If you understand how pharmaceuticals are sold, this is not surprising.
What is surprising is that a lot of people seem to think it’s just a question of time before pharmaceutical companies like GSK get into social media. I claim that a fashion trend doesn’t make a business case. The buzz of social media and Twitter in 2009 reminds me of the buzz on virtual worlds in 2008.
There are 3 fundamental reasons why consumer-side social media is not a good fit for pharmas and they all relate to how prescription drugs are sold:
Marketing: Pharmas are the last bastion of traditional door-to-door marketing using medical representatives to influence doctors to prescribe their products to end user patients. Excluding OTC (over the counter products), pharma customers are doctors not end users.
- Doctors like the attention of a face to face meeting, getting the free samples and invites to conferences from the rep
- You don’t have to verify that a virtual online persona is really a doctor before giving them a drug sample. Most doctors are not imposters in person.
- A rep can customize the message to a doctor and work hard on her quota – aggressively marketing a drug by suggesting that a higher dosage or additional indications are possible (off label promotion). This is not official policy and it’s normally done by industry experts who are not employed directly by the pharma but it’s still an option in a face to face meeting – for example suggesting to a dialysis center that they should stock up on EPO…
- I really didn’t want to say this, but sex sells. Good looks are a big asset for a rep, until I write my Pheremone Facebook Application – a good looking female rep will win hands down over a blog any day of the week.
Regulatory – then there is the matter of food and drug safety and regulations against off-label marketing. Marketing materials used by a medical representative are prepared and approved by the product manager, scientific and marketing staff and legal staff. This highly controlled approach to content is diametric to the wisdom of crowds and “user generated content” found in social media like Facebook or Twitter.
Doctors – doctors are far from a uniform community, specialists such as nephrologists are highly multi-disciplinary and may be interested in getting specific pharmacokinetic data whereas the pediatrician down the hall will have just enough time to take a free sample and hear about new pipeline. Not every doctor has time to read New England Journal of Medicine in the evening after work but some doctors may be active teachers and researchers. A personal visit from a medical representative is not just the personal touch and break from a busy day of kids with runny noses – it’s also a way to customize the content to the doctor.
In summation – buzz is not enough. It’s not a question of young doctors getting it and older doctors not getting it. Specialists like cardiologists and endocrinologists are as high-tech as it gets and family doctors are used to patients coming in with a (usually correct) self-diagnosis from Google.
There are many important applications of social software for a pharma. More about that in another post.