Real World Lessons from the Frontlines: 10 Things I've Learned About Pharma Social Media

Working for an actual company in the industry gives me real world perspective about Pharma and Social Media. It is exactly this real world and realistic perspective that I see missing from the discussion. Rather than wishful thinking from an ivory tower or the same topics rehashed in the echo chamber that Twitter is becoming, I can tell you many real reasons why social media has not taken full root in the industry.  This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list or inclusive to all of the reasons why, but it does outline a few of the issues as I see them.

Most of these are covered elsewhere in my blog, but for your handy reference I've compiled the thoughts here into a list. This is in no particular order, but in keeping with what seems to generate discussion I've compiled a Top 10 list with some bonus coverage.

10. Social Media has just taken root in Pharma organizations. That means in most organizations that the knowledge, understanding and realization that Social Media is a paradigm shift and is in fact changing how marketing and communications functions is about 18 months old. Granted that is a broad assessment, but I estimate that it has only been since late in 2008 and early 2009 that Social Media really got traction. 18 months by most accounts is young, very young in Pharma organizations. Social needs time to develop and grow. It's certainly not something that causes organizational change within 12 months.

9. Social Media understanding is largely generational and most Pharma leadership is not of that generation. Therefore if you can't prove it, quantify it and show that it's better than tactic X, Y or Z it is hard to move it beyond a simple component of a campaign.

8. You get the behavior you reward. If Executive Leadership doesn't define Social Media as a primary business opportunity then goal setting will be focused on areas that attain defined business goals, which lead to individual goals, which are tied to compensation. Therefore, people aren't spending time on it in the quantity that brings substantial change. 

7. To drive new initiatives that aren't already planned and of the magnitude of Social Media requires Executive Leadership buy-in, which requires the buy-in of multiple layers of leadership, which takes time, knowledge transfer, case building and collaboration. That can often be in short supply when trying  in a bottom line business climate that is under pressure, which is basically all of Pharma. Further, in order to understand Social Media you have to practice Social Media. Many Executive Leaders are not doing that. Their kids are though, which doesn't translate to them as an activity that requires deep attention within their business.

6. Most Fortune 500 organizations budget on an annual basis. Seems trivial, right? But planning occurs 6-9 months ahead of time. If you don't make the window to be in the budget cycle you don't have resources to drive Social Media. It will likely move to "phase 2" or be the first thing that gets cut if there is scope creep of any kind.  

5. Within Pharma, marketing teams are often built by brand. Working across multiple brand teams, sometimes segment teams, corp. communications, and global functions, etc. to drive a new initiative that may not be well understood is a difficult, time consuming task. You have to build consensus.  As a result you see some efforts in Pharma that are working but if you look more closely they are probably focused on a specific brand or reside in a certain part of the organization. Therefore, you don't see an integrated, spot on strategic approach that is patient first. You usually see a blended amalgam that is not great. This will be, as they say, "life-cycle managed."

4. Big ships don't turn easily. Social is one part of a total marketing mix. Heck, it's a channel within a channel. It's not THE mix. Consequently, it is currently getting the level of attention that it serves within the overall mix, which today is relatively small.

3. Legal and Regulatory is an issue, but it can be worked around.What may not be understood is GPP, AdvaMed, and FDA are real concerns that have to be developed and managed, which again takes time and effort.

2.  Social Media in every Pharma organization needs a champion or champions who are strong willed, a leader, a cajoler, a consensus builder with an indefatigable spirit. Not every company has this person or persons that cares deeply enough, is of the generation and is at a level that has the skills to build consensus, cajole, and drive common understanding. If they do, Social Media is a component of their job, it's not their only job. This to will change. 

1. Social expertise is hard to find. Most large pharma organizations work with large agencies that develop media plans for the brands. Frankly, I haven't seen a great deal of novel ideas specific to social from agencies, in fact, I have seen more bad than good from full-service agencies. If a brand team relies on an agency to make coherent proposals for incorporating social into their mix and the agency can't make the case--who's to blame? Sure there are many great agencies out there, but those with social expertise are not already qualified and ready to work for Pharma organizations.  

Bonus Coverage...

1a. Change takes time. I'm not sure why Social Media is any different and the expectation is that it's supposed to transform large multi-billion organizations in the span of 12 months. That's either naive or idealistic, I'm not sure which. It took years for Web sites to get developed in the late 90s, why do we expect Social Media to be different than that? In the least, if you shave the time it took Web sites to penetrate Pharma in half you're still looking at a 24-36 month time line. As I stated above, from my vantage Social Media is only about 18 months old within organizations. It'll get there. Trust me on this.

1b. Bright shiny object syndrome/conflict resolution. There can be tendency for some to run to the bright shiny object and think that Social is a great way to pump up the brand. Bad idea. Real champions of social media want to do it the right way and fighting the urge and desire of some people to make it a brand platform takes effort and time. As Mark Twain said, it's better to remain silent and thought the fool, then to open your mouth and remove all doubt. 

Now I understand that this could sound like a pile of excuses, but I live in reality and reality being what it is, there are real reasons for why the industry is not further along. The easiest thing in life is to be contrarian or tell people what they should be doing. However, if you're pragmatic and dig a little deeper you can see there are challenges that are beginning to be overcome. It's going to take more time, but you'll see change, you'll see more advocacy, you'll see value add efforts and eventually relationship building and you'll see great social media from Pharma. There are many smart, passionate people in Pharma who want to do the right thing when it comes to social media but as I've said before in the past all revolutions start with a challenge to the status quo. That is happening. I've also said that technology and health care is like the turtle and the hare. Steady wins the race.   

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