Posted: 28 Jul. 2020 12 min. read

5 myths that can keep life sciences companies from maximizing their social platforms

by Jamil Siddiqui, specialist leader, and Vikas Mahajan, senior manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP

The life sciences sector tends to lag behind other industries when it comes to using social media platforms to connect with customers. We think these pharmaceutical and medical-device companies could be missing an enormous opportunity to check the pulse of their customers, build brand loyalty, create highly targeted marketing campaigns, and connect with existing or potential customers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more challenging for marketers to reach customers, patients, and other stakeholders. In response, marketing groups across all industries are relying more heavily on social media data to capture customers’ sentiments, reactions, and experiences. Many have also turned to social media as a population-mining tool that can help them understand the impact and intensity of the pandemic and to localize their messaging.

Pharma is just beginning to tap social media

While most pharmaceutical companies have global websites, few have local websites for the countries where they have a presence, according to a survey of 25 large pharmaceutical companies.1 The survey looked at how pharmaceutical companies used 12 digital channels (e.g., websites, blogs, apps, and social-media platforms). Companies that have country-specific websites tend to use them to focus on specific products or brands rather than to connect directly with customers (either physicians or patients). And although most companies have a Twitter handle, few of them have a presence on other social media platforms.

Moreover, it appears the ability to leverage social media is still in its infancy, based on our experience working with large, mid-size, and small life-sciences firms. Although every organization has a digital strategy, many have limited their digital channels to email campaigns or to their own websites.

Tapping into other social media channels could bring a whole new dimension to product launches and digital campaigns. For example, companies could use data pulled from social media to help gain a deeper understanding of their products, the competitive landscape, and patient behavior, which could lead to more targeted and cost-effective promotional campaigns. At the same time, life sciences companies might be able to reach a broader set of customers by pushing promotional content through social media channels instead of (or in addition to) targeted emails.

Five common social-media myths

If pharmaceutical companies can effectively harness data generated through social sites—and use social channels to promote products to specific populations—they could build closer connections to their clinician and patient customers. But to get there, the industry should acknowledge that the following beliefs are just myths:

Myth #1: Using social data will increase compliance risks. A patient might use social platforms to describe a negative reaction to a drug. The drug’s manufacturer could be reluctant to respond, for fear that it might open the floodgates and the company could be liable to report all adverse events cited on social platforms. Some pharmaceutical companies might also worry about the potential legal ramifications of responding to social media posts. However, the value of real-time feedback related to a drug’s effects likely far outweighs the negatives. According to a recent study,2 most people use social media to seek advice about a drug rather than to report adverse events. Pharma companies can configure their social-listening tools to directly link to adverse-event reporting systems that track issues that match specific criteria. The ability to monitor adverse events through a social-listening platform can help companies be more proactive. Social media might also be effective in evaluating the competitive landscape for a product. Intelligence can extend beyond simple brand tracking to give companies an edge on competitive positioning, trend detection, research and development, campaign performance, and crisis aversion.

Myth #2: Health data from social-media platforms is not credible. Some pharmaceutical company executives consider health analytics to be unreliable if it comes from social-media channels. However, patients, consumers, and physicians tend view online health content as having above-average credibility. Given that many patients and clinicians share experiences and treatments via social media, this content could be used to gather and analyze information about products and treatments. These social media channels go beyond traditional platforms and leverage targeted forums and advocacy groups such as PatientsLikeMe or Vitals.com.

Myth #3: Social media does not have a high return on investment. Many of our clients understand that social media is important, but they either don’t think they are ready to embrace it, or they struggle to see the return on investment. Let’s consider the potential impact on sales. Under the historic sales model, physicians were the primary decision-makers. That model has changed as regulations and agreements between health systems and health plans have grown more complex. Moreover, some hospitals and group practices have implemented limited or restricted-access policies. Reaching patients and physicians through non-personal digital channels is likely far more cost-effective and efficient than maintaining the traditional channels. In addition, online insights could be useful in designing, manufacturing, and promoting products.

Myth #4: The number of followers, conversations, and “likes” on social media has no impact on customer engagement. Tracking followers, conversations, and likes could influence how products are promoted. A company that has a presence across various social media channels, for example, can design campaigns targeted to people of a certain age, gender, demographics, or specific lifestyles. Social-media platforms also offer an alternative to expensive—and often ineffective—surveys that measure the consumer experience. The company can then create a more tailored product promotion for that population. Moreover, social media might be more effective than traditional patient surveys for tracking marketing campaigns and interactions with patients.

Myth #5: Analyzing social-media metrics is difficult and time-consuming. Some companies struggle to measure the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns and their interactions with patients. People typically don’t respond to traditional surveys. Social media could be a far more effective strategy for gauging customer engagement and tracking marketing campaigns. Tracking the right metrics could help pharmaceutical companies determine if they are meeting their business objectives. In addition, social-media analytics could help a company understand the impact of targeted social campaigns by comparing changes in sales, sentiments, and followers. Open-source application programing interfaces (APIs) can connect to many of the social media platforms and capture metrics based on keywords. The information can then be plugged into enterprise marketing analytics. Additionally, major cloud vendors typically provide support to easy-to-use scripting languages for the development of custom web-scraping engines. The output can be combined with prescription sales data to illustrate the impact of social campaigns and social sentiments have on sales.

According to a 2018 study, 80% of internet users in the US have searched for health information online, and 60% of social media users say they trust social media posts made by doctors more than any other group.3 More than 4.54 billion people worldwide use the internet, and people have an average of seven social-media accounts.4 Monitoring and analyzing different users’ behavior on social channels can help pharmaceutical companies focus on what others (competitors, potential customers, existing customers) are saying about their brand and competitors. This knowledge could help pharmaceutical companies more effectively meet the needs of their customers and evaluate the effectiveness of their products.

Endnotes

1. Digital Health Monitor, Worldcom Public Relations Group, November 2019

2. Brand Tracking Tips for Pharma Experts Handling Adverse Events, Synthesio Inc, August 2019

3. Health Information Obtained from the Internet and Changes in Medical Decision Making, Journal of Medical Internet Research, February 12, 2018

4. 126 amazing social media statistics and facts, Brandwatch, December 2019

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