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Why Pharmaceutical Companies Fear Social Media

May 20, 2009

           Pharmaceutical companies have always been masters of TV and print advertising, but as more large companies start using social media marketing, pharmas have yet to follow suit.  For the most part, pharma companies have resisted using social media marketing because they are afraid of opening themselves up too much and creating possible lawsuits.

            Pharma companies are nervous about user-generated content and the complaints that it could bring, such as consumers complaining about side effects caused by medications.  Pharmas are required by law to report any complaints of side effects to the FDA, which the FDA then posts on an online database.  Many lawyers troll the database looking for possible class-action lawsuits, and these lawsuits can be extremely costly to pharma companies.  Because pharmas are highly regulated, they are naturally very risk-averse.

            Marketers have realized the fears that pharma companies have, and are trying to come up with ways to ease those fears so they can help pharma companies break into social media marketing.  Michael Maher, the Senior Partner for Client Services at Greater Than One digital media marketing agency, believes that using social media is a natural thing for pharma companies because over 80% of internet consumers search online for health info and trust peer reviews more than company websites.  He lays out four simple steps for pharma companies looking to use social media:

Step 1: Monitor and Learn- monitor online conversations and recognize common conversation topics.

Step 2: Join and Educate Existing Communities- clear up inaccurate information and questions.

Step 3: Create Unbranded Content Community- create disease education tools not regarding a specific product, which minimizes the risks of customer complaints about products.  This creates value for the customer by providing a community where they can hold discussions.

Step 4: Create Branded Content Community- on product sites or existing sites.  It must comply with regulatory requirements and all consumer posts must be reviewed before they are made public.  The company can pose questions to consumers and invite them to answer instead of open-ended commentary.


 An example of a branded content community

An example of a branded content community










       These are good first steps that pharma companies can do as they start out in the social media world.  Here are a couple companies that have successfully used social media:

                                     – Johnson & Johnson company blog: 

                                    – Pfizer UK has a YouTube channel

            The big U.S. pharma companies like Bayer, Eli Lily, and Medtronic have yet to break into social media, but it probably won’t be long before they do.


Check out Michael Maher’s advice to pharma companies here: 

For more information about social media and pharmas visit: 


-Written by Grace Gargus

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 14, 2009 6:19 am

    Great post. Right on the money.

    I don’t know how quickly big pharma will make moves to actively engage via branded models, but the marketing firms to which they outsource are making big headway.

    I provide pharmaceutical social media monitoring and recently did a small case study on the epilepsy treatment, Vimpat. One of the advantages of my software is that I can filter the adverse side effects. Also, with my software’s ability to judge tone and sentiment of a comment, a pharma client can simply say “Give us full details of the positive statements but not the negative. We want to be alerted our brand reputation is threatened but don’t want side effect info”.

    Traditionally, for most businesses I believe it’s best to show negative reviews and comments if posted on the site. For myself, it’s always an opportunity to show off some responsiveness and at least say “I appreciate the issue being brought up and I’m actively working to correct the matter”

    Thanks again for the post. The suggestions to join and educate really take it further than just listening or talking at the patient. Engagement is the name of the game.

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