Kamp Column: Industry Must Embrace Internet and Social Media or Become Irrelevant in Many Health Conversations

By John Kamp, Executive Director, Coalition for Healthcare Communication

June 29, 2011 — Yesterday I had the pleasure of moderating a lively panel discussion at the 2011 BIO annual meeting in D.C., titled: “Talking About Your Product in the New Age: Social Media and the Internet.” While every speaker recognized the regulatory uncertainty and complexity of Internet marketing, all also agreed that industry must engage patients, caregivers and providers on the Internet or risk becoming irrelevant in many of the most important health conversations.

As regulators at FDA, FTC and Congress contemplate additional rules, consumers and healthcare professionals are consuming information on the Internet with increasing speed. Our industry knows the most about the safe and effective use of its products. Although we must follow existing rules and be prepared for new ones, we also need to offer our first-line expertise wherever our customers seek it.  If industry leads responsibly, government will follow.

We have a long way to go. Yesterday, Coalition board member Michael Myers, President of Palio (InVentiv), most effectively drove home the message in his closing presentation. Using just three examples – Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – he presented data showing that pharma is way behind other brands on social media outreach. His most effective tool was a YouTube video by Erik Qualman, author of socialnomics: how social media transforms the way we live and do business (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0EnhXn5boM). This four-minute video “says it all,” according to Myers.

To tease you into downloading it, here are just a few tidbits:

  • Social media is “word of mouth … on steroids”
  • 90 percent of consumers trust peer recommendations
  • Just 14 percent of consumers trust ads
  • 93 percent of marketers use social media for business

For Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, Myers showed the amazing growth in consumer and marketing use, including examples of outstanding pharma sites. While we all know Facebook use is extensive, Myers stated that consumers spend more than 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook. And, although many pharma brands have pages – even as Facebook is limiting control – the average pharmaceutical Facebook page analyzed had roughly 13,000 fans compared to the millions of Starbucks fans, noted Myers.

Meanwhile, YouTube serves as a medium to push and share a large amount of content, Myers said, and is second to Google as a search engine. It has the highest number of page views on any social media site; the average YouTube user is between the ages of 18 and 54 and 70 percent of traffic comes from outside of the United States. Pharma YouTube accounts have relatively few subscribers and channel views, he noted. Also, the average pharmaceutical Twitter page that Myers analyzed had roughly 1,800 followers.

Summarizing, Myers says better use of social media will be integral to a company’s future success, adding that the return on investment of social media “is your business will still exist in five years.” 

Notwithstanding these facts, many in industry have been waiting for the FDA’s impending draft guidance on social media before moving forward aggressively. According to DDMAC head Tom Abrams at the DIA annual meeting two weeks ago, FDA at last may be close to issuing the first of those guidances. But we’ve heard that before, and remember, Abrams also has stated repeatedly that these guidances will not make any new FDA policy, just “clarify” existing policy for the new media.

Study after

study confirms that consumers are not waiting for the FDA and the FTC to establish their Internet rules before seeking health information online. For example, a recent Pew Internet Project/California HealthCare Foundation survey found that 66 percent of consumers look online for information about a specific disease or medical problem. And, doctors and other health providers are ahead of consumers in terms of their Internet use.

Meanwhile, a study supported by PhRMA found that a majority of physicians believe that industry’s detail forces provide valuable patient information. Industry needs to be on the Internet, on iPads and Blackberrys, and on desktop screens, regardless of institutional, social and regulatory barriers.

At present the industry is using various strategies to cope with existing barriers. Many companies only host social media sites about relevant disease states – avoiding branded drug sites to steer clear of off-label and adverse event issues. Where companies host branded sites, the company’s insistence that only on-label uses be discussed can confuse and sometimes anger site visitors who do not understand the FDA constraints.

Another challenge for companies is providing FDA-required safety information in space-restricted media. One solution not yet addressed by the FDA is an industry proposal to allow the use of a universal symbol for sites that feature FDA-regulated benefit and risk information. This proposal would point users to reliable information vetted by the FDA, helping patients to cull the good from the bad among information providers.

Companies also must heed the FTC’s privacy policies and its increasing warnings about social media and digital marketing. The FTC is actively enforcing social media infractions and may receive additional authority to regulate online behavioral advertising – including the possibility of establishing a mandatory “Do Not Track” mechanism – if pending bills in the House and Senate become law.

The Coalition and others oppose mandatory Do Not Track provisions and believe that consumer privacy and robust Internet commerce is better served by self-regulation. The new Digital Advertising Alliance has created the icon shown here to enable easy consumer opt-outs of unwanted tracking and marketing. For more information visit:  www.AboutAds.info

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