Chats not charts: a three step programme for pharmaceutical postmarketing

The air of despondency that is descending over the pharmaceutical industry’s use of social media is perverse.

It has nothing to do with a putative (and also fictive) absence of interest on the patient’s part in connecting with the pharmaceutical industry.

It has everything to do with the industry’s anxiety and inability to reorganise itself internally to meet the challenges of interacting with a new audience (patients) in an environment in which it feels exposed and uncomfortable (the social web).

The pharmaceutical industry’s reluctance to utilise social media outside the anodyne contexts of corporate communications is in my opinion ‘perverse’ in its primary sense: it manifests a wilful determination on pharma’s part not to do what is expected or desired of it by patients.

A new agenda

Let’s begin by assuming all drugs in any given disease area are equally efficacious, have the same characteristics, and cost the same.

That is, of course, enough to send any pharmaceutical marketer into a swoon.

They live to demonstrate that this is not the case. Or, rather, they lived, past tense, to do so.

However, in social environments (among others) this is the actually-existing state of affairs.


Because in contexts where promotion is not allowed, pharmaceutical companies must find other ways of distinguishing themselves from their competitors.

Being a visible, reliable, trustworthy participant in ongoing disease-specific conversations on the social web is an ideal place to demonstrate this – and it is possible.

A three point programme to effective pharmaceutical participation in social environments

  1. Be prepared – ensure all colleagues who need to know what you are going to do are aware of and comfortable with your intentions. Do not let your original plan be derailed or diluted, but make your launch plans conservative enough to ensure that you get to the starting line. Focus on building confidence: your biggest challenge will be carrying your plan forward. Drive simplicity through everything you do. Confront challenges as they arise, don’t kick them into the long grass where they will trip you up later. Write a playbook detailing what you’re going to do, where you’re going to do it, and who is going to be doing it. Cover all adverse event and product complaint requirements. Be aware of the fact that you will need to diplomatically serve and correct many educational needs internally around what will and will not happen.
  2. Be candid – be prepared to answer questions from the public as to who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. Make a virtue of this.
  3. Be relevant – create distinctive suites of accounts for the disease areas you work in. You’re a pharmaceutical marketer. Be creative. Avoid anything which is or could be construed to be promotional. You’re a pharmaceutical marketer. You know what approvable looks like. Publish appropriate high quality, reliable, relevant information focusing on disease awareness and management. You’re a pharmaceutical marketer. You know where to find this stuff: what’s interesting, and what isn’t; what will reflect well on you indirectly, and what you need to avoid. Reach out to, connect and converse with advocates, healthcare professionals, and societies of interest in your disease area. You’re a pharmaceutical marketer. You know where to find them.

Is it really as easy as this?

Honestly? Yes, and no.

You’ll need to be able to discern and avoid the bumps in the road you will encounter, but such insights only come from experience, and in order to acquire experience, you need to be an active practitioner.

It’s time to start being one.

8 thoughts on “Chats not charts: a three step programme for pharmaceutical postmarketing

  1. Great Piece Andrew! Indeed, a must read to the health industry, not just pharma. You just stimulate to be as brave to take the journey into practice: doing and learning! Several aspects will come up, but the main thing is to put it through.

    • Hi Rob. Thanks once again for having taken the time to leave a comment. What the industry needs most is not more regulation in the form of guidelines, but more resilience with regard to its commitment to being an active practitioner in the environments that will dominate the way it presents itself in the future. There’s not much more to say, really.

  2. Pingback: Chats not charts: a three step programme for pharmaceutical … | Liberty Care RX - News and Information about medicare, medical insurance and pharmaceuticals

  3. Hi Andrew, I thought your article was very interesting however I’m not sure it reflects the whole story. There are organisations that are prepared, engaging and answering candid, relevant questions however you won’t see the full picture and therefore may have a biased view. Where the public and patients ask questions, you often find public replies, but there is a larger stream of direct messages and private chat taking place that you may never see. Just because you don’t think its happening, doesn’t mean it isn’t.

  4. Morning, Kai. Thanks for that.

    Usual disclaimers about ‘not every company, not every disease area’ apply, of course, and I make no claim to omniscience 🙂

    However, I’m sure it won’t have escaped your attention that there have been several ‘is social over for pharma?’ posts of late that will doubtless have grated with you as much as they did with me.

    The fact that I might not be able to see or hear the examples you refer to (did you have any particular ones in mind? Please share, if so) would, I think, be a good thing not a bad one bearing in mind my observations in the sign-off that our focus should become tighter as the degree of participation and volume of content published (across geographies, in different languages) increases.

    The conceptual moment of the ‘Renaissance digital health (wo)man’, the polymath who could theoretically have read everything, was indeed a short one, and occurred a long time ago… if it occurred at all.

    No-one could realistically be expected to keep on top of the entire health conversation on the social web and Internet.

    That said, within the disease areas that I am currently working in, pharma remains near-mute.

    Not just quiet, for the most part.

    Just not there, for the most part.

    Would it be unreasonable of me to suggest that your view of the industry is, like mine, also skewed by your high level of personal involvement in activities which (were the world a saner place) more companies would be taking part in, across disease areas, across territories, across languages?

    Somewhere between your view and mine lies the truth, perhaps 🙂

  5. The conversations above do not distinguish between ‘patients’, ‘public’ and ‘patients already prescribed a company medicine’ – the last of which may have a much closer relationship with the company in the form of a patient support program which often have digital elements and companies are gradually embracing to some degree. But there’s still a long way to go. Companies cannot provide advice on personal medical matters to members of the public so private conversations about a specific disease area should be fairly limited as otherwise they may risk being seen as providing advice.
    Companies have, in general, been very slow and reluctant to engage directly with patients or the public in any form, not just digital.Because they can’t promote prescription medicines directly or indirectly to the public they are rightly wary of falling foul of this. A key element in this is about the intention behind any activity. Why are the company doing it? You state “Because in contexts where promotion is not allowed, pharmaceutical companies must find other ways of distinguishing themselves from their competitors”. And my response is “Why do they have to distinguish themselves in the eyes of the public?” I can see why they do for health professionals who may prescribe your product. The public thinking you are a great company can be a spin-off of what you do, but it shouldn’t be the primary driver.
    I’m a huge advocate of listening and talking to patients – i think companies can learn an enormous amount for ‘the sharp end’ – but any activity directed at the public has to be done for the right reasons

  6. Hi Sarah. Thanks for stopping by, and for taking the time to leave a comment.

    My response to your counter-question would be: “which pharma companies don’t think it’s important to distinguish themselves in the eyes of the public?” 🙂

  7. I’m not saying they don’t but the question is why?
    And can’t they do that by giving lots of money to charity and supplying drugs free to the Developing World or somesuch? Or being a good investment on the stock market?
    If they are going to be a ‘trusted partner’ in a given disease area then they have to start by looking honestly at themselves and why they are doing things.because this will colour how they execute it.and how they will be judged should it ever come to it.
    So I go back to my question to you – why do they need the public to differentiate them? 🙂

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