It's easy to pick on big pharma. For good or bad, the industry continues to appear aloof and isolationist, and many are happy to wag a finger and declare big pharma solely a revenue-generating machine, sacrificing patient care and access to medicines for the almighty dollar. I happen to disagree with (most of) that sentiment. Having worked alongside diligent colleagues inside of big pharma for a number of years, I know there is an urge to improve patient lives, improve access to medicines, and make life-altering and life-saving drug therapies. It is from this perspective that I say, earnestly, the pharmaceutical industry is fucking up when it comes to social business...big time.
While many of us have led the charge to bring pharma into the age of social media marketing, pioneers like John Pugh, Alex Butler, Marc Monseau, Ray Kerins, and Shwen Gwee have broken barriers in the use of social media within the pharmaceutical industry, and there have been breakthroughs in the use of social media to advance the industry (@PhRMA, pharmaforum) and improve engagement with patients (Roche Diabetes Blogger summits), it's not enough. Over the last several years, many of us have had the conversation about how, if, and why pharmaceutical companies should, or should not, use social media. Honestly, it's time to change the conversation and have a new one, because the old one is stagnant, and - frankly - I don't care about the latest Pharma Facebook page that's been launched or taken down, or about the number of Tweets sent by pharma Twitter handles in the last hour/day/week. I care about better patient outcomes, access to medicines, empowering both patients and HCPs in the treatment and prevention of illness, and accurate information about therapies on the market - and about using social media to facilitate and forge the partnerships necessary to enable this new reality. So, to pharmaceutical companies I say this: some of you are "doing" social, but you're not "being" social, and here's why - you've not done enough to alter your DNA so you can (begin to) function as a social business.
What is a Social Business Anyway?
The term social business was originally defined by Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammed Yunus as a non-loss, non-dividend company designed to address a social objective within the highly regulated marketplace of today [that should] seek to generate a modest profit [which] will be used to expand the company’s reach, improve the product or service or in other ways to subsidise the social mission*. This definition has morphed in the last few year into a fiery buzzword, its meaning has become mutable to suit the speaker and conversation. Of these mutable definitions, one of the most apt I've seen comes from Peter Kim who, along with David Armano and Jevon MacDonald wrote about Social Business Design, saying:
Social business draws on trends in technology, work, and society. Companies should care about social business because they can improve business outcomes (i.e., increase revenue or decrease costs). The core principles touch on all areas of a business, whether for business-to-customer engagement, employee-to-employee collaboration, or supply chain optimization. Making social business work requires focus on a company's culture, connections, content exchanges, and measurement and analytics.
This is a brilliant piece of writing. It not only tells us what a social business is, but takes the time to inform us why we should care and how to make it work - in reality it's a social business blueprint in the purest form.
Don't regulations stop Big Pharma from adopting a social business model?
In a word, no. More specifically, they don't have to. Don't take my word for it - former FDA Associate Commissioner Peter Pitts has been vocal about the pitfalls, and opportunity, for Big Pharma when it comes to social media use in his battle cry Pharma, Guide Thyself. And FDA regulations, or the lack thereof, haven't stopped companies like Boehringer Ingelheim or Sanofi US, companies who continue to roll out social programs as a matter of course and are beginning to evolve into a business with social DNA. So if regulations are a red herring, what is standing in the way?
Rigid, unchanging culture, a blinding focus on a narrow definition of ROI. A continual push on profit as THE leading indicator for pharma marketing business decisions instead of making the pivot to seeing profit as AN indicator, along with acknowledging the business benefit of building relationships in today's marketplace - the return on relationship (#RonR), as Ted Rubin would wisely counsel us - these are all factors that continue to block major pharmaceutical companies from embracing a social business model.
If relationship building and #RonR still seems too squishy to be a "real" measure of business success, and therefore not something big pharma needs to focus on to be a social business, Harvard Business Review disagrees by the way, and you can read why in recent posts like Tweet Me, Friend Me, Make Me Buy and The View from the Field, I would point you instead - my doubting friend - to the trend the pharma industry is missing out on: harnessing big data. Big data, access to it, and adaptability, scalability, and usability of it by patients, payers and HCPs is THE future of healthcare social media - not Facebook, Twitter or any of the other current platforms out there. End of. We need to create new models for a new hybrid of business; just as our healthcare system needs a major overhaul if it's to support a growing and changing populous, the healthcare business model needs to change, grow and morph into something consumers, payers and PATIENTS can use to gain access to the medicines they need for proper care. And, speaking of Big Data, if there was ever a time to join Todd Park, Aman Bhandari, Aetna, Kaiser Permanente, Health 2.0, and others in the Big Data Revolution it would be now, when VCs are looking to hackathons in record numbers for innovative ideas, outside-of-the-box thinking, and startups are stretching the limits of what's possible in a resource-constrained economy (more about the next Big Data Hackathon here: Hackathon for the Human Brain and about the groundbreaking SXSW 2012 Healthcare Hackathon).
Yet there is no groundbreaking news of a major pharmaceutical company leading a charge to be present at, promote or host a hackathon in any way. No one loudly promoting more patient engagement. There are no new faces at the table, but the same heroes pushing against a tired agenda and caught in a loop of off-label and adverse event conversations, debating ownership, legalese, and phantom compliance pitfall scenarios.
So, pharma where art thou? Who will lead your revolution? Your brand managers? Your CEOs? Who will step up. Even your agencies and thought leaders are failing you, becoming insular bobble heads delivering not on what you need but on what you ask. We must break from the norm, break out of our self-imposed silos and look outside of our expertise and our industry for the groundbreaking ideas that will lead us beyond a self-limiting focus on the current platforms and fear of regulations we can work within to optimize results. It can be done, because it has been done. The time for revolution is here. Who will join me in taking the first step? Who will stand beside me to lead the charge?
Revolutionaries to follow: I'm continually inspired by friends and colleagues who are pushing the bounds of the norm to disrupt the status quo.
Regina Holliday: Regina recently announced the first Partnership with Patients Summit, September 21-23, 2012. Regina is a tireless advocate, artist, voice...revolutionary. For many of us we can only stand in awe and follow. Follow Regina's tireless journey on her blog.
Steve Woodruff: In his Impactiviti Blog, Steve recently called for some real-world forward thinking from our pharmaceutical industry friends as he incited drug companies to wake up to the mobile revolution with his post The (Inter)face of Healthcare.
Andrew Spong: the definition of disrupter, Andrew contributes to the conversation with creation on his site www.stwem.com, see An Open Letter to Pharma: Please Employ a Wikipedian, and curation via his Scoop.it page. Want to know where pharma is going wrong? Ask Andrew. Then conference call me in and the two of us can talk to you about how we can fix it.