Over the last 20 years, social media has moved from being a niche pursuit to a global phenomenon. More than half the world’s population now uses social media, with user numbers edging towards four billion. The average person spends two hours and 24 minutes on social networking sites each day, according to stats on Backlinko.

While this shift has altered many aspects of life – not least how we consume news media and connect with other people – it has been nothing short of seismic for marketing departments.

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As users flocked to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, businesses began to understand what this might mean for advertising and e-commerce. Today, more than 90% of marketing executives use social media and it’s rare to find a brand without some form of social media presence.

The pharma industry, however, may have seemed slow on the uptake. Given the strict regulations around what can and cannot be said – not to mention what can and cannot be advertised – drug companies simply haven’t had the same freedom as, say, consumer goods companies to promote their products. This means social media marketing, or even information campaigns, can sometimes be a non-starter.

“Most of our clients, the pharma companies, have policies that heavily restrict their use of social media and limit their ability to benefit from the wealth of data that could accompany it,” says Stephen Page, co-founder and brand and strategy director at Page & Page and Partners. “Patients are often not allowed to know about or discuss the options for treating their condition, in case they try to treat themselves and then sue the pharma company sponsoring the media channel for the worsening of their predicament.”

Unfortunately, this can also serve as an obstacle for healthcare professionals. In some cases, doctors have not been able to access the information, forums and resources that would help them do their job, in case a patient stumbles across it. The good news is that this is changing.

“Overly restrictive regulations are being updated as governments, healthcare professionals and industry realise that their patient populations may be the most powerful source of data ever,” says Page. “It’s a source that will allow for even more profound advances in medicine, benefiting both society and the research and development teams trying to create new blockbusters.”

How pharma companies are using social media

For the past 18 years – a timeframe that neatly covers the ascendancy of social media – Page has been focusing on the healthcare sector. He has developed campaigns and brand strategy for a range of pharma, biotech, medical device and health and wellbeing brands across many therapeutic areas.

Increasingly, this means thinking about social media. As the drug development process becomes more collaborative, and patients’ insights become more sought-after, social networks are being recognised as a good way to glean and disseminate information.

“We recently worked with a large pharmaceutical company on a social listening programme,” says Page. “In developing a new drug and therefore a new therapeutic pathway, the company realised that by understanding patients’ experience of a condition, they could then use that information to close the gap between their own medical affairs team, marketing, the healthcare professionals they were targeting and the patients as the end user.”

The upshot, he says, is that the drug company will be able to go beyond their own science, and offer the patient meaningful real-world clinical benefits.

Another example is a recent pharma company campaign that was developed to support a nutritional supplement brand. The campaign started out by sending surveys to dietitians on LinkedIn, with a view to identifying prescribing challenges. It finished with a selection of educational videos on Vimeo and YouTube, to help overcome these prescribing challenges.

“It’s not about the channel so much as the content – video via YouTube or Vimeo or contained within another platform, such as LinkedIn seems to be the most successful, as people don’t have the time or bandwidth to focus on reading for long periods,” says Page.

“Successful use of social media is perhaps defined by the value, relevance and credibility of the content it imparts.”

The rules and restrictions

So what rules do pharma companies need to follow on social media? Clearly, it depends on where you are in the world, with some countries imposing stricter regulations than others.

In the UK, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry is responsible for setting the guidelines. It states that prescription-only medicines can’t be promoted to patients under any circumstances, either via social media or traditional marketing channels. Pharma companies are, however, allowed to share information impartially on social media, so long as they comply with the code.

Given the concerns around overly restrictive regulations, the code has recently been updated, with the 2021 Code due to come into force in July.

In the US, where pharma companies routinely use television adverts to market their products directly to consumers, the rules are somewhat laxer – they can use social media for the same purpose, so long as it complies with guidance from the US Food and Drug Administration.

Social media platforms also tend to have their own rules around health advertising. Facebook, for instance, has banned adverts that imply the reader has specific attributes (including disabilities or medical conditions), which means advertisers would need to be careful about wording. YouTube restricts the advertising of some pharmaceutical products, and companies need prior authorisation to advertise on Twitter.

Combating misinformation online

Another timely question is whether pharma companies are doing enough to combat vaccine-related misinformation, which has surged on social media in the last year. Since vaccine hesitancy could prolong the pandemic and cost lives, there is a clear need for accurate information on social media.

What’s more, pharma social media accounts will need to stay vigilant to targeted anti-vax campaigns. Risk intelligence company Crisp has warned that vaccine social media pages could be infiltrated by fake accounts, posting false information about side effects and potentially sabotaging the vaccine rollout.

Page thinks that, while pharma companies could do better here, stemming the tide of misinformation should not be down to the drugmakers alone.

“Is pharma doing enough to address the public’s concerns with regards to Covid-19 and the new, rapidly developed vaccines? The short answer here is not enough,” he says. “But then again is the media, with all their experts, doing enough? Are governments and local authorities doing enough?”

He thinks, despite the constraints placed on social media, and the obvious challenges inherent in using it, the industry has done a good job at making sure healthcare professionals and patients stay informed.

“Pharma companies need to present a digital environment that helps time-poor, highly patient-focused professionals find the information, resource or medical liaison they need quickly,” he says.

“Or if they’re providing information to the patient, they’ve got to make the information accessible, relevant and intuitive. The industry is proving ever more capable of using social media – the dots are beginning to be joined.”