Though social media has proved its mettle across different sectors, the Indian pharma industry is still in wait and watch mode By Sachin Jagdale
Social media’s impact is very evident in today’s world. It has disrupted and changed the norms of communication. Different sectors are putting it to great effect through various initiatives. However, the pharma industry in India seems reluctant to embrace the power of social media. Why is it so? One reason could be that the pharma sector deals with life and death, hence it is one of the most regulated industries in the world. Fear of getting trapped in regulatory norms always looms on the horizon of the pharma industry However, industry experts are of the opinion that even with the risks and regulations faced by the pharma industry, it needs to leverage the potential of social media platforms to engage with its target audience. Social media can serve as a great tool for the pharma industry to stay connected with its consumers. Thought leaders also believe that the risks could be transformed into opportunities if a sound strategy is put into place.
Brimming with potential…yet fears remain
“People in India are rapidly adapting to the Internet. Today, India has the third-largest internet user base in the world with more than 300 million users, of which more than 50 per cent are mobile-only Internet users. It is also estimated that in 2017, there will be around 197 million social network users in India. Social media can thus be a great tool for the pharma industry to stay connected with its consumers in India. Just a few of them have tried to some extent, and some are considering now, but majority of them have yet to understand the positive impact it can have on their business,” informs Priti Mohile, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Media Medic Communications.
Pharma companies too have adopted social media, but in a limited way. Only a select few, renowned names in the industry are making use of social media with significant effect.
Nilofer Memon, Digital Marketing Manager, Sorento Healthcare Communications, informs, “In India, pharma companies like Abbott, Sanofi, Merck Serono, J&J among others are using social media in delightful ways such as corporate branding, talent acquisition, OTC product promotion and likewise unbranded initiatives to build awareness on disease conditions. These companies have succeeded in clearing bottlenecks and establish their social media presence. But, due to compliance restrictions and legal hurdles for Rx brands, multinational pharma companies, prefer not to aggressively promote themselves online. Pharma companies are not active enough, but they are changing at a faster rate than, say, five years ago.”
There is more to social media than just sharing product information and promotional material. With a huge percentage of patients active on the social media it becomes even more necessary for the pharma companies to engage with them through this digital platform. Benefits offered by various social sites are significant. As Mohile says, “It needs to be understood first that connecting with consumers does not necessarily mean promoting brands.”
Dr RB Smarta, Managing Director, Interlink Marketing Consultancy, says, “The business model in the industry today is shifting from being product-oriented to being patient-oriented. The needs of the patient in current times are the epicentre with services wrapped around those needs. Apart from sharing just product information and promotional material, social media can be actively used to keep in touch with all the stakeholders of the industry like pharmacists, doctors, managers, stockists, hospitals as well as patients and can also be used for active networking.”
A pharma veteran with over 50 years in the industry, Subramanian Vaidya, Director, BlissGVS Pharma and Chairman-MSME committee, IDMA, offers a unique perspective. He opines that social media can be beneficial in enhancing pharmacovigilance. He says, “After 1970, when the Drug Price Control Order was passed, slowly and steadily the packs sold have been stripped of information leaflet and today one buys naked strips without any information. No one including the regulatory and the medical profession seem to be bothered about it in either way as the doctors have an advantage over patients not knowing anything at all and being totally ignorant of what is being administered. Because of this, pharmacovigilance activities have taken a backseat in our country. So, if you ask me, one should make an ardent attempt to reach out when such a media is available. In fact, we would even want social media sites in different regional languages and the access to them encouraged so as to reach out to the masses. This will have a different dimension and create a far reaching impact in the healthcare area.”
Keeping patients as the core of the discussion, Memon says, “There are numerous opportunities for pharma companies in India. These companies have to determine the channels and tools that suit their brand and organisation. Market leaders can build on their reputation, disease awareness using social media tools. Further, companies can help patients find the right doctor, since more than 70 per cent patients do an online search prior to the doctor’s appointment. They can also involve doctors in their online communication e.g. Youtube video channels by experts. With increasing online trends in India on health, pharma companies must proactively provide correct materials online; since consumers are seeking information on health condition, disease symptom, medicine, physician etc.”
Mohile says, “The Indian consumer is largely ignorant about health issues. He has depended on the doctor in totality for decades together. With the advent of the Internet, he/ she has suddenly awakened to the availability of information. But, this information is not always authentic and balanced. The pharma industry has the greatest opportunity of providing the right information in a manner that will be understood, at the right place where they are seeking it, and provide the right guidance to connect with the doctor at the appropriate time. With more and more people looking for health-related information online and the ability to identify and reach them, this opportunity cannot be ignored by the pharma industry.”
She adds, “From the very basics of networking with like-minded colleagues, vendors or customers to digging deep into social media to understand unmet patient needs that will help better product development; developing protocols for clinical trials; as well as communicating research efforts, clinical outcomes or educating about using a product/ device correctly etc, social media can be used by every department.”
