the ‘big ideas’ for financial services. In what could be echoes from our industry, the writer notes how ‘compliance officers are still trying to prohibit advisors from using these tools’ and warns that those which don’t will quickly fall behind.
In the new world, the old-fashioned ‘push’ marketing strategy has had its day and now it’s all about knowing who you need to reach and how to ensure that they are interested in what you have to say. Rather than create conversations, it’s about tapping into existing ones. The experience with Janssen’s Psoriasis 360 forum seems to chime with this and the view is also supported by recent research from global management consultancy Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC).
PWC’s study, Social Media Likes Healthcare: From Marketing to Social Business reveals that around one third of those surveyed used social media for health matters. Consumer groups and forums on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are 24 times more popular than those established by industry. Action on the forums is pretty much constant with members and moderators active 24/7. The same study shows that industry sites do still attract around 100 new members per week and were considered high quality ’touch points’ that were good for sharing educational resources and resolving customer service issues.

Talent for social media

Social media presents a wealth of opportunities and challenges for the Life Sciences industry. But how can the industry best adapt to and engage with these numerous, powerful and quite complex entities? The prize is to reach beyond immediate decision-makers and establish contact with customers and patients. The way to achieve it, as in any social engagement, is through having the right people on board. With this in mind, Life Sciences’ companies should be looking to do some or all of the following:

  • Recruit a digital marketing director
  • Train and enable staff in the art of social networking
  • Bring in knowledge and expertise from sectors where the use of social media has evolved
  • Explore the opportunities for cross-fertilisation with the FMCG and OTC parts of the business
  • Collaborate with external partners who are experts in the field
  • Engage directly with the teams that run LinkedIn and other social networking tools

At RSA, we find that the industry is recruiting senior marketing and channel management professionals but very few of these come from outside the industry as many companies struggle to let them do what they were employed to do and expect them instead to follow the industry’s well-worn paths. Moving forward the industry needs to make a greater effort to be open-minded and learn from other sectors. It is important to find ways to accommodate social media skills within the team and ensure key people have some training. There may also be a good case for importing Interim Managers from outside the industry to share their knowledge and skills. In this way the industry gets the best of both worlds.
We currently have assignments for a European Marketing Director, Brand Director, and a Head of Marketing Channels. We are still waiting for an assignment to provide a Director of Social Media, but surely it must come eventually. IT revolutionised business and brought an IT Director into every self-respecting boardroom. Social media is doing something similarly profound and it may not be such a long time before there is a new member in the boardroom.


About the Author

Darren Spevick of RSA, the leading global Life Sciences Executive Search and Interim Management specialist, looks at some of the challenges and opportunities posed by social media and the part that the right people in the right places, can play in harnessing the power and staying compliant.