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Digital Pharma: what should we talk about?

Published on 08/10/12 at 01:52pm
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The received wisdom today among the ‘digirati’ is that the pharmaceutical industry must join in the online conversation, and to tell a story, and one that is meaningful to their audience.

However if pharma is to really join in the online conversation, this raises many questions about what sort of conversations are appropriate and which aren’t - and indeed which are worthwhile for pharma to engage in - if not purely in Return On Investment terms, then at least in terms of enhancing its reputation.

In reality, engaging in conversations online is just the latest addition to the uses of the internet. To help clarify the different levels of digital communications, one can categorise them on three levels:

• Communicating basic news and updates

• Promoting the company’s portfolio, image and ethos

• Contributing to wider health, political and social debates.

On these terms, pharma must make sure its digital communications fulfil all these functions as best it can. In order to do this, it is not merely a case of having a good communications department - the clarity of vision of what is to be communicated, and a willingness to communicate must come from the senior management.

Communicating basic news and updates

An important measure of a firm’s online presence is how well it uses websites to be transparent in its business. The age of the internet has forced greater transparency on pharma and other industries over the last decade or so, but some companies are still better at communicating important and urgent news than others.

In simply practical ‘useability’ terms, stands out as being one of the best examples in pharma of a good corporate website. It has excellent links across all of its digital channels, which are prominently displayed on its front page.

It’s easy to use, and is updated regularly with relevant and interesting items. It has an array of media - including podcasts and videos, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and an app centre - which are also well maintained and updated.

It is also visually simple but effective, and steers clear of one of the most common visual no-no’s - bland stock images of smiling people which say nothing about the company and give sites the feel of a ‘generic’ website.

Sanofi, Roche and Novartis are also well-rounded sites with good information and multimedia content. These sites help the companies present themselves in the best possible light - authoritative, researched-focused and cutting edge, yet modern and connected with the needs of society and patients.

Promoting the company’s portfolio, image and ethos

Boehringer is a pioneer in all things digital in the pharma industry, and has taken a bold approach in using a broad range of digital channels. One of Boehringer’s most accomplished sites is The White Room, a specific oncology portal created by the firm for journalists.

This site is immensely useful, with an excellent range of images, infographics and authorative information. This is a lot more useful - and far less driven by immediate commercial goals than many other projects. This helps the company build a reputation in therapy area where other companies are much better known.

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube

In just a few short years, Twitter has become an indispensable part of the communications mix. Most pharma companies now have a presence on Twitter, and there are some clearly divergent views on its potential as a communications tool.

As in other media, the tone and range of the communication on Twitter is a key question, and one school of thought is that corporations need to take a more informal, conversational approach to Twitter, in line with how most private individuals use it.

Boehringer Ingelheim is certainly an advocate of this approach, with named individuals at the company (John Pugh and Faith Busch) using the corporate channel to have one-to-one conversations, as well as making public announcements and trying to generate wider debate.

However, the wider experience of Twitter has seen that its virtues - its brevity and instantaneous nature - are also its downsides. The shortened format means meaning and nuance are often lost. Ill-tempered and negative comments (made easier because users can conceal their real identity) frequently prevail over more reasoned discourse.

The company with by far the most followers on Twitter is Pfizer. This is perhaps not surprising, as the company continues to be one of the most high profile pharma firms, and has undoubtedly attracted followers simply on this basis.

Above and beyond this however, the company seems to have hit on a winning and sustainable formula - frequent updates, but with a limited amount of ‘chattiness’. The service is run by a named individual, however - Jen Kokell - and leavens the basic corporate news feed with just the right amount of lighthearted links to ensure the channel remains palatable.

One company which has failed to understand some fundamental rules of pharma communication online was Bayer UK. Last year the firm was reprimanded by the PMCPA after it was found in breach of the ABPI’s Code of Conduct.

This came after several tweets were sent out by the firm promoting several prescription medicines, something prohibited in the UK.

There is much talk about the unique challenges of the web, but in fact this case demonstrated that complying with a Code of Practice online, is little different from complying in traditional media - promoting prescription medicines is not allowed in any media, thus having a firm understanding of the general rules and principles of communication is essential before embarking on any project.

Boehringer Ingelheim has also been seen to overreach itself, in the case of a misconceived humorous video. The video - apparently aimed at promoting the company’s image - was baffling, inappropriate, frivolous and perhaps worst of all - not funny.

But in Boehringer’s defence, it responded to criticism of the video and withdrew it from circulation. And if pharma is to break out of its old and ineffective modes of communication, it occasionally needs to test the boundaries and make mistakes.

