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Pharma, Facebook and Social Media

Originally published at as PharmaBookSocialMediaDeathwatchSOUP on August 17, 2011 If you live and breathe in the social media marketing world, especially in the healthcare space, you already know that social media giant Facebook made a minor platform change this week, which is causing a (small but growing) ripple effect in the online healthcare tide pool: FB will no longer allow comments to be disabled on Walls. This change has caused some pharmaceutical companies to leave the platform, and inspired a deathwatch to see who will be next (jonmrich is keeping apocalyptic vigil). For those like John Pugh, who's Boehringer Ingleheim Facebook page has always allowed comments it was, in the words of Andrew Spong, "just another Monday," and John Mack wondered if Facebook was a killing machine.

Having had August 15 circled on my calendar for 6 weeks, and provided counsel to clients on how to proceed for longer than that, I committed a cardinal engagement sin - I mentally tuned out the swirl around the topic and turned my attention elsewhere. What drew me back into the debate was a Steve Woodruff's thoughtful post: Does Pharma Really Have Anything to Offer on Social Media? NOW we're getting at the crux of the matter. The latest platform change on Facebook is a blip, and illustrative of this bigger and much more important question.

The answer is two-fold, and contains another, and in my opinion more critical, question: CAN pharma really offer their expertise via social media in today's regulatory climate? Now before you stone me, we are not going to talk about FDA guidelines (per se) or continue in the woe-is-me vein that we've read time and again with regard to this topic. I simply don't think we can answer Steve's question without at least thinking about mine. And here's why.

Does pharma have anything to offer? In my opinion, absolutely. Just as every patient journey is different and each ePatient's voice brings a unique perspective to the online conversation, the story behind for each pharma brand is different. Who else is better positioned to speak about why on-brand treatment may be more effective than a generic, why R&D focuses on certain disease states, how drug prices are set or why a brand works for your disease state than the pharmaceutical communicators, marketers and researchers who've created the story of th brand. As I have said before, no one knows these brands and/or devices better than the companies who designed, created and market them. With 56% of internet users online looking for information about a specific treatment or procedure, and 24% looking for information about drug safety*, I would argue that pharma and device manufacturers have valuable and neccessary information to share, and they should be sharing it online, in the channels where there consumers are gathering information.

With this premise in mind, I then return to my question, CAN pharma offer their expertise via social media in the current climate? While a pharmaceutical organization may have valuable information to share with an online consumer about a particular brand, how valuable will the exchange be if during the course of the exchange the drug's entire fair balance needs to be posted - or read aloud via an audio file - after every brand name mention? How can we expect pharmaceutical companies to engage on platforms that aren't built to accommodate the specific regulatory requirements that govern their communication with the public? I would like to see more pharmaceutical companies embrace the tried and true rules and regs we all know so well, and creatively apply them to an owned social media space, designed and customized to accommodate regulatory foibles. I would also like to see more unbranded campaigns embrace the challenges of working on third-party social media platforms, because I believe that pharma's presence benefits the consumer and has the potential to add a layer of credibility in areas that are lacking.

Does pharma have anything to offer on social media? Yes. Can that valuable information survive the regulatory hurdles and compliance requirements of DTC marketing to see the light of day, or should I say the backlight of the screen? That's the tricky part.

*Susannah Fox, Health Topics, Feb 1, 2011.

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