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Life Science Professionals: Don’t Give Up on Social Media

It's one report I never thought I'd see in my morning life sciences feed: The Colbert Report.

But there it was: Stephen Colbert riffing, hilariously, on recent FDA guidance on the use of social media, specifically Twitter, by pharmaceutical companies.

One Colbert recommendation: use emojis to represent known risks for any drugs mentioned in tweets. Funny.

The comic potential must have been obvious to Colbert's writers: tweeting 140 characters does seems incompatible with the extensive product information pharmaceutical companies want, and need, to convey.

Other social platforms, like Facebook, can handle longer posts, but they have similar challenges: their casual nature, and interactivity, seems at odds with the seriousness and tight control that the life sciences industry, and the FDA, prefers.

That may be one reason why it's taken the FDA such a long time to formulate policy in this area. The agency held its first public meeting on the topic in 2009, five years ago. Since then guidance has come out in dribs and drabs: often in warning letters the agency sends to companies informing them that their social media activities have violated the agency's marketing regulations.

This has had a chilling effect on many pharmaceutical firms. It's been difficult for them to get a solid read on what they can and cannot do. As a result many pharmaceutical companies have preferred to sit on the social media sidelines.

A recent report by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, "Engaging Patients Through Social Media," found that among the top 50 pharmaceutical companies, half do not engage with consumers or patients on healthcare-related topics through social media. Only 10 companies utilized all three major channels that the study considered: Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Although this reluctance is understandable, the IMS report recommends that it's time for pharmaceutical companies to overcome their social anxiety.

I have to agree.

One reason: that's where the people are. And not just patients, but physicians too.

A recent Google survey found that when making clinical decisions, physicians spend twice as much time using online resources compared to print.

And how about this for a data point: the FDA is itself already an active user of both Twitter and Facebook. The last time I checked the FDA had tweeted 2400 times to its 62.3k followers. Its Facebook page has more than 155k "likes."

The European Medicines Agency, the FDA for the European Union, is also on Facebook and Twitter.

Both agencies have clearly decided that social media is an effective and important communications platform. That should be a sign that there's really no reason to put off your engagement with it.

The IMS study, which you can download here, went to great lengths to rank the top pharma companies that have taken the social media plunge, according to metrics like reach, relevance, and engagement. (Spoiler alert: Johnson & Johnson was #1 in all three categories.)

But what really captured my attention as I visited the social media sites of these bold, leading companies, was the variety of themes they are pursuing. These companies are blogging and tweeting about healthcare innovation, public policy, employee volunteer work, disease awareness, and a variety of other topics.

The one thing they are not doing, none of them: explicitly promoting products. At the moment that's too fraught with fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

That should be reassuring to pharmaceutical firms. When it comes to social media, there's basically just one area where social media's waters get treacherous: product related posts and promotions.

That leaves a large open field of possibilities elsewhere. And that's what these socially adventurous firms have discovered: there are many more topics, all non-controversial, that can spark compelling social media interactions.

Next time, we'll dive into some of these successful social media strategies. And I think you'll discover that there's plenty to talk about with your customers, and prospective customers, while still staying well inside the most conservative boundaries of acceptable communications.

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