Taking a leaf out of Mohile’s book, Memon says that the Indian pharma manufacturers can use social media platforms as a B2B connect tool for business partners, product announcements, trade groups etc.
She elaborates, “LinkedIn is a very powerful networking site for B2B communication. The manufacturers can create and join trading or pharma manufacturing groups and continuously be updated on the global and Indian new product launch, technology and techniques. The company can also project the standards and processes they follow to make good quality products which builds reputation. Online research would help in R&D operations; social media listening and conducting surveys on social media can educate the company on consumer needs. Further, social media is a two-way street that not only allows you to publish content about your company or industry, but also gives you a chance to listen to your customers and prospects.”
Memon adds, “Pharma companies can use social media to update doctors and clinical study agencies on upcoming clinical studies using exclusive closed group channels. Besides huge advantage for marketers, social media is a great tool for acquiring talent which could be a superior support for HR developments. Social media can be used in all the aspects of business operations by pharma companies, the stakeholders need to plan strategically the same.”
Patients active on social media can also pass on the positive as well as negative feedback regarding a particular pharma product to the concerned pharma company. Such genuine feedback will only help the company to make required changes in the product and rework on its future strategies.
Vaidya explains, “Social media can definitely print varied experiences of individual patients in different age groups and gender who have used a certain product. They can indulge in even praising a product for giving that exact relief from the symptom of a certain disease thus enabling many in the medical profession take cognizance of. Through this, the medical profession will also learn about the side effects suffered in whichever gravity the patient experiences. In fact this is the actual material information which goes into pharmacovigilance reporting. A well informed patient of the social media can be a great complimenting factor in conveying the adverse reaction of a particular product and the gravity of the same when used. This is very important.”
Social media has a role to play in a pharma company’s day to day operations as well. Internal communication and collaboration tools are quite common in tech companies with Slack, Yammer, Lync and Jive leading the race. However, it is not the case in Indian pharma firms. Dr Somnath Datta, Key Account Leader, Business Insights and Analytics, IMS Health Information and Consulting Services India, points out that within the Indian pharma companies picking up the telephone and talking it out is still considered the best way followed by emails to align, follow up and keep scores. However, he strongly feels that like any other industry, pharma industry too will see the strategic advantages of using social media for in-house operations. Moreover, in-house use of social media doesn’t invite any risk or scrutiny of the regulatory authorities.
Datta lists down some of the key benefits offered by in-house use of social media. “Social media will help in understanding and engaging internal employees better. It will also help in providing a window for the individual contributors to understand and shape the thinking of the top management. Grievances can be better understood and tackled through social media even for employees. Email can be replaced with chat groups, many tech companies have already started moving out of emails. Mobile apps can be developed to engage various stakeholders to come together for fun or for serious collaboration – they can also be used for gathering clinical data (Apple suite).”
Challenges to conquer
Regulatory norms were always considered as the major reason behind pharma industry’s reluctance to adopt social media in a big way. As Mohile says, “The challenge is mainly to work within the regulatory norms. Regulatory norms are meant to protect the consumer. The industry knows how to operate within the norms, but does not understand this new medium. If both these are understood well, it is possible to work within the boundaries. For this, however, one must work closely with the MLR teams and agencies who understand both these aspects.”
However, legal barriers is just one of the reasons. Another one is the lack of knowledge where social media concerned. Many are still unaware about the most effective ways and means to use it.
Smarta informs, “The challenges for the pharma industry in using social media lies maybe in coming across incorrect and irrelevant information. There is a need for reliable and at the same time regulated information. With regulated information, knowledge sharing with doctors, patients, etc, would be quite possible. Other challenges would be people not being comfortable while using social media, making content available and that too consistently, keeping people consistently engaged on the social media platform and skepticism regarding the information available on the social media platform.”
Datta feels that pharma industry is also a part of the problem. He explains, “More than regulatory obfuscation, it is the lethargy of pharma companies to change their business model and look for innovative ways of engaging customers. For example, we have seen more negative articles about pharma failing quality checks, failing ethical marketing practices, defending banned irrational combinations – all within the span of few months. I have not seen any company initiate a proactive social media do-gooder campaign to keep their corporate image intact and shine amidst all the ruckus.”
Amidst the debate over the role of social media in the pharma industry there is consensus over the fact that the right approach will help pharma players use the medium effectively and responsibly. Social media is here to stay and grow. While other industries are making full use of this digital platform the pharma industry is not expected to be the mute spectator.
Mohile concludes, “There is no need to fear it. By its very nature, social media multiplies any message. This can be used to advantage if done pro-actively, cautiously and with complete understanding. If one approaches social media with a clear perspective that the pharma industry is here to ‘improve lives’ and use the best practices within the regulatory framework, responsibly, it is possible to stay engaged with it. The best possible way will be to define a specific problem and then find how this can be resolved using the digital and social media. It is far beyond mere gimmicks, it has to be strategic and integrated with the offline medium that pharma is so used to. It also has to be long-term. As in fact, the possibility of social media usage, especially marketing and PR, is immense.”