The online world of social media is now more than twenty years old, with the first recognisable social media site, Six Degrees, launching in 1997.  The big platforms that we know and love (or hate) started appearing in 2000s, with Linkedin leading the pack in 2003, followed by Facebook in 2004, then YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006 and Instagram in 2010.  Today there are hundreds of different platforms and for many social media has become the preferred method of communication and something that is used multiple times a day.

Whilst consumer goods and many other businesses were quick to see, and seize, the opportunity that these new channels presented the pharmaceutical industry was understandably cautious.  As a highly regulated industry, with restrictions around communicating product information to patients, many saw social media as a “no go”.  Many used the lack of guidance from regulatory bodies as a reason not to engage in social media and people waited with baited breath for regulatory authorities, such as the FDA, to release guidance (this finally came as late as January 2014 after pressure from Congress). 

Some held back due to a false concern that social media was full of adverse event (AE) reports – a myth that research[1] dispelled back in 2013 when it was revealed that on average there were only 0.3% of posts contained actual AE reports. 

Others however took the plunge.  GSK was one of the first entrants with AlliConnect, a product branded blog which was launched in 2007, whilst others dabbled with corporate Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.  In fact Facebook had made life “easier” for pharmaceutical companies by allowing the industry to have all comments disabled on their pages – essentially making their Facebook pages nothing more than glorified websites. 


Only a few were brave enough to enable comments, with industry social media pioneer Boehringer Ingelheim amongst them.  Back in the day I consistently used Boehringer Ingelheim as an example of best practice for social media in pharma.  They not only encouraged engagement by enabling comments but they also responded to comments and tweets, something it has taken other companies years to do (and many still fail miserably on this).  Boehringer was also a pioneer on Twitter, and whilst they did not initiate the very first pharma driven tweet chat (this honour went to AstraZeneca), they did run the first pharma disease tweet chat in September 2013, around #ChatAFib.

Sadly however few pharma companies were as brave, or patient centric as Boehringer, and produced incredibly bad and poor quality social media, that was often nothing more than old fashioned press releases distributed via a new channel.  One case in point was in 2009 when industry pundit John Mack, aka @pharmaguy, flagged that he believed the @pfizer_news twitter stream was in fact a fake stream due to the low quality of the logo and content.  It turned out to be real – and incidentally Pfizer has since gone on to reclaim the @pfizer twitter handle (which at the time they did not own) and improve their content. 

It was also Pharmaguy who wrote some of the best commentary about a pharma Facebook disaster – Sanofi Aventis’s Voices debacle.  This remains to this day one of my favourite examples of a pharma company’s total disrespect, and lack of understanding, for patients and social media.  In this case a patient, called Shirely, posted a complaint about having permanent alopecia as a side effect of her treatment (something she had not been warned about), and having failed to receive a response from traditional channels had taken to social media.  Rather than acknowledge and respond to her genuine issues, and try to move the conversation offline, her posts were continuously removed and blocked, with little attempt to communicate with her.  She escalated her response by getting friends and family to post, inundating the page with angry posts. Eventually it became such an issue that the page was taken down but not before it had all gone public.

It was probably PR nightmares such as this that scared pharma companies in terms of engaging and enabling comments, and so when Facebook suddenly announced in August 2011 that pharma companies would no longer have the luxury of being able to disable comments, many panicked and closed their pages down altogether. 

Of course times have moved on, and today most big pharma companies have some sort of presence on social media, whether that is via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or newer platforms like Instagram.  Some are truly embracing the various functionalities of the platforms, for example using chatbots and live streaming.  However it is telling that many do not enable direct posting to their Facebook walls (Boehringer of course does) and when you start to analyse the engagement and responses sometimes a different story emerges.

Too many pharma companies still use their social media as more of a PR exercise, showcasing CSR activity or corporate activities for example, rather than using it as a true engagement channel.  Despite the fact that this is now deemed a normal channel, and is no longer considered “new”, many pharmaceutical companies still lack a genuine presence or demonstrate a real idea of how to use this channel to drive impact. 

Looking at how some companies respond to tweets for example, can be both eye-opening and in some cases shocking.  Simple questions, just as Shirely’s back in the day to Sanofi, remain ignored and unanswered, or are responded to with generic or automated responses.  Some, like Novartis, produce some great content, but then let the side down through a lack of human response to questions. 

The fear that was there in the early days is still too often there, lurking in pharma companies.  The realisation that this is now a mainstream channel and that stakeholder’s expectations and needs have changed does not seem to have sunk in everywhere.  It also perhaps driven by the fact that patient engagement is still seen as difficult and “impossible” due to regulatory constraints. 

There is also not always a full understanding of the value and use this channel has for HCP communications.  Many companies are now present on Twitter at congresses, such AHA, but the content still remains very low value and focused on those who are attending as opposed to the larger audience of those who are not attending but following remotely online.  The inclusion of targeted or HCP-only networks such as Linkedin or Sermo also remains relatively low in brand marketing plans despite the multiple opportunities these networks provide.

The reality is that this is perhaps the most powerful channel for our industry.  This is a channel that can truly save lives, and is empowering patients to get better and quicker answers to their health issues.  It is a channel that enables physicians to get advice or second opinions on complex cases from peers and experts, improving diagnosis and outcomes.

It is however also a channel full of misinformation and this in itself is endangering people’s lives.  As an industry that has access to some of the latest health information, and an industry that has a legal obligation to patient safety, one could argue we have a duty of care to not only be present but to be active.  As an industry we should not fear social media but embrace it as an amazing opportunity to truly deliver impact to patients, healthcare providers, companies and our society as a whole.

In the last twenty years we have seem a phenomenal amount of change around the pharma industry and social media, and a significant shift has been occurring in the last couple of years, in terms of presence, quality and tone.  I hope the next ten years will see the industry fully engage in this channel and treat it as a normal form of communication with all stakeholders, and I hope social media finally gets the recognition and resourcing it deserves.



By Alexandra Fulford