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Hesitant Pharma Marketers Risk Losing the Social Audience

Social channels offer a variety of ways to reach out to health consumers

April 16, 2013

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to follow through on its years-old pledge to issue social media guidelines for pharmaceutical marketers in the US. As a result, some pharma companies are keeping their distance from the social channel.

But the size and engagement of the social audience is beginning to tempt pharma marketers off the sidelines, according to a new eMarketer report, “Social Media and Healthcare: Challenges for Pharmaceutical Marketers.”

Data suggests that many online health seekers are indeed including social media in their search for health information. Estimates from Kantar Media and Manhattan Research are at the higher end of the spectrum, with both finding that roughly 45% of US adult consumers used social media for health-related purposes in 2012.

Comparative Estimates: US Adult Consumers Who Use Social Media for Health-Related Purposes, 2011 & 2012 (% of respondents)

Uncertainties surrounding the social channel come at a time when many pharma companies are cutting direct-to-consumer (DTC) budgets. In fact, US DTC marketing spend in 2012 declined 22% year over year, according to Cegedim Strategic Data, a healthcare market research firm. And Capgemini classified 33% of pharma companies as digital beginners.

Nevertheless, pharma appears to be paying more attention to social. KPMG surveyed US pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and found that 43% of respondents planned to increase their use of social media with patients, while 7% said use would remain the same. However, 46% of those polled either didn’t answer or didn’t know; social media was the biggest source of uncertainty for respondents.

Promotional Methods that US Pharmaceutical/Biotechnology Companies Plan to Implement, June 2012 (% of respondents)

Aside from broad budget concerns and the changing business environment, pharma marketers are not unlike marketers at large—they worry about how to measure social media marketing efforts, especially tying the investment in social media directly to brand objectives.

Leading Concerns and Challenges of Using Social Media Marketing According to Health and Pharma Executives Worldwide, Oct 2012 (% of respondents)

Nonetheless, while potential barriers exist when it comes to using social media to market pharma products, there are also plenty of opportunities.

To best utilize the social channel, there are a variety of guidelines pharma companies can follow, including offering discounts via social media. Given that many consumers are concerned with high healthcare costs, they would likely welcome pricing information and discounts. Pharma can also use social channels to listen to what consumers are saying about the brand.

For those pharma companies most concerned about trust and credibility, partnering with established online healthcare websites can be a boon. In particular, nonprofit organizations are likely to be viewed as more credible and trustworthy than for-profit pharmaceutical marketers—and are generally not subject to FDA scrutiny. Tapping into online communities is also an important path to developing trust on the social web.

The full report, “Social Media and Healthcare: Challenges for Pharmaceutical Marketers” also answers these key questions:

  • How many consumers are using social media for online health information?
  • How much do consumers trust social content about health issues?
  • Are privacy concerns keeping consumers from using social media for healthcare questions?

This report is available to eMarketer corporate subscription clients only. eMarketer clients, log in and view the report now.


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