In order to engage effectively on social media channels, pharma marketers need the freedom to create imaginative content backed by an internal review system which can adapt swiftly to the changing needs of this fast-moving environment.
Pharma marketers deserve a lot of kudos. After years of advocating for social media, medical and legal reviewers finally seem comfortable with words such as 'tweets' and 'hashtags'. There are more Twitter accounts set up by pharma companies today than a few years ago and the volume of social media content produced by pharma has increased significantly.
However, the landscape of social media has also changed; more channels are emerging, consumers have developed new behaviours in consuming content, existing platforms are evolving each day. Although many pharma companies have made tremendous efforts in leveraging their social media channels in the last few years, as an industry, progress is still slow. If you have ever sat through a medical, legal and regulatory review session, you may agree the content review process has a lot to do with pharma's lack of innovation and engagement in social media.
The current situation
In general, the current system works well for content developed for traditional media outlets. However, when it comes to emerging channels, it poses two major challenges for marketers. First, it does not support real-time engagement, one of the most prominent attributes that differentiates social media from traditional media; second, the system was built on a liability-orientated mechanism: by signing off the content, a reviewer becomes responsible for the safety and compliance of the marketing activity. There is a clear difference between the goals of reviewers and marketers, as the latter seek to maximise effectiveness.
These challenges explain why, after many concept reviews, digital strategy 'deep-dives' and internal playbooks, social media programmes developed by pharma are just not exciting.
"Pharma marketers have finally realised that policy makers may never give them any applicable direction on how to use social media"
'FDA guidance' used to be pharma's magic words for avoiding taking part in social media. Today, after years of waiting, pharma marketers have finally realised that policy makers may never give them any applicable direction on how to use social media.
Meanwhile, now they have witnessed brands like Old Spice, Oreo, Coke and Unilever attracting millions of organic engagements using relatively inexpensive social media tactics, pharma marketers are eager to try something (remotely) similar.
But before we can anticipate anything from pharma that is truly 'social', a redesign of the content review system needs to happen – quickly.
Why should pharma care?
With the change of algorithm and increasing push towards paid tactics by major social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, it is becoming more and more difficult for organisations to gain online visibility by putting out organic content alone.
In addition, a major shift taking place among social media users is that they now anticipate quick responses from companies/brands. These changes illustrate how urgent it is for organisations to develop a content strategy in synergy with the complex ecosystem. Clearly, pharma's current content review system is far from ready to handle this new situation.
"Publishing high quality content that meets journalistic standards across multiple channels on a regular basis will play a much more important role"
In addition, on a deeper level, the boundaries between paid, earned and owned media are disappearing, which has a significant impact on how social media content is produced and consumed. Stand-alone initiatives will contribute less to the success of a brand in social media; a long-term content strategy, such as publishing high quality content that meets journalistic standards across multiple channels on a regular basis, will play a much more important role in attracting attention from users in the competitive social media world. But this strategy requires marketers to function as publishers who react to relevant news and events in a timely fashion. Pharma's content review system is not built for this.
These obstacles remind us that if pharma's answer to social media is still 'issuing awareness tweets', or a 72-hour turnaround to send a retweet, the industry's impact in social media will diminish as the content becomes less relevant to users.
How to improve
Building a content review system that facilitates the ever-changing social media space is not easy but it can be done by taking small steps that eventually lead to the tipping point.
A multi-expertise review committee
The responsibility of a review team should not be just to say 'yes' or 'no' to a project, but also to evaluate the effectiveness and potential risks of it and make constructive recommendations. To achieve the goal, the team should not only be familiar with relevant laws and policies, but should also have a certain level of expertise in social media and be passionate about technologies. What that means in practice is that the review team should include different specialists in law, policy, marketing, IT and digital who can identify the pros and cons of a project from a variety of aspects. Most important, reviewers should work as an integrated team who understand each other's language and serve as the strategic partners of marketers.
Uncertainty and resistance often stem from a lack of understanding about how technologies work. Ongoing investment should be made to train employees involved in the review process so they are updated on relevant developments and become familiar with new applications, channels and best practices.
Ultimately, changing a content review process is not just about adjustment of staff or processes; it involves shifts in mindset and attitude, which requires systemic changes that affect multiple areas, such as business strategy, evaluation and reward systems, as well as company culture.
Social media is a battle ground on which no marketer can afford to lose. The stakes are high for building a content review system that works for social media. The companies which win in the end will be those that are willing to take risks, that are able to adapt and that are ready to act now.