Should Pharma Unfriend Social Media?

May 9, 2014
Considering the amount of time, money, confusion and red tape associated with social media, is there a tangible ROI for the pharmaceutical industry?

I still remember the day I woke up and realized that updating my Myspace “Top Ten Friends” list wasn’t a priority and no longer seemed like a very good use of my time. It was somewhat liberating. Then I went as far as to delete my Myspace page entirely. It set me free.

In mid-January 2014, the FDA released its long-awaited draft social media guidance, Fulfilling Regulatory Requirements for Postmarketing Submissions of Interactive Promotional Media for Prescription Human and Animal Drugs and Biologics, and opened the floor to comments.

Perhaps because the industry had spent over four years eagerly awaiting this promised guidance, expectations for clarity were high. The result being, the industry wasn’t thrilled. Industry groups representing pharma companies and digital technologies, as well as individual big name drugmakers, chimed in during the comment period, and they were less than encouraging towards the FDA.

A flurry of criticism ensued, calling on the FDA to align the Draft Guidance more closely to the law, give real-world applications and examples, tighten up its definition of concepts and stop “over-regulating” — to mention a few.

I recently read an interesting discussion by Bill Evans in Dose of Digital advocating that pharma “give up the social media ghost” in terms of brand marketing. Evans points out that social media is largely misunderstood and misused in pharma brand marketing and, furthermore, has a very weak business case. Evans suggests that patients desire services, not social conversations, and pharma should refocus efforts on patient technologies and tools, rather than Facebook chats.

This, of course, led me to give thought to the commonly repeated accusation that “pharma spends more money on marketing than on R&D” (which evidently has been disproven on several occasions but no one seems to care). Whether exaggerated or not, what the persistence of this argument does suggest is that the vast majority of people are aware when they are being marketed to (even if that marketing is cleverly disguised as a social media post) and are not comfortable with the idea that drugs are a for-profit business.

I have to admit, I don’t really miss my Myspace page. It didn’t do much in the way of helping me solve any life problems — it was more of an outlet for complaining than anything else and sometimes even caused additional drama in my world. Which brings me to ask, would consumers really miss pharma brand pages if they went away? And considering the amount of time, money, confusion and red tape associated with maintaining these pages, is there a tangible ROI for the pharmaceutical industry? Or can this time and money be better spent in more functional areas of the digital world, such as digital health? Perhaps pharma would be better off reinvesting in technologies that have clear, concise roles in addressing immediate patient needs.

Let’s face it, in terms of social media, pharma has always been the socially awkward kid who has to run everything by his parents before he can do much of anything. Perhaps we set our hopes too high that pharma — like most of us with our expertly filtered Instagram photos and witty, well-thought out tweets — would be so much cooler online. #ohwell

About the Author

Karen Langhauser | Digital Content Manager