As the Internet mushrooms every day, pharma seems destined to be left behind. Beset by a conservative culture shaped by regulatory concerns, trade secrets and other legal worries, drugmakers haven't figured out how to use social networking to engage the public. A very few official blogs have been created, but the concept has yet to take hold in an industry that seems, more than ever, to need new ways to communicate with consumers, some of whom view drugmakers with suspicion. We asked Fard Johnmar ofEnvision Solutions, who does social-network consulting for industry, government and non-profits, why this is the case and what may happen...
Pharmalot: Let's start with blogs. Only a few exist - Glaxo's Alli, JNJ's By The Way, and a new one from Centocor. Why not more? Johnmar: There are two opposing forces at work. One says 'let's get involved right now.' The other is 'we're conservative and have to meet our numbers.' That becomes the priority. They've largely intimidated and so there appears to be a holding pattern. And they're not sure if these activities will have a positive impact on the brands, so it's causing them to go slowly. There are also some good reasons - layoffs, consolidation, not enough new drugs. So most feel there's good reason to be cautious. Of course, that doesn't mean these companies should do nothing.
Pharmalot: But are they really do nothing or just flummoxed? Johnmar: They are using social technology, of a kind, in ways we don't see. Pfizer has a deal with Sermo, the social networking site for doctors. A number of companies have become very interested in what Sermo has to offer in terms of intelligence - advertising board, understanding treatment patterns, competitive intelligence. Generally, though, they're still looking at the tenor and tone online of their products and competitive products. But mostly, they're monitoring, not participating.
Pharmalot: Tell us about the online efforts then as they exist now. Johnmar: I see four strategies. One is advertising, or the broadcast message, where you get the message out on web site and someone else's social network. They're very comfortable with that because it's the same as advertising in a journal and not an inflammatory converation. The next is conducting research, such as asking questions. That's another very comfortable place for pharma. They do focus groups all the time. They use sites to recruit for clinical trials, too. Then there's seeding - using sites to seed communities around certain issues, such as a particular disease, so people can speak to one another. It's similar to a listserv or forum. But it's run by others and the company provides the support to get it started. There's a hands-off aspect to this.
The last category is conversation. That's where it becomes unusual, because the companies all talk about legal and regulatory issues and are very slow to embrace the idea of blogging or podcasting. The companies are saying they can't necessarily get involved in this stuff. They're trying to figure it out. Meanwhile, people everywhere are already using them for so much else.
Pharmalot: It seems that they're missing the boat, though, yes? Johnmar: All these strategies are sppropriate, depending on the goal. They should only get involved unless they understand what they're getting into. Most companies feel it's not worth getting involved in conversations, because they're afraid of negative commentary.
Pharmalot: But aren't they then missing out on hearing something that should be heard? Johnmar: I think they are. There's a lot to be said for getting involved with stakeholders to learn what they think. They're really are missing the board. But they key issue for them is how to balance that with their caution. Some are closer to answer these questions. If I were to make a guess, in the next year or year and a half, you'll probably see them become more active, but it'll mostly be under the radar. They're still trying to understand the benefits and drawbacks.