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Pharma and Social Media: Consumer Engagement Boon or Headache?

pharma and social mediaPharmaceutical marketing has always been a tricky business. Heavy regulation, the difficulty of balancing claims versus potential liabilities, and the ability to control messaging — not only to the public, but to the highly-trained medical professionals who enable prescription sales — continue to present challenges to the sector.

Social media could be a gold mine… or a legal morass.

With society's shift away from the consumption of broadcast and print toward increasingly interactive forms of media (apps, social media, and even games), the ability to maintain complete control over messaging has been compromised.

Sites like Pinterest and Facebook hit wide demographics, appealing heavily to consumers that pharma seeks to engage. These sites offer consumers the ability to share messaging and experiences with products, but have the opportunity for distortions or adverse event reporting that many producers fear could lead to legal culpability.

Although the FDA is working on clarification and codification of its rules for regulating pharmaceutical companies' social media marketing efforts, it is only at the draft guidance stage.

At issue seems to be the degree of responsibility pharmaceutical companies hold following the initial release of any promotional messaging on social media platforms. Are real-time interactions between a company's marketing arm and a consumer on a social site considered promotional?

According to the FDA's draft guidance statement, issued just last month:

a firm is responsible for product promotional communications on sites that are owned, controlled, created, influenced, or operated by, or on behalf of, the firm. Such product promotional communications may include firm-sponsored microblogs (e.g., Twitter), social networking sites (e.g., Facebook), firm blogs, and other sites that are under the control or influence of the firm. In determining whether a firm must submit promotional material about its product(s) to FDA, the Agency considers whether the firm, or anyone acting on its behalf, is influencing or controlling the promotional activity or communication in whole or part. Thus, a firm is responsible if it exerts influence over a site in any particular, even if the influence is limited in scope. For example, if the firm collaborates on or has editorial, preview, or review privilege over the content provided, then it is responsible for that content.

For example, let’s say that Pfizer were to post its latest television commercial for a new patent drug on YouTube. If Pfizer chose to entertain and engage consumers' questions about the product on the video's comment section, would each comment qualify as "promotional material" subject to governmental regulation? Would all comments need to be vetted by the FDA prior to release? And if so, would it be worth it to make the effort to incorporate social media strategy into the primary marketing plan?

The attention span of the consumer is increasingly short and fragmented. If pharma must wait days or weeks to push through a crafted response to a question or consumer rumor, the initial enlistment potential of posts is lost, and a company faces the increased likelihood of a fast-spreading rumor becoming a boondoggle.

The monetization efforts of social media companies compound the problem.

It's no secret that Facebook changed its algorithm so only those ads for which a firm pays, or those unpaid posts that generate large amounts of organic comments, get into newsfeeds. And the costs of paid placements can be prohibitive.

But then we return to our chicken-and-egg question: if a manufacturer is paying a third party to boost its social media presence, are all those posts and likes considered "influence" subject to the regulation requirements discussed above? It would certainly seem that the FDA would take the view that this would constitute "acting on [a pharmaceutical producer's] behalf… influencing or controlling the promotional activity."

Throwing a single ad or series of ads out into the socialsphere without follow-up is ineffective.

Would the FDA consider shares and re-tweets "acting on behalf" of a producer? It's a stretch, but the rules aren't set; even the FDA cautions that "guidances describe the Agency’s current thinking on a topic and should be viewed only as recommendations."

Still, the market is there.

In the 2013 c2b Consumer Diagnostic, we found that the two most heavily female-skewing psychographic segments, Balance Seekers and Self Achievers, were also the two segments most likely to use the internet to obtain healthcare information. Both segments also reported their healthcare decisions were influenced significantly by close friends and family members — the very parties one most likely connects with across social media platforms.

By contrast, both segments reported that pharmaceutical companies' ads influenced them less than 3% of the time.

The question is this: how can pharma tap the power of social media to reach health care consumers, while balancing regulatory requirements and minimizing financial risk? Interesting solutions are likely to play out in the next several years, but it will take creative thinking and regulatory clarification.

Psychographic Segmentation and its Practical Application in Patient Engagement and Behavior Change


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