Direct-to-Patient Marketing for Pharma and Medical: Don't Be Antisocial

By  Lindsey Weintraub   Social Media Strategist | February 05,2013

For a long time, Health, Medical and Pharma have shied away from Social Media. Social Media has evolved to be ubiquitous in the world of successful business. And yet Pharma has tiptoed away from it, reasoning that it is too big of a liability to justify Social Media participation. It’s true that there are legal complications that can arise. The FDA has yet to release a formal set of guidelines regarding the use of social media and HIPAA compliance, in addition to other medical regulatory issues. Despite this, some pioneering medical companies have led the way forward with successful social media engagement. It’s definitely possible. It’s more than possible. It’s imperative. In today’s evolving healthcare economy, direct-to-patient marketing is becoming increasingly important, and there’s no better way to connect with patients than to meet them on the platform they love – social media.

Pharma and medical marketers need to adopt Social Media in order to survive. Companies that refuse to adopt Social Media assume a glaring red sticker identifying a looming expiration date. Brands must meet people where they are: online. “Social Media is a more effective way of reaching healthcare consumers because you are connecting with them while they are actively seeking you out,” advises Richard Morrow, the ParkerWhite branding agency’s digital director and user experience specialist. Morrow has worked with various B2B and B2C corporations to develop comprehensive online strategies. Brands must evolve to the new ways of communicating with consumers. Shouting from the recesses of traditional media won’t bring consumers back.

Obviously Medical and pharma companies will have to do their homework before taking the Social Media plunge. It wouldn’t be wise to jump in before learning the nuances of using social media for pharma from a legal perspective. But this isn’t rocket science. Medical marketers are already familiar with legal regulation for marketing – social media is just one more channel. Companies already have legal departments in place that are experts in mitigating risk. They just need to work with the right people who understand how social media works, in order to bridge the gap needed to apply known practices and knowledge to the social media channel. Social media should be one tactic used as part of a company’s direct-to-patient marketing efforts.


The greatest risk in the gamble of social media for healthcare companies isn’t legal regulations. The overwhelming risk to healthcare social media is a complete absence of medical and pharma companies. Healthcare companies who don’t engage with patients and caregivers on social media will risk losing customers, tarnishing a brand image, eroding brand awareness, missing insights for product development, and failing to ignite potential brand advocates. At the end of the day, it’s business. You’ve got to communicate how you’re going to serve a customer’s needs to the right customers, at the right time, so that they choose to purchase your product or service. Communicating your product offering, connecting with the right customers, and making the conversion to a sale is the lifeblood of your business. With careful planning, you can utilize social media to achieve your business goals and avoid the pitfalls of an antisocial business.

Here’s why your company can’t afford to be antisocial:

1. The Conversations Are Happening Whether You Like It Or Not

As a Marketing Director of a medical or pharma company, Head of Communications, or even CEO, you have absolutely no control over the conversations that are already taking place on Social Media if you are not actively engaged. Chances are, people are already talking online about your brand, employees, products, and their experiences.

Using social media for direct-to-patient health, pharma and medical marketing

In the process of preparing a social media campaign for a medical device company, we began compiling current conversations online about the product and target market. We found that despite the fact that the company currently has absolutely zero social media presence, their product is being talked about all over the web. From the social listening data we have gathered, we’ve gleaned countless valuable insights.

What we have learned (and you can too) with social listening:

  • Information that has fueled the development of target patient personas. Want to sell a product? You have to know whom you’re selling to. Social listening can provide insight into the demographics of your target audience, their online behavior, awareness of your product, stage of the patient life cycle, worries, needs, desires, and more.
  • The kind of language surrounding the product. Do you want to create materials that will speak to the needs of your customers so that you can make sales? Yeah, that’s what I thought. If you’re going to make meaningful connections to patients, you have to know how to reach them. This means understanding the language they use to describe your product.  To truly understand how to connect with a customer, you have to listen to them first. Otherwise, you risk spending lots of money on campaigns that aren’t going to be effective.
  •  The current state of awareness for the product. How many people actually know about your product? Are people confused about how it works? Is it easy for them to find more information about your product or service? If you hear lots of patients online talking about your product inaccurately, it’s probably a heads up that you need to do more to educate consumers about your offering.
  • Find out who are the influencers in the patient’s decision-making process. Who is the key decision-maker, the patient, caregiver, or loved one? Who does the patient listen to most? Where does the patient go to seek information? If you’re going to intercept your product or service in the decision-making process, you have to understand what that process is like and where you fit in.

