The 5 ‘C’s of Social Media Engagement

With Facebook topping a billion members and every news story having a hashtag, social media is embedded in everyday life.  Pharmaceutical companies are already using these channels but enthusiasm for them, the quality of execution and success rates are varied.

Assuming you’ve done your insight work and you know that social networks and other social media channels are a good way to engage your customers, how do you go about executing well in this space?

  • Why do HCPs and patients join a conversation?  What motivates or deters them?
  • What is the behaviour pharma needs to adopt? Are you a service organisation, marketer, content-provider, colleague?
  • Are there parallels we can draw from other channels we operate in or other industries?

Follow The 5 ‘C’s of Social Engagement and you will not go far wrong.  They are:

  1. Content
  2. Credibility
  3. Colleagues
  4. Conversation
  5. Commitment

1. Content

5Cs no content

Content is still King

In a user-generated content environment you might think that companies do not need, or perhaps should not, be providing content.  The first editor of, the Financial Times online, is famously quoted as saying “We publishers are just throwing the party.  We have to hope people will turn up and chat”.

Maybe so, but you have to give people a reason to turn up.  A pharmaceutical company’s scientific meeting without any presentations would not be very successful.  The FT itself is still renowned as a provider of quality content by expert journalists.  But they do it differently online.  Every article or news story is the start of a conversation or debate.  Readers can rate, comment, add their own blog posts, and join in.  The FT reports the conversation too, as word-clouds and sentiment analyses.  It uses the conversational aspects of social media to enrich its own content.

Many industries have recognised that to engage customers you have to have great content.  Red Bull, who you might think is a drinks company, spends more money on producing content than on the beverage.  The company produces award-winning movies; it has its own sports magazine and radio station, and a whole content business all supporting the brand values of adventure and extreme sport.

In healthcare, content is even more important.  As medicines become more commoditised and companies under more pressure to add value, content is a key deliverable from your company to your customers.

5Cs Sanofi

Sanofi TV

It is important to recognise the opportunities for using content socially and to remember content is video, sound, games, animations, interactive tools, as well as text.  Sanofi TV on YouTube is a great resource for patients and their healthcare professionals with some fine educational videos.

Some global organisations develop their higher-cost content elements like video and gaming once and re-use them many times in different markets.

5 Cs backinplay

Pfizer’s Back in Play

Pfizer, in seeking to engage young men with symptoms of ankylosing spondolitis, produced the award-winning Back-In-Play social football game that was deployed across 12 countries and showed significant impact on diagnosis of the condition.

Content is certainly vital to engage your stakeholders.  But how can we convince them to come to our industry for content?  This brings us on to the second ‘C’.

2.  Credibility

Trust is a major issue and the fact that our industry, for very good reasons, carefully controls every communication that it delivers to the general public is not necessarily a strategy for appearing transparent and building trust.   Yet social channels give us an opportunity to really engage with people in a new way and break down some of the barriers between the industry and the public.

In social media, you gain credibility in two ways: by borrowing someone else’s or building your own.  Using an expert editorial board or steering committee as in the Academy for Complement Inhibition from Alexion, partnering with a professional association or patient advocacy group, or working with an international congress, can all help build credibility.

5 Cs shout

How not to build credibility

Good behaviour is important to build credibility.  It is vital that you are not promotional in tone.  This is a hyperlinked world and other content is only a click away.  Your users won’t stick around to be ‘sold to’. You should be ‘listening’ at least as much as you ‘talk’.  More on this later.

3.  Colleagues

It is self-evident that a party is no fun with only one person in it.

Physicians want colleagues and patients and consumers want ‘comrades’ – people they recognise as peers  and can relate to.  Thought leaders are important for credibility, but ‘people like me’ is crucial for ongoing success.  Often we think social media is a low-cost option – provided our content is interesting,customers will just flock to it and it will ‘go viral’.

This is generally not true.  Even if your content is great and you are highly credible, you still must work to get people to engage with you.  Your customer will leave quickly if there is no-one else in a community.

One way to reach an audience is to borrow someone else’s by placing your content and engaging customers in existing communities.  I recently wrote an article about the merits of ‘buying versus building’ physician communities.

Assuming you have your own platform, you need to have a promotional strategy to drive traffic and advertising still plays an important role, even in social media.

St John’s Ambulance in the UK offered a variety of multichannel services (apps, elearning, workshops) to help people learn how to perform simple First Aid.  They promoted these with a moving video depicting a man surviving cancer only to die from choking.  The quality of the content and the story it told meant that it did indeed go viral, but they kick-started it with commercial slots on TV and in cinemas.

5 Cs backpain

The Spinal Foundation Facebook ad

The Spinal Foundation ran a small ad campaign to drive patients with chronic back pain to a Facebook group to share their experiences.  As expected, click through was very low (they targeted ‘all adults’) at 0.03%, but they found click-to-conversion – those who joined the group after clicking the ad – was extremely high, at 25%, and the Foundation quickly recovered the cost of the campaign.

