Friday, September 25, 2009

Some Pharma Marketers Can't See the Unbranded SM Forest for the Branded SM Tree

Are some pharma marketers so focused on figuring out how to promote brands via social media that they are not seeing the plainly obvious unbranded opportunities out there?

SM branded Tree

Some time ago, I accused Novo Nordisk of engaging in Twitter "spam" when it posted a Levemir-branded tweet via its @racewithinsulin twitter account (see "Novo Nordisk's Branded (Levemir) Tweet is Sleazy Twitter Spam!"). You can argue whether or not this was "spam" or "sleazy" or "sleazy spam," but my main point was that Novo missed an opportunity to support people with diabetes using Twitter and social media tools. This may not be appropriate for the @racewithinsulin twitter account because of its focus on Charlie Kimball. But just as inappropriate was the branded tweet.

Of course, pharmaceutical companies -- including Novo Nordisk -- are using social media to do unbranded consumer-focused campaigns (see, for example, "Pharma and Healthcare Social Media Wiki"). But are they focusing enough on the many ways they can use social media to support the patients who are prescribed their products? I asked this in a previous post (see "Twitter for Brands: Beyond Marketing.") and in the survey "What's Your Opinion About Branded Patient Support via Twitter?"

The issue came up again today during the #hcsmeu Tweetup. The question posed was: Can EU lead way in SM adoption in healthcare?

In the EU, pharmaceutical companies have learned how to communicate with consumers without focusing on branded messages. Therefore, I suggested that "EU pharma can lead way for SM in HC because it is not focused on branded msgs as is US, lots of experience w DA - better app for SM." Translated from Twitterese, what I meant was that EU pharma's lead in disease awareness communications makes it easier for them to see the unbranded social media forest than it is for US pharma marketers who are almost catatonically focused on the branded social media tree.

In the US, the only way for pharma to move ahead with social media is to figure out how to get the branded messages into the mix. Without FDA guidance, however, this is not going to be easy. There is hope that the November, 2009 public hearing will move this forward, but history could repeat itself (see "Get Your FDA Social Media Public Hearing T-Shirt!").

The FDA could take a small step and define the industry's responsibility to report adverse events (AEs) they come across on web sites -- including social media sites -- under their control. It's not really a technology issue. That guidance could simply be something like "No self-reported AEs on social media sites need to be reported by pharma on Form 2253 under the following conditions..." Under a "tit-for-tat tithe" program, the conditions define a "safe harbor" available to pharma companies who commit to spending 10% of their marketing budgets to non-branded disease awareness programs approved by an independent 3rd party." (See "Tit-for-Tat Tithe on Pharma Marketing. How It Can Work.")

One safe harbor condition might be placing an AE reporting widget on a product website as in this Ignite Health mock up. (Click on image below for an enlarged view; better yet, visit the web site mock up - the widget actually works, in a demo mode.)

Any way, that's about as far as I can take this discussion right now. But I do welcome your comments here to this blog post and urge you to take a look at the "Branded Patient Support via Twitter" survey.


  1. @jamielacey289:21 AM

    Thx for translating Twittereese within. Still learning here!!

  2. I tend to agree, John. I've often said that the opportunity for pharma in social media is through an unbranded route. Unfortunately some marketers - as you state - can't see the forest for the trees, and are so focused on connecting every single effort to the brand name that they're not willing to consider much unbranded spend. (For those that do, kudos to you!)

    Pharma could be doing a lot more - and no doubt consumers would be much more receptive - if they increased their unbranded efforts across all digital media. Think education, customer support, lead generation... At Intouch, much of our work over the years has proven out that in many categories (though admittedly not all), and if done right, unbranded efforts can have a strong tie back to ROI.

    I've blogged on some similar topics in the past - see for more info.

  3. Robinson2:21 PM

    Equally important in this discussion is when SM proponents provide misguided marketing information. SM is not about "branded" communications and SM is not "broadcast" media. Seeing it only in this light will lead to continued misunderstandings and the failure of SM to provide useful marketing intelligence. SM is more about communications that help discover the right answer from the right audience, not placing the right message at the right time.

  4. John - interesting post, but not sure I fully agree. One reason the EU has pursued a non-branded approach is because there is no history of DTC on Europe, and as such companies are wary about pushing boundaries. If you saw much of the resistance toward the proposed Information to Patients legislation recently, you would understand how strongly that is felt in some quarters

    I think there is bit of a stand-off between the marketers - especially at a national level in the EU, whose performance is appraised on units shifter - and compliance and legal functions, who are wary of damaging reputation and incurring legal action.

    There has been no equivalent to the FDA guidelines on SM in Europe (even if that hasn't produced much), so we're kind of in the dark as to which way it's going to go. Given the experience on Info to patients, most companies seem to be adopting a cautious approach by default, not design.

  5. I think that the lack of history of DTC in Europe means that EU marketers have a much richer history of non-branded marketing, which I believe id better suited for SM. In other words, EU marketers, because of their focus on patients in an unbranded way are in a much better position to take advantage of SM.

    See "Digital Pharma Is Alive and Well in Europe!" (


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