2. This is 21st Century PR

WUsing social media for direct-to-patient health, pharma and medical marketinge know that as a leader of a medical or pharma company you’re well acquainted with the function of PR. You might already have a PR agency on your side, promoting your company with news releases and putting your company in a positive light. But guess what? You can’t react with the lightening fast speed needed to mitigate crises if you send out a tricycle to compete with a Lamborghini. The Lamborghini of social media users will beat you to the conversation, and by the time your tricycle skids in, not only is the information stale, but it will have progressed forward. If you try to prepare something for the current state of affairs, you have to wait for your tricycle to make it all the way back to the PR firm, and then wait for it to arrive at the conversation again. It’s simply not an acceptable form of risk management in today’s business world. For example, someone could falsely report adverse effects and blame your drug or product, catching the Internet world by storm. They could be reporting the adverse effects truthfully. They could be reporting adverse effects with honest intentions, but be incorrectly attributing your product as the source of the problem. Whatever the circumstances are, a deluge of compassionate Internet users could rush to point a finger at your company. If everyone’s abuzz on social media and you spend even one day preparing a press release to distribute using traditional methods, it could be too late. By the time your company’s response makes it to consumers, it might be extremely difficult or impossible to stop the flood of users who are already convinced your company is the culprit. “Social Media enables brands to actively respond in real-time to questions or concerns with responses that can deliver impact and insight from the brand’s perspective,” Morrow explains.

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3. There is no risk management without social media

By avoiding social media, you’re giving up the power to defend your brand online in real-time. Your company could be sullied by damage to your brand’s social media reputation as a result of leaving it unprotected. Without joining social media your brand is vulnerable, victim to the direction of wherever the public wants to take it, not you. It’s time to grab the helm and steer your company’s social reputation. It’s far too big of a risk to let the online community take the steering wheel. By joining social media you regain control.

Your company is still being talked about, and if you’re not there to contribute to the conversation, you forfeit the chance to steer conversations in a variety of ways:

  • Someone is talking about your product but incorrectly describing itSocial Customer Service: 5 Tips for Handling Negative Comments
  • Someone wants to know more about your product but doesn’t know where to go
  • Someone wants to buy your product but doesn’t know where to purchase it
  • Someone has a question about whether your product is right for them and wants to know if it will fit their unique situation
  • Someone confuses your product with another product
  • Someone is having a problem using your product and doesn’t know how to fix it

4. You Say Your High-Tech But It’s All Talk No Action

How is it possible that your product or service offering is so cutting-edge, and yet your company is not active on social media? Today’s consumers expect to see brands online. If you’re not there, it can be perceived as not being knowledgeable and equipped with the latest technology and communication mediums. If you have a high-tech product with ingenious thinking that is ahead of its time, and your marketing efforts try to communicate this image and idea, not having a social media presence contradicts everything your brand is about. If you want consumers to see your product as the latest technology, you have to get with the latest technology. Otherwise there’s a disconnect.

5. No One Ever Likes the Silent Treatment

Using social media for direct-to-patient health, pharma and medical marketingHow can you possibly argue that you are there to help customers and that you truly care about and their needs if you simply ignore them? That’s what you’re doing by not being on social media. Nobody likes someone who gives the silent treatment, and this extends to social business. It’s annoying, it’s frustrating, and it’s completely belittling to feel like the other person won’t even let you open up a conversation about a problem or concern. What do you do when a friend is too stubborn to give you the time of day? You give up. After a while, people get tired of not getting a response, and they may stop using your product or service. Remember it’s far more expensive to gain new customers than please existing ones. In a potentially more damaging scenario, a customer becomes vindictive, and they seek to punish your company for not listening. They may try to call attention to your brand and bash your brand on social media and through other channels. They’ll congregate their followers and incite them to action against your company.  They’ll start an anti-“your company” movement. What should you do? Don’t ignore them in the first place! Social media absence undermines your company’s other direct-to-patient marketing efforts because it can contradicts the message that your company cares about the customer.

Don’t be caught typing on a typewriter, using a computer that needs its own room it’s so big, using a cellphone that weighs 20lbs, watching film on a VHS, or not using social media. It’s old, it’s heavy, it’s slow, it’s tired, it lacks functionality, and it simply won’t cut it. Equip your company for the coming years: things are only going digital, moving faster, and happening in real-time, all with the patient consumer front and center. The only way to keep up with it is to jump on board so that by the time the next thing hits, you’re not obsolete, and your company is agile enough to adapt to change.

The question to ask yourself now is can you afford to NOT use social media as a health, medical or pharma company?

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Lindsey Weintraub is passionate about solving business challenges through the digital trifecta of social, content, and email.

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