As expected, people are quite ‘banner-blind’ in Facebook, but if they do notice and click on your ad, they are highly engaged with its message. Since Facebook offers pay-per-click advertising, this can be a cost effective way to build awareness and drive people to your community.

4.  Conversation

Can pharma companies engage in open online debate with customers?  Yes. There are risks, as with all communications, but they are not insurmountable. The clue is in the name – ‘social’ networking.  If you are serious about it, then be sociable, and network.

Here we return to the need for good behaviour.  Think about the ‘4 Rs’.  You should be:

  • Real – a person, not a brand or corporation.  Even on your brand or company page, ensure you give the name of ‘who’s on duty today’ to give it a human face.
  • Respectful – treat customers as you would like to be treated.  Respect their time, intelligence, opinions.
  • Relevant – don’t add irrelevant content into a conversation, especially about  your brand.  This is spam and will harm your reputation.
  • Responsive.  If I ask you a question, answer me. You need to plan how to do this –have a set of responses prepared if need be, but people expect a response in almost real time.

Companies are starting to have conversations.  AstraZeneca does a good job of responding to comments on Twitter in the US via @AZHelps, mainly helping with questions on side effects or access to medicines.   Lilly has managed Diabete a colori, a Facebook page encouraging people to discuss diabetes, since 2007.

Companies are concerned about inappropriate content in a user-generated content environment, and they should be. Teva Canada experienced this problem with their MSWatch community.  Patients were using it to discuss off-label and even illegal drug use to manage their MS.  The company regretfully chose to remove this popular discussion forum rather than edit or delete these posts.

As the Teva example shows, it is important to think about all the ‘what-ifs’  – how are you going to  handle inappropriate posts? – and have a plan in place to mitigate risk.

Some controversial subjects have been addressed successfully by companies.  MSD in Denmark gathered some insights showing that among young people unwanted pregnancies was rising because of a lack of education about contraception.

5 Cs MSD

P-Skolen from MSD

So they did a brave thing for a pharmaceutical company – launched a Facebook page all about sex and contraception.

The page features polls and quizzes, amusing videos and surprisingly frank and open discussions about sex and pregnancy.  MSD monitors the page and it has to be fair balanced, but apart from that anything goes.  The Danish health authorities have approved of the initiative and it is helping to build the company’s credibility and reputation.

More than 70% of physicians use social networks and an estimated 2 million in Europe are members of physician online communities.  There are 8000 groups of healthcare professionals on LinkedIn and thousands of doctors are using Twitter to become ‘self-made’ thought leaders.

5 Cs asco

ASCO on Twitter

Some congresses are capitalising on this, for example ASCO has a very active social media presence and encourages companies and individuals to tweet and share news from the event.  Pharma companies are also joining the conversation.

Social media buzz around your own meeting might be achieved by training delegates to tweet and having a meeting Twitter handle and hashtag, with a set of pre-prepared ‘response tweets’ to deal with any potential issues.

5.  Commitment

This is the most difficult of our ‘C’s for pharmaceutical companies. The problem stems from our commercial model.  Although drug development is a very long-term business, drug marketing is very short-term.  Medicines have a few years of patent life and after that the drug’s revenues will go off a cliff – and so does its marketing budget.

You cannot start these conversations with valued customers, deliver great content, build credibility and establish a thriving community, then abandon it all when your circumstances change.  You have to be in this for the long term.

This is one area that is quite unique to our industry – the fact that our products have such a short life cycle – and it presents particular problems that other industries don’t face.

AstraZeneca launched the Academy for Infection Management in 2002 and it became a thriving online and offline community with face-to-face meetings, workshops, and advisory boards and an online community where content, opinions and meeting details were shared.  In 2009 with Merrem going off patent, AZ stopped AIM and took down the website.

AstraZeneca now has a significant infection pipeline but its claim to be at “the forefront of research into new ways to treat infectious diseases” is not backed up by its online behaviour.

Think hard before engaging in a social space if you think your company will not be interested in that space in 5 or 10 years’ time.  If you have a significant commitment to a therapy area but no drugs coming to market soon, how will you support the community going forward?

5 cs mot

Pfizer Man MOT

If you know you will not fund it in the long term make sure you have an exit strategy.  Pfizer did this with the popular Man MOT service – an online clinic in the UK for men to discuss their health issues, including ED.  When Viagra went off patent Pfizer handed the service over to the Men’s Health Forum.

In summary, to be successful in social media you should provide valuable content, build credibility, bring colleagues, engage customers in conversation and show commitment.  Social media relationships, therefore, are just like any long-term mutually-profitable customer relationship.

And remember that in social media, as in life, good behaviour is vital.

I originally presented this at the GLC Pharma Social Media Conference on 7th June 2013.

Congleton Town Councillor for the Women's Equality Party. CEO of Kanga Health Ltd - practical digital transformation of healthcare.

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Posted in Marketing, pharma, Social Media

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by Kay Wesley of Kanga Health Ltd

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