Listen and Engage: Pharma and Social Media

Globally, 83% of people online use the Internet to find information on chronic illness. Patients and doctors worldwide participate in online communities, sharing experiences and stories.

In reality, this leaves pharma no choice but to participate. But should you take an active role or be a passive observer? Trish Nettleship, Director for Social Media and Influence at UCB, believes there are key tenants to successfully engaging in this space, and she shares them with eyeforpharma.

“The first thing is to understand patient needs. The second thing is to engage. This is how you build great customer experiences,” said Nettleship. “We’re actively seeking information to better understand what [a patient’s] needs are, and from there we’re looking to engage with our patient community. But the listening never stops.” Done well, this engagement will lead to customers sharing their positive experiences with their peers, effectively advocating on behalf of the company, but soon that won’t be enough.

“How do we take it a step further without butting into the conversation? We need to uncover opportunities to help our customers. For example one of our products is a patch, and we’re having conversations about the difficulties people have using it. We know exactly how to solve this. There is an opportunity to go out there and help our customers in a more proactive way. We need to engage outside of our own four walls.”

UCB’s activities within epilepsy are a good example of a well-executed, successful campaign. Trish had frequently heard from physicians and patients that they were still accepting the presence of seizures. “The doctor would ask if they were okay, and they would say they might be better than last year or last month, but they were not seizure-free,” Nettleship recounted, “we build a whole campaign around ‘okay is not good enough, go beyond okay.’ We launched it across all social platforms, and we saw people talking about seizure freedom, using the terminology ‘go beyond okay.’ At the same time, doctors reported more patients coming in talking about the campaign, asking what can be done differently. That was our goal.”

What are the features of a successful campaign? It has to be human, and non-intrusive. “The last thing people want on social media is someone butting into a conversation with their own agenda. It’s not about promoting, it’s about help. If we try to promote ourselves, it will have a lot of negative backlash,” Nettleship stressed.

“Depending on the problem they’re having, you can point them toward relevant piece of content, but you can’t do that without human interaction.

Another thing is the human touch. Although a lot of companies are trying to automate the way they engage with customers, Nettleship calls it a “huge fail.” Unless the interaction comes across as human, the customers will not have the feeling that they’re being heard, let alone the confidence that the company can help them. “You need to really listen to the conversation. For example someone might say that they can’t pay for their medication in a given month, and then you can refer them to a co-payment program. Depending on the problem they’re having, you can point them toward relevant piece of content, but you can’t do that without human interaction.”

Although promising, social media has met with a lot of resistance from pharma, where you can hear executives expressing their concerns over the regulatory limitations they’re facing. “I can’t comprehend people who use the regulatory environment as an excuse,” Nettleship confessed. “The regulatory environment does make things more challenging, but we really need to look out for the opportunities,” she added. People nowadays assume that brands are going to help them with problems they’re having, regardless of whether this is regulated or non-regulated space. For example, in the airline industry, it is now expected that if you tweet about the problem, the response will come within 30 minutes.

“It crosses all boundaries. People are thinking about the problem they’re having, and they’re looking to the company to help them solve it. We have to find a way to help without crossing the regulatory line, and there’s plenty of ways to do that.”

All that, however, must be exercised with caution to avoid breaking the rules. For example, a conversation about the brand is unacceptable within a disease-stage community. “We can’t have people talking about medication, and that’s a challenge because that’s what people want, but we can build awareness around a disease without talking about any of our brands.”

“I will be the first one to tell you that we haven’t got the ROI figured out completely […] It’s not always about sales, it’s about what we’re trying to accomplish.

Another concern raised by many pharma companies is the requirement to report adverse events. “Many companies are shying away from social because of that,” Nettleship admitted, stressing that at UCB they have taken a different approach, and are seeking adverse events proactively. “I personally believe that it’s our responsibility to report adverse events to the appropriate regulatory bodies, but also to take it one step further, reach out to that person, and help them understand where they can find help.”

It’s all well and good, but how does social translate to ROI? “I will be the first one to tell you that we haven’t got the ROI figured out completely. You need to think about your business objectives, which aren’t specifically tied to the ROI. It’s not always about sales, it’s about what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Nevertheless, trust remains a big obstacle in social media campaigns. “Stepping outside my role, I would say people are very hesitant to trust pharma. There’s a lot of work to do, but I think social media is a great tool for that ‘cause we know people trust their peers in what they say. If they say they have a positive experience with us, and if they start talking about that, this is where we’re going to build trust, but that won’t happen overnight,” Nettleship concluded.

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