Feel the Fear, Go Digital Anyway

While other industries are looking for what comes next, pharma is still smarting over its slow migration to the digital space. As the market itself is undergoes unprecedented upheaval, it’s time that these firms face their concerns and embrace innovation that can provide some very real returns.



Pharma is currently experiencing a number of radical changes, according to Angel Gonzalez, Founder & CEO of social media advertising company, Ideagoras, and Veronica Botet, Global Digital and Social Media PR Manager  at GE Healthcare.  “On top of the expiration of patents and the demands for expertise from the market’s sales force, we now must deal with the relatively unknown digital world – and the new e-patient.”

Changing Mindsets

We are no longer in control of our own brands.  Companies now need to channel the ‘humankind brand

In this new environment, Gonzalez maintains that is important to re-assess attitudes towards company products and the target customer base. “We have to bear in mind that we are no longer in control of our own brands.  Companies now need to channel the ‘humankind brand’ – they must be able to relate in an amicable yet unobtrusive way with both the doctors and the patients.”

Engaging and communicating with end users through appropriate dialogue via social networks should be just as important as listening to the demands of the stakeholders for growth and return, says Gonzalez. In fact, the two could easily go hand in hand. Yet first the mentality of the industry towards social media has to change.  “Technological developments are not hindering the uptake of digital in pharma. Rather, it is attitude of the market towards this type of communication.  The benefits are not recognised as digital is simply associated with risk and potential failure – and drug firms are afraid of this.”

The lack of definitive regulation with regards social media and the related concern of self-censorship does play a large part in this reticence to migrate to social media.  But if companies combine basic ethical considerations, and a certain amount of monitoring and supervision, with these new technologies, they may actually realise just how beneficial dialogue via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or any other social channel can be for their business.  

There are a number of firms that are beginning to realise this, says Botet, but the industry should continue to look forward. “It’s about time that we stopped dwelling on the fact that we’ve been slow to adopt this technology.   We should now start to move on and think about how we’re going to address that and how we’re going to catch up.”

On the Global Stage

Nevertheless, certain regions across the globe are at many varying stages of digital awareness. For a global pharmaceutical company with many hubs worldwide, it can be therefore quite difficult to ensure the same level of adoption across the entire organisation.  Botet recognises this. “Although we have standard adoption strategy that’s applicable globally we’re also trying to make sure that different region gets the support they need to encourage and allow social media activity in their geography. This involves developing appropriate methods that are specific to these markets.”

Addressing the issue of social media or multi-channel in Mexico, it shocked me that the focus was simply on the device itself […] It had nothing to do with this open-minded vision of collaboration through social media

Despite the very best attempts at uniformity, Gonzalez reveals that the front runner in adoption is North America with Europe trailing at a distant second. But it is in Latin America where the uptake could really do with significant improvement. “Addressing the issue of social media or multi-channel in Mexico, it shocked me that the focus was simply on the device itself, the iPad, the electronic visual aid.  It had nothing to do with this open-minded vision of collaboration through social media.” 

Elsewhere, however, other emerging markets are proving a lot more receptive to the digital trend. Different regions in Asia, namely China, are very active in social media, according to Botet, and she intends to introduce an existing cross-platform social media structure to assist this activity in the country. She explains:  “It’s an awareness campaign to talk about healthy living and lifestyles, we basically ask people to share how they keep fit and healthy.  Initially, we just used Twitter, but this year we want to take the campaign global and that includes China, where we chose Sina Weibo as our platform.”

Naturally, as with any new initiative – and particularly in heavily regulated markets – there are bound to be some legal and regulatory hoops to jump through.  And Botet finds the best way to get the relevant officials on board is to help them understand how these new initiatives work.  “I usually liaise with them before we launch any new platform or initiative, tell them what we want to do and we find solutions together.  Understanding how to actually use the product/service can assist the sale itself.”

Tangible ROI     

By highlighting the effectiveness of digital communication and the positive impact it can then have on the global healthcare system, Botet believes that she creates a vision of a prospect that is hard to pass up.  “It’s a direct channel to all your audiences, to whoever you want to address. You can convey your message in your own words and you don’t have to rely on third parties.”

A platform for real-time discussion for both physicians and patients is a very welcome scenario yet Gonzalez reiterates that it does need to be mentored.  “But pharma companies have the opportunity to do this effectively.  Most importantly, they have the obligation to convey the proper message to empower these patients in the right way.”

But what is really impressive about digital communication is the ability to gather and utilise the relevant feedback to improve services and products so that the end users (doctors and patients) ultimately benefit.  A natural consequence of this, Botet says, is the trust that it will generate in the particular brand.

Building this trust, and breaking down the age-old gap between pharmaceutical industry and the general population is probably one of the greatest rewards of communicating through social media, says Gonzalez.  “We are evolving from a window shopping site to a digital eco-system where the public have the ability to participate and co-create brands with you.  There is a great opportunity here for the industry. Pharma is committed to the health of the population, and this message can be clearly conveyed from them to the general public.”


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