“…the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology1.”
-Marshall McLuhan, Canadian Philosopher
Social media is the defining medium of our age. More than just another technology at our disposal, it has revolutionized the way we communicate, learn about the world, and organize ourselves into communities. It’s even changed the way we think about ourselves. Much like the computer or the smartphone, social media is now a utility. 3.6 of the 7.8 billion people on earth—roughly half the world—use social media2. That number is projected to be 4.41 billion by 2025.
Yet, as social media made its ascent from a few million tweens sharing song lyrics on MySpace in the early 2000s to near global dominance today, pharma marketers have kept social media at arm’s length. Why is that? For one, pharma moves slow. It takes an average of ten years3 to discover a novel molecule, run it through clinical trials, and then bring it to market. Apple puts out a bunch of new iPhones in the time it takes to bring a single drug to the world. For another, the highly regulated and sometimes literally life-or-death environment in which pharma operates lends itself to skepticism of novelty and a preference for the familiar.
The time is now for pharma marketers to give HCP social media a good, hard look because most of their customers are already there. Across all age groups, 4 out of 5 doctors use social media in their practice—with 56% using HCP-only networks like SERMO and Doximity and 32% using open networks like LinkedIn and Facebook4. And for millennial doctors those numbers are even higher—87% of them use social media and 4 out of 5 of them who use social media read medical news updates through their social newsfeeds. HCP-focused social media platforms hold tremendous value for both HCPs and pharma marketers and its time for us in healthcare marketing to start figuring out how to communicate our messages on these vital channels.
The Value of HCP Social Media
What makes social media so revolutionary is that it structuralizes the opportunity created by the Internet for people to form virtual communities around shared interests that are unrestrained by locality. For example, patients with rare diseases and their doctors can more easily find each other, share testimonials, research, and best practices, and potentially facilitate better outcomes. Additionally, the way social media platforms are built is disrupting the structures of power, authority, and influence in and outside of medicine.
There’s certainly a game to be played with paid advertisements and algorithm optimization in which well-funded institutions hold an advantage. However, it is also true that doctors, medical schools, hospital systems, pharma companies, and peer-reviewed journals become simply individual users on social media platforms—each vying for the attention of users on the network and possessing roughly the same capacity to reach their target audience. In other words, it is possible for an individual doctor, through gaining followers and posting the right content, to wield as much influence on a social network as a major medical school or a Fortune 500 pharma company.
Communicating Value Authentically
What does this paradigm shift mean for pharma marketers? It means that in order to get and keep our customers’ attention in this overcrowded, democratized environment, we need to do more than roll off product differentiators and bank on name recognition. According to a report by Stackla, 57% of consumers think that less than half of brands create authentic content and 86% say authenticity is important when deciding what brands they support5. What does authenticity mean? It means being consistent in your message and action and being transparent about your intentions and comfortable with your past. It also means communicating the value you bring to your customers.
This emphasis on value has affected all aspects of the pharma ecosystem. While profitability is still a key metric by which we judge a company’s health, we now assess a product’s success by the value it brings. It is no longer adequate to demonstrate that a drug is effective. Due to cost pressures from payors, regulatory authorities, and hospital systems, considerations of market access, epidemiology and real-world evidence, as well as health economics and outcomes research have become vital to communicating a drug’s value and its ultimate success. Just look at the incredible growth of the medical affairs role across the industry for evidence of this value-based shift.
A Match Made in Heaven?
At first glance, the hesitancy of pharma and pharma marketers to embrace social media makes sense. Dig a little deeper, though, and it becomes bewildering that pharma and pharma marketers took so long to fully embrace social media. After all, the same basic assumptions about human behavior and psychology drive the success of both social media and P2P healthcare marketing: the community networks people form around shared interests or goals are deeply consequential and the leaders within those networks have tremendous influence over the networks’ members. Looking at the remarkable growth of influencer marketing across various industries, many pharma marketers who specialize in KOL strategy and engagement are saying to themselves “haven’t we already been doing this for decades?”
Social media is an obvious tool for pharma marketers. We know from experience that doctors crave peer engagement. Consider the staggering number of associations, academies, and other HCP-focused organizations. Not to mention the number of annual meetings, symposiums, grand rounds, and other meeting types that form the vast network through which doctors traditionally have connected and pharma marketers have executed their strategies. HCP-focused social media platforms can complement and reinforce the efforts of P2P marketers through traditional channels while creating opportunity for a whole new level of engagement.
HCP Social Media Platforms: A Short Review
There are several HCP-focused social media platforms on offer today and some of them have been around while. Founded in 2005, SERMO is a medical crowdsourcing platform with about 800 thousand users, designed for physicians to share unique patient cases and ask and answer questions. It looks a bit like LinkedIn and functions similarly to Quora. Perhaps the most attractive feature of SERMO for pharma marketers is the ability for analytics teams to pay to deploy custom surveys to the platform’s user base.
The other two most prominent HCP social media platforms are Doximity and Figure1. Doximity is perhaps the most impressive of the group, a Facebook-style platform whose functionality continues to grow. Over 1 million users strong, Doximity’s functions include efaxing, which enables users to fax their colleagues through the website or the app, and Dialer Video, which allows doctors to easily and securely videocall their patients6. It boasts 70% of all doctors and 45% of all nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants in the United States as its core user base7, and doctors can receive up to 30 Category 1 Continuing Medical Education Credit hours per year by reading eligible articles in the newsfeed. Doctors can also earn CME credits—albeit Category 2 Credits—on Figure1, the Instagram of HCP social media platforms that boasts over 2.5 million members. Like SERMO, it crowdsources patient case studies, displaying them in an Instagram-style feed that prominently features images.
Many questions remain. Do we in pharma marketing employ KOLs as users and have them deliver our messaging? How exactly do we tailor our messages? To these and other questions, we’re still learning the answers. However, we do know that doctors and other HCPs crave connection and that social media can connect groups of HCPs in unprecedented and immensely valuable ways. We also know that social media and other technologies have disrupted the traditional structures of power, influence, and authority in medicine and that a new approach is vital to staying relevant. The time is now for pharma marketers to start figuring out how to engage their customers on social media.
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