Social Media: A New Fix for Pharma

Time to embrace social media.



Trish Nettleship has spent her whole career in marketing, first with Hayes Microcomputers, then telecommunication giants BellSouth and AT&T. Now, as Global Director Multichannel Marketing for UCB, she insists that Pharma shouldn’t be wary of Social Media. Instead, Pharma should embrace it – just as she’s passionately done, throughout her career, seeking creative approaches to deliver results.

1) As an expert in social media, let's discuss the changing role of social media in pharma and building engaged communities. How has social media's importance evolved since your time in AT&T and what have been your key learnings for pharma in this sphere?

Social media has moved from something we do to connect with our friends and family to share what we had for lunch, to an integrated part of our daily lives.  I personally used to schedule time every morning and afternoon to “be social” online.  Now it comes naturally as part of my daily routine, for example, sharing an interesting article with my network, reaching out to ask for recommendations, or as my “go-to” source of inspiration.  

This behavioral shift also translates for how patients learn and cope with their disease. For example, 90% of adults ages 18-24 trust medical information shared in their online networks (source: Search Engine Watch) and more than 40% of consumers say that information found via social media affects the way they deal with their health (source: Mediabistro).  I know I can relate to these statistics.  When my daughter had a fever for over a week, I went online to research the symptoms. I reached out on forums and asked questions of others.  I went into the doctor’s office armed with information on her symptoms and what I thought she was probably suffering from based on what I learned online.  I was right, by the way! The problem is that there is quite a bit of misinformation online.  One study led by Dr. Robert Hasty of the Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine in North Carolina found that of 10 conditions studied on Wikipedia, nine were described with false or misguided information.  Wikipedia is one of the top sites used for finding health information.  This shift means that pharma has an opportunity to fill this need by providing trusted information for patients and healthcare providers. 

2) What are you hoping to achieve in your current role and what drew you to UCB from AT&T?

I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to have a positive impact on patients’ lives! Seeing the important work that UCB was undertaking and knowing the key role digital can play in improving patients’ lives, I was excited. By helping to provide more robust resources, connecting patients with other patients, and ensuring they feel supported and not alone, I feel like I am making a difference.  When I talk to patients and they express what an impact our products or our patient communities have had in their lives that makes my day! In order to achieve the goal of providing patients with what they need, when they need it and where they need it, we have to evolve how we approach our patients.  Digital is at the heart of those interactions.  My goal is to increase the digital maturity of the entire UCB organization to the point that is becomes how we interact naturally and not just something we do.   

3) Are there social media rules that pharma should adhere to in terms of how they conduct themselves on social media both from the patient perspective and a regulatory perspective?

No matter what industry you are in, there are rules you should adhere to in social media.  For example, you should not push your way into a conversation online unless you can provide value; i.e. you are mentioned or you can actually solve their problem.  In my role at AT&T, I had to determine when, and how, to respond through social media.  The general rule we came up with is, “if you can solve the issue or provide valuable information, then respond.”  The majority of the conversations around the brand did not meet that criteria, so in those instances, we did not respond. Data privacy and transparency are two concerns shared across all industries.  We must have measures in place to ensure patient privacy.  Every company should have a social media policy that outlines how to handle patient information and outlines the rules for transparency, and identifies those employees who can act on behalf of the company. 

In the almost four years I’ve been in pharma, I have been perplexed by this notion that the regulatory environment precludes us from participating in social media. Is it a bit more complex in a digital world? Yes. But impossible? Absolutely not.

The regulatory rules for the pharma industry related to social media activities are the same as they are for any other patient engagement.  In the almost four years I’ve been in pharma, I have been perplexed by this notion that the regulatory environment precludes us from participating in social media. Is it a bit more complex in a digital world? Yes. But impossible? Absolutely not.  We have embraced social media as a way to engage with our patients, when, where and how they prefer.  Nexium is another good example of a brand embracing the challenges and being rewarded for jumping in -  https://www.facebook.com/NEXIUM/timeline.They have more than 200,000 “Likes” and great engagement. 

4) Does company culture play an important role in how companies and their brands are perceived on social media?

