Is Social Media Worth the Risk for Pharma?

March 2, 2015
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pharmaphorum social mediaIt’s a question that comes up all the time in my discussions with senior industry executives – is social media actually worth the risk for a sector as heavily regulated as the pharmaceutical industry?

pharmaphorum social mediaIt’s a question that comes up all the time in my discussions with senior industry executives – is social media actually worth the risk for a sector as heavily regulated as the pharmaceutical industry?

And while some may roll their eyes and denounce pharma as being backward for asking such a question, I don’t agree – it’s a great question and an extremely valid one. Every business decision has to consider risk versus benefit.

But here’s the problem with measuring that risk-benefit ratio: you need to consider the timeframe. It’s true for every decision ever made, no matter how big or small and it also applies to our personal lives. For example, there is a small but finite risk involved every time you travel in a car, train, boat or plane. If I considered that risk, versus the benefit of travelling to business meetings, over just a 24h timeframe I’d probably never bother (and also be perceived as being a little odd!). But at least some of those meetings will turn into mutually beneficial commercial relationships, so the benefit far outweighs the risk for me when you look at it over the longer-term. In fact, there is a longer-term risk, to my livelihood, from not travelling that is more worrying than the immediate one.

So if you’re just looking at the short-term risk-benefit ratio of anything you’re getting a distorted picture. This is exactly how I challenge people in pharma to look at it when they ask me about risk.

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The benefits of social media engagement by pharmaceutical companies are very clear to me and, at a simple level, they are twofold.

Firstly, the relationships formed via social media engagement translate to the offline world. I know this because I’ve seen it happen many times with my business. Many of the healthcare influencers (patients / patient organisation leaders, industry executives, influential healthcare providers, media etc.) who I know on first-name terms initially met me via social media. When access to these people is often a major barrier for pharmaceutical companies the value of social media cannot be ignored.

Secondly, the kind of direct feedback you can receive via social media is fantastically useful – both directly online and, in line with the way it builds ‘real-world’ relationships outlined above, from subsequent offline conversations. In the information age, this kind of input that can only be obtained by being well-connected, can deliver a critical advantage. Social media listening is a start, but engaging delivers a whole new level of intelligence.

So that’s it – access to key customers and unique insights are the two main benefits for pharma using social media, in my view. Both have a major impact on the bottom line success of products.

And the immediate risks of engaging online? Most of them carry even bigger risks from not engaging in the longer-term.

For example, companies worry about picking up adverse events about their products, necessitating subsequent action. Yes – this might well happen, but what if people are having adverse events when using your products and you’re not picking them up? Where does that lead?

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Or the notion that by taking part in social media activity, your critics might start to attack you. If you have such vocal critics the reality is they are already attacking you online and, unless you listen, you can’t take the necessary action to remedy it. So by not engaging, the reputational risk to your business – and associated commercial risk – is massive.

I could go on and on, but hopefully you get my point.

Online social engagement is here to stay. It’s only going to get more and more important as a conduit for connectivity and information sharing. So next time someone in pharma asks you if social media is worth the risk, ask them to cast their gaze a bit further down the line to a point when all their competitors are engaging online.

Is not engaging on social media then worth the risk?