I was taught as a child to always stop, look and listen before crossing a road. This simple rule could also be applied to the pharmaceutical industry – with the road being the first step to developing a social media presence.
The first action needed is to stop being afraid of social media and start to see it for what it is – another communication channel and a way to build relationships with stakeholders – and which can be done within the current regulatory system.
It is also time to stop holding off and waiting to see what will happen, waiting for industry guidelines and generally waiting to see how the pharma social media pioneers are doing. This channel is not going to go away, by the time guidelines come along they will probably be outdated anyway and waiting too long could result in the competition gaining a real competitive advantage thanks to their skilful use social media.
That does not mean one should just run straight across the road and jump into social media. First do look at what other pharma companies have done and are currently doing. Learn from their mistakes (e.g. The Sanofi Voices saga http://pharmamkting.blogspot.com/2010/03/patient-unadvocate-lays-siege-to-sanofi.html ). Learn from the success stories (e.g. Psoriasis360 http://www.pharmaphorum.com/2011/02/07/psoriasis-360-how-pharma-can-do-social-media/ ).
The other benefit of looking at what other pharma companies are currently doing is that it provides ammunition for getting internal approval and buy in. The contention that a social media project is not possible due to regulatory requirements could be overcome by showing examples where it is being done already. Providing case studies from the competition can also help strengthen the argument when trying to get buy in internally for social media.
It is also worth looking at where your target audience is online. It may well be that there is already a well established social media presence and community meaning it could be more beneficial to try to work with this community, for example through sponsorship, rather than set up a new one. Knowing where the target audience is going online also gives good indications about their behaviour but also where to place advertising. Just building a social media presence does not mean people will visit it – they will need to be driven and directed there, for example through banner ads on key websites they visit.
Anyone who has been involved in a successful social media initiative can tell you that one of the key actions is listening. It is really important to listen to what your target audience is discussing. This leads to a wealth of knowledge – for example highlighting any unmet needs, providing insights into what the audience sees as “value” and trending topics. This will facilitate pre-populating the initiative with content that is of interest to the target audience – without which it may just end up being yet another empty pharma web presence. Moving forward listening also ensures that content continues to resonate with the audience.
Listening is a key ongoing activity. Besides helping to ensure that content is of value to the audience, listening is also crucial in flagging any potential problems. Monitoring the conversations happening on the social media initiative will ensure that any non-compliance issues, such as discussions around off label use, can be dealt with quickly and effectively. In fact not listening is one of the core factors behind social media disasters and should never be underestimated – it takes time and resources but is well worth it.
So before crossing the social media road – stop look and listen – and join the social media “revolution” safely.