Monday, September 12, 2011

Pharma on Facebook: The handwriting on the wall is about more than adverse-event reporting

A bad case of “consumer package goods envy”

Pharmaceutical companies have long had a bad case of “CPG envy” because regulatory handcuffs constrain their customer outreach and limit their ability to develop brand relationships with any of their customers. Even in this golden age of “patient democracy,” pharma has no small challenge engaging with patients for a complex set of reasons – among them the rather frustrating truth that patients don’t generally care to love and know their drug brand in quite the same way they love their brand of beer. (More on that in another entry…) At the same time, pharmaceutical companies feel a pressing need to cultivate relationships with patients as a result of many factors that are redirecting their marketing efforts toward end-users – including tighter access to physicians, the coming shift in pay burden to patients, and the industry’s focus on revenue lost through non-adherence.

For that reason, the opportunity for pharma companies to talk to patients and potentially hear them talk back through social media was hard to resist – especially given FDA’s continuing refusal to offer guidance – until Facebook announced new rules of the game requiring that everything be said out loud. Companies began rather quickly to reexamine their strategy and, in some cases, shut down the conversation.

There’s always a chaperone in the room

Did it make sense for pharmaceutical companies to retrench like that? Probably. Did it ever make sense for them to be using a social media strategy for patient outreach in the first place? Probably not – and for reasons that extend far beyond the Pandora’s Box of adverse-event reporting that open forums can easily become. The problem has to do with how pharma can, and cannot, talk back to vocal customers when there’s a chaperone in the room. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mitch Wagner, Editor in Chief of The CMO Site, for an article he wrote about this same topic. In that conversation, I noted to him that critics who scold the pharmaceutical industry for turning tail and running from real dialogue miss the point. The dialogue is definitely not open. Certainly not open the way it is for CPG brands.

CPG have problems of their own in managing customer dialogue, even without regulatory oversight, but they can’t resist or dodge the opportunity; two-way conversation is considered mandatory for consumer brands. And disgruntled customers have a way of making themselves heard whether or not brands give them airtime on Facebook.

For the pharmaceutical industry, the problem is different, and AE reporting is certainly a big part of it. Industry veterans recognize that the current AE reporting system is an unreliable vehicle for post-marketing surveillance. They’re also right to worry that social media will make that system more unwieldy by pumping many more unfiltered attributions onto the web – a flow that’s cumbersome for the regulatory process to manage and virtually impossible for consumers to interpret. Pharmaceutical companies worried about AE reports or other commentary posted on open walls are right to be concerned. They can expect lots of clamor, lots of misconception, lots of unwelcome attention – and almost no ability to manage or muzzle the noise.

Scripted dialogue is safer than improv

This is the ultimate irony. Social media has redressed the balance for CPG companies in a way that enables both brands and consumers to hold the floor, but for pharmaceutical companies, the dialogue will be stilted once patients get to speak their minds in ways that companies and brands cannot. Facebook walls give patients a freedom of speech that the pharmaceutical companies themselves don’t have. When patients get to talk in social media forums and companies must largely listen, neither the marketing outcomes, nor the public health outcomes, are likely to be good ones.

Those who lament the loss of free-flowing cross-talk between patients and pharmaceutical companies are taking a romantic view of interaction. Pharma marketers need to stop wishing they were stewards of brands like Activia. And they need to listen hard to all their customers in more controlled research environments where they can learn from patients without necessarily having the privilege of talking right back to them. Sometimes, everyone talks way too much.

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