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Digitas Health Finds Pharma Companies Lag on Social



Bruce Grant
Senior Vice President, Business Strategy
Digitas Health

Longtime healthcare executive Bruce Grant is a big proponent of drug companies participating in social media. He spoke with eMarketer’s Christine Bittar about social media and how pharmaceutical companies can best serve their audience.

eMarketer: What should drug makers know about using social media to reach consumers?

Bruce Grant: Social media is not a marketing or a messaging channel. … It’s a conversation, … and consumers have always used conversation when making an important decision.

Previously, someone facing a health decision could only talk to [a limited number of people]. Now, social media brings an unprecedented scale and takes away geographic limitations on the conversations, so a person facing a treatment decision—especially with a life-changing condition like multiple sclerosis or cancer—can consult with [others with that condition in social media] conversations.

“Pharma is about three to five years behind other industries in its adoption of technologies and new marketing channels.”

eMarketer: Do you think pharmaceutical companies haven’t participated in social media all that much because it’s a regulated industry? If so, what are the opportunities for pharma?

Grant: People in pharma most frequently say they haven’t engaged in social media because they don’t think it works, they’re not sure they can find the ROI and they’re in a regulated industry. Ultimately though, all industries have had to deal with various barriers, and pharma is about three to five years behind other industries in its adoption of technologies and new marketing channels. The pharmaceutical industry needs to recognize that.

eMarketer: The pharmaceutical industry may not be participating in a meaningful way, but isn’t social media monitoring already going on?

Grant: A number of third-party vendors listen to social media conversations in a crude way. They essentially only provide the sentiment index, share of voice, and perhaps other simple quantitative measures—but not a lot of insight.

State-of-the-art social listening applies Big Data principles and technologies to the mass of social conversation data, which can tell you the decision-making factors and what point in the journey patients begin talking about medications. These are the things that help marketers understand their customers more deeply.

“One of the smartest, simplest and safest [ways to offer something of value] from a regulatory point of view is to make website content more shareable.”

Thereafter, the real opportunity is to become relevant and valued as part of the conversation. And the way to do that is to offer something to the conversation in response to what people are discussing. This doesn’t mean setting up your own Facebook page, Twitter feed or YouTube channel. Instead, one of the smartest, simplest and safest [ways to offer something of value] from a regulatory point of view is to make website content more shareable, which can easily be done. So if you have a brochure or diet guide, customers can share it with others.

eMarketer: Some forums and blogs are more sophisticated than others, but in general, how seriously do patients take these sites?

Grant: It depends on the condition. If it’s a serious condition, patients find the most reliable sources of information pretty quickly because it can literally be a matter of life or death.

So, you may not find an exceptionally sophisticated online discussion about GERD, [gastrointestinal reflux disease, or acid reflux], but if you’re talking about cancer or Alzheimer’s, consumers learn pretty quickly that there’s something more than Yahoo! Answers out there. Also, most of these forums are more informed, highly populated, long standing and offer expertise with pretty good organic search visibility.

eMarketer: Can pharmaceutical companies become part of the conversation more easily in these more sophisticated forums?

Grant: It depends. We’ve advised several clients that they may want to reconsider the kind of language they use in their marketing materials if it doesn’t match the way patients are [currently] talking about the condition or treatment. Even getting a grasp on the lingo can be a step toward credibility.

“Listening helps pharma to be authentic in the conversation, and often all a company has ever done is create monologues and used superficial market research.”

One example is the pediatric asthma category—the target is mothers of young children who have to receive nebulized treatment. They’re an organized community, and there is a great need for mutual support. There is a lot of sharing of information, and as often happens, there is the development of a culture. So the moms refer to nebulized treatment as “nebbing,” so we recommended that our clients use the word nebbing in materials.

eMarketer: That’s not considered inappropriate slang?

Grant: No, it’s a movement. Listening helps pharma to be authentic in the conversation, and often all a company has ever done is create monologues and used superficial market research. It’s [too] easy to adopt an approach to designing websites that doesn’t put the customer first, and that doesn’t come across as authentic or relevant. When that happens, the marketer and brand just get tuned out.


A longer version of this interview is available to eMarketer corporate subscribers only. If you’d like to learn more about becoming a corporate subscriber, click here.


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