A recent article by Jonathan Richman in Ad Age ran under the headline: "No, pharma's digital future isn't all social media." While that headline is tough to disagree with entirely -- who really believes that any category's marketing ought to be all about one vehicle? -- I disagree with its sentiment.
Apparently so does the author. In his piece, Richman follows up this provocative headline by showing examples of potential marketing platforms that are decidedly social in their approach:
"In five years, it'll matter less whether a company chooses to engage in social media as more tools like Glue are introduced," Richman states. "Think of Glue as a portable version of your social network. As you navigate around online, Glue automatically displays reviews and recommendations from your group of trusted friends based on where you are right now."
I'm not quite sure where Richman is going with this. He might be saying that because social networking doesn't have to be place-based, there's no place for the pharma marketer to effect the message.
I have two big problems with this. First of all, things like Glue have been around for a long time. It shares some of the same characteristics of a social news offering like StumbleUpon, and it appears to have borrowed somewhat from Twitter and other "follow-based" social networks. And as long as we're flipping back through the annals of interactive history, the concept of congregating around sites your friends also enjoy harkens back to AOL's Virtual Places. Not one of these things has taken away from pharma marketing's ability to interact with patients or physicians.
The other problem I have with this is the assumption that because patients can connect with one another, it somehow excuses the marketer from needing to develop social media skills. I beg to differ. If tools continue to emerge that encourage patient interaction, and those tools get used to connect people with like conditions, it becomes critical for the marketer to find a way to leverage the tool.
Similarly, I'd point to Facebook as a platform that was designed for connecting people. While brands aren't a natural fit for that platform, many marketers do understand the importance of Facebook and have found ways to launch effective marketing programs there.
I'm also unsure of how a subsequent paragraph in Richman's article supports his conclusions:
"Instead of searching forum after forum on multiple websites, patients can simply make a few opt-in selections to make public certain pieces of their medical records and be matched with a group of patients just like them," he states. "The number of matching parameters will be astounding -- not just demographic data like age, weight, and disease type but also specific disease-related parameters, like past medications and side effects experienced. They could also be matched based on their treatment goals and prognosis."
There are so many problems with this I don't know where to start. Foremost among them is the notion that people will make public parts of their medical history without a clear and convincing benefit. But let's put that aside for a moment.
Assuming that patients continue to seek one another out and connect, as they do currently in online forums, how can we make the leap of logic that pharma marketers are automatically taken out of the discussion?
Do we think that with groups of patients self-organizing, marketers will ignore it and continue to rely on marketing methods that continually erode their profit margins via imprecise targeting?
I don't think so. I think that marketers will take calculated risks in order to connect with patients, and that they may have to take a people-centric approach rather than a message-centric approach in order to do it.
Not every marketing vehicle needs to be a messaging platform. If marketers can influence the discussion via their own people-centric presence, there's a way to effectively influence the decision to pursue a given treatment.
In the end, the pharma marketer's message needs to be expressed personally, not from arm's length.
Tom Hespos is the president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com.
On Twitter? Follow Tom at @THespos1 or @_MarketingLLC. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.