A few years ago social media appeared as a new communication channel that was taking the world by storm. Organisations, particularly in consumer goods, saw the huge opportunity it presented and started to actively engage using the channel.
To the heavily regulated pharmaceutical industry however it was a huge scary monster to be handled with extreme care or just ignored in the hope it would go away.
Social media did not go away and went from strength to strength. A few pharmaceutical companies started to experiment cautiously but the majority still waited - hoping for guidelines from regulatory authorities or still trying to maintain that it was not a relevant communication channel for the industry.
The result of this today is that as a whole the industry is about five years behind other industries when it comes to the use of social media. More to the point the industry is five years behind patients, who turned to social media in their droves. Today social media has become part of the norm and has become a standard information resource for people around the world and the industry needs to catch up.
Many of the pharmaceutical companies that pioneered its use are now at the forefront, having learnt from their experimentation and having started the cultural change process that this "new" channel requires. Sanofi provides a great example of this. In 2010 Sanofi had a Facebook page called Voices for employees and stakeholders to engage through but it ran into difficulties as the result of its mishandling of a patient post. Sanofi learnt some very valuable lessons from this, such as the importance of rules of engagement, and is now an example of best practice.
Those companies that buried their heads in the sand or waited for regulatory guidelines are now finding themselves having to get on-board the "social media bandwagon". Whilst the pioneers continue to plough ahead, expand their social media presence, and see the channel increasingly integrated into the organisation, those that held back are now in danger of falling even further behind. Those that experimented a few years ago also had the advantage that people were more forgiving with what was then still a new channel. Today it is no longer new and there is smaller room for error.
It is now accepted that pharma companies cannot ignore social media but what can those companies do that have still not fully embraced social media? How can they jump on a 'bandwagon" that actually left the station a while back and is it too late to catch up?
The answer is that it is definitely not too late and in fact the delay could be used as an advantage. Some of the pioneers have had their fingers burned as a result of experimenting and have become even more cautious, others have closed down initiatives due to lack of tangible ROI or unrealistic expectations and others yet have lost the impetus that propelled them into this exciting space and have seen social media become just another political internal issue.
New entrants to social media need to look back at the growing array of case studies, which the pioneers did not have a few years ago, to learn from the best and worst case examples. There is now also a wealth of information available regarding rules of engagement, environmental and behavioural factors as well as clearly established platforms and communities. This information should provide the foundation for any social media initiative.
Armed with the depth of knowledge a company then needs to look internally - what are the internal barriers to social media, are there already some social media mavens or people with experience that could be leveraged? How does the corporate culture sit with social media and what resourcing issues would need to be addressed to move forward in social media?
With this knowledge foundation in place and potential road blocks identified there are a number of ways a company can move forward. One option is to set up a social media task force at global level to lead and implement, with guidelines, central resources, etc. Another option is to empower affiliates to move forward with just some top level guidance from HQ. Core to either of these models is training, either organisation wide or restricted to functions that are most likely to engage via social media.
Another more radical, social media-esque, option is the networked model. Led by a central social media team at global level a network is built up across functions and countries with individuals with an interest, understanding and personal experience in social media. These individuals then act as mentors, guides and support.
Regardless of model though in order for a company to succeed today in social media it must have senior level backing and acceptance of how important this channel has now become. These senior level sponsors need to be prepared to step in and help overcome internal barriers to change and social media. They must stand up against internal politics that delay and block innovation.
One of the critical elements around social media is that it is not a short term "marketing campaign" and as such requires long term planning and resourcing. There needs to be adequate resourcing - both financial but also in terms of people with expertise. Currently there is a high level of dependence on agencies which is dangerous but also should no longer be necessary. Investing in people and in training is crucial and continued reliance on agencies rather than hiring in the right people only leads to a reduced internal level of knowledge.
These internal experts can also help lead the change in thinking that social media needs and which will benefit the industry as whole. Social media is the opportunity that the industry has been looking for ever since the death of the blockbuster model. It is not a new sales channel but it is a new fountain of information and a way to truly understand and engage with stakeholders. Better stakeholder engagement and understanding can lead to better services and products which in turn can help business. Better pharmaceutical business can mean more investment in R&D and therefore better medicines which then benefits stakeholders. For an industry whose main goal is to improve patient health outcomes social media is a highly valuable tool that must be fully embraced.
Erik Qualman summed up the reality of social media today when he said "We don't have a choice of whether we do social media, the question is how well we do it".
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