Contributing to wider health, political and social debates

The advent of social media, including Facebook and Twitter means the internet is now a highly interactive - and rapidly changing - forum for public debate. This has changed the dynamic of medium considerably, and many maintain that the web must be less about broadcasting information, and more about discussion and the exchange of information.

This approach certainly doesn’t come naturally to the pharma industry, however, which after all has a lot of information to impart about its medicines and research.

So which companies have responded best to this challenge?

One example of a pharma site trying to move beyond the sphere of basic corporate communications is Eli Lilly’s The site sums up its aims by saying: “We are committed to engaging in a public dialogue about the critical health issues that concern people from Washington D.C. to the Heartland.”

Lilly has certainly made a firm decision about what this website will focus on, and the honesty and transparency of its agenda is to be applauded. The magazine-style approach allows the site to cover a wide range of health policy issues, and draws on a number of different voices and authors, giving the site an intelligent and discursive quality.

There are obvious limitations to the site, however. As it is preoccupied with health policy and ‘political’ matters, its tone - somewhat official and cerebral - will not attract a wider audience, mobilise opinion or change perceptions about Lilly or the wider pharma industry.

One of pharma’s most high profile digital projects is Boehringer Ingelheim’s game ‘Syrum’, which will be played within the Facebook environment.

The game has now been launched in a ‘beta’ testing version on Facebook and the final version will be ready sometime in 2013. While the project has been much discussed among the world of digital pharma enthusiasts, it is not clear if it can really attract a wider audience.

The guiding principle behind the project is that pharma must engage the online audience on its own terms, and fun online games certainly have proven popular with millions. However, taking its message to the audience in the format of a game raises the question about how many of pharma’s complex messages can realistically be retained.

Despite the strengths of game playing as an educational tool, it is a tall order for Syrum to actually inform players about the complexity of pharmaceutical R&D and entertain them at the same time.

The examples from Lilly and Boehringer perhaps illustrate the ‘Goldilocks’ principle - the Lillypad is a bit too ‘dry’ for most internet users, while most will also find Boehringer’s Syrum too frivolous to take seriously.

So can a campaign strike a tone that is neither too lofty nor too simplistic; one that can genuinely spark debate and perhaps even change opinions about pharma?

Pfizer’s Get Old campaign

Pfizer’s new ‘Get Old’ may well be such a campaign. Launched in the US in June, it is a genuinely arresting concept, and clearly a departure from the promotional and didactic campaigns of the past.

‘Get Old,’ has been created in collaboration with US ad agency SS+K. Sally Susman, Pfizer’s corporate affairs chief recently explained the campaign in detail to US publication AdWeek, adding that she knew the company had to do something different.

“What we had done in the past in terms of trying to reach elected officials, regulators, some of that is very effective. But the missing element was a campaign that went all the way to the public. Does the man on the street have an appreciation for who we are? To be honest... [people] don’t.”

‘Get Old’ is intended to generate debate about what is important to people as they get older, particularly in terms of their health and wellbeing. The campaign is striking in addressing very candidly some issues of ageing - disability and eventual death - which remain taboo, or at the very least unglamorous.

Susman told AdWeek that the company made a deliberate decision to avoid euphemistic terms such as such as ‘live longer’ or ‘getting older while being healthy’, and to address the issue in a fresh and direct way - hence ‘Get Old’.

“We had to show that we were taking this conversation very seriously - not covering it in flowers and butterflies, but having a very grown-up conversation about the plusses and minuses of what it really means to get old.”

Susman says the firm took inspiration from the campaign by Dove skin cream ‘Real beauty’ which turned ordinary women with ordinary bodies into their campaign models, eschewing the airbrushed perfection of professional models.

She adds that she was pleasantly surprised to find few cynical reactions to the site and Pfizer’s motivation for doing it. Crucially, Susman says the campaign isn’t product driven, and has found the right tone: “It isn’t arrogant, pushy or self-important,” she says.

But can a good digital communications strategy really bring rewards such as greater trust, or financial returns? The answer, in the main part, is no, but then judging communications purely in terms of measurable ROI is to miss the point.

Having a good communications strategy is essential for any major pharma company (in some respects, it is a duty) and thus digital communications is just the latest extension of this.

Hopes that pharma companies can use social media and other digital arena to have a dialogue with stakeholders can be realised, but this is at the most aspirational end of corporate communications strategies - the more immediate demands of news management and protecting corporate and brand reputation will always take priority.

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