Very simply, people are now the media. The platforms will come and go, but how organizations leverage people as “the media” in a smart way – that is here to stay. 

Brands have a personality based on the people who manage them and that surely comes through in social media.  The tone you take, the content you share, the replies, etc., all make up a personality. Coca-Cola is a great example of a company that pulls their culture through in their online presence.  In the past, Pharma was very rigid in their online personality due to concerns over the potential risks.  That comes from a culture of risk avoidance.  As the industry has become more comfortable, you see new identities coming out in social media. 

5) What do you see as the true potential of social media from a pharma marketer’s perspective?

Amplification through social media has definitely taken off with all major pharma companies participating on varying levels. However, actually engaging via social media is still not the norm in the industry.  Engagement shouldn’t be a passive experience where you wait for patients to reach out to you – it’s an opportunity to add value through dialogue. True engagement, as defined by having a conversation with your audience, is still slow to take off because of the perceived potential regulatory concerns.  UCB has adopted the approach that directly responding to our patients is our responsibility as experts on our products.  This may mean that some conversations are directed offline to ensure privacy, but we want to acknowledge our patients and their needs wherever they choose to express them. Achieving this takes careful planning and coordination with various stakeholders, but it’s the right thing to do for patients.

I expect many more pharma companies will soon begin to engage directly with patients via social media.  I believe the best place to start is customer service. NM Incite’s “State of Social Customer Service Report” states 71% of consumers who experience a fast and useful brand response on social media are more likely to recommend that brand to others. That compares to just 19% of customers who do not receive a quick response.

Our patients don’t view pharma companies any differently than any other company they may interact with. When you post a tweet about your airline experience, you expect a response within minutes, not hours and days – and the idea that you may not receive a response at all is inconceivable.  The expectation is the same for our industry.  It’s past time for pharma to join the conversation.

Every industry, including pharma, has customer service departments so implementing change in an area that already interacts regularly and directly with patients is low-hanging fruit. It’s just a matter of doing what we already do but through channels that patients may prefer.

6) Rebecca Canvin, Social Media Manager at Ogilvy Healthworld, says “social media has changed the way pharma companies communicate – it allows them to build corporate reputation and engage in genuine, meaningful conversations with audiences. For companies who want to stand out from the crowd, it’s time to be brave, get personal, educate and integrate social media into their wider marketing strategy.” What's your opinion on that?

I couldn’t agree more about the potential.  So many pharma companies are still holding back with direct engagement with patients, but what better way to have a deeper understanding of our patients than to have a direct relationship with them?

I can envision a time when portals, chat, and virtual environments will become commonplace ways to interact with patients. This will represent a key shift to centering around our patients, rather than our own internal functions. Patients are swiftly becoming drivers of their own healthcare and we need to accommodate them so that we can be effective partners.

7) In trying to manage the risks for a pharmaceutical company associated with a social media channel, what are the main points to bear in mind?

It’s less about the regulatory environment and more about the expectations that it takes to be successful.  The old “build it and they will come” mentality will not work.  Understand your audiences, what their needs are and how best to meet them.  If your audience is regularly engaging in conversations on Twitter about your therapeutic area, then don’t build them a Facebook community. 

Impactful social media does require a significant commitment of resources to ensure it is valuable and compliant. You can’t underestimate the amount of time, effort and budget required.  Filtering and moderation are required to ensure that you are meeting your regulatory requirements.  There is community management required to drive engagement and bring the insights back into the company.  A regular content stream is required to bring the audience in and drive engagement. Promotional budget is required to achieve a level of reach that makes sense.  And, of course, impactful social media requires overall strategic planning to ensure your efforts tie back to your business objectives.

8) At a personal level what drives you?

I need to get up every morning and want to go to work - that feeling where you know what you do is making a difference for someone.  I live and breathe digital marketing and am lucky enough to be able to combine that with the opportunity to have an impact on the lives of so many people living with severe diseases. That passion is what drives everyone I work with here at UCB.  


Trish Nettleship will be speaking at eyeforpharma Philadelphia 2016 on the topic "Integrate Your Digital Channels to Build Customer-Oriented and Targeted Multichannel Marketing".


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