Healthcare engagement for pharmaceutical communicators

When it comes to new channels of communication, it’s fair to say that the pharmaceutical industry is generally cautious. There are many reasons for this, including the complex regulatory framework within which pharma operates, and the potential size of penalties for failure to comply, as well as a difficult communications environment in which many pharmaceutical companies suffer from a lack of trust amongst both patients and healthcare professionals.

When considering the kinds of emerging communications channels that have thrown healthcare engagement into disruption in recent years like the Internet, social media and mobile, many pharmaceutical companies are especially wary. Of course, pharmaceutical companies must be very careful about how they communicate. Every communication must pass a legal and regulatory approval process which, in most cases, has not been designed for real-time engagement.

So how can pharmaceutical communicators plan an engagement strategy that makes the most of emerging channels? Here I’ll outline four key areas to consider, from Creation Healthcare’s Discovery methodology:

1. Discover insights to inform your engagement strategy

Earlier this year, Healthcare Engagement Strategy reported that pharmaceutical companies with clearly communicated policies on social media use appear to be experiencing a greater level of engagement than those without. But of course, that was not to say that simply by having or communicating a social media policy, a greater level of engagement was guaranteed.

The Internet provides access to a wealth of information that can inform your engagement strategy. Before embarking on any kind of social media activity, it is possible for a pharmaceutical company to equip itself with knowledge from Internet content about the needs of external stakeholders; the conversations they are having, and where; opportunities for effective engagement; and even the relative likelihood of discovering adverse events online in individual territories or therapy areas.

One of the powerful (and yet challenging) aspects of digital engagement is that it is so incredibly measurable. You really can learn so much from the behaviour of Internet users, not only on your own resources but almost anywhere online. This means that your engagement strategy can be informed not only before you start, but continually as you discover how people respond.

2. Define your goals

Some great examples exist of pharmaceutical companies using emerging channels for enhancing corporate reputation; understanding patient and stakeholder needs; raising disease awareness; informing and shaping policy; changing patient behaviours; promoting public health; and communicating medical information. So much can be achieved through digital engagement, but it is important to be clear about what your goals are.

Aside from the kinds of goals that support business objectives, one underlying ‘goal’ that sometimes appears to exist is simply to ‘have a presence’ in social media. We see this concept in many emerging channels – in fact I recently wrote about mHealth, the ‘mobile health’ phenomenon, that the developing world is innovating faster than the developed world because it is not looking for a problem to solve with mobile, but it is looking for a solution to its healthcare needs. Sadly in the developed world, the question ‘how could mobile play a role in healthcare?’ is often the first step in an initiative where the technology platform is put before the outcome goals.

3. Define your level of engagement

For a corporate communications professional, does it matter whether tangible engagement actually takes place? Perhaps the reason for creating a corporate blog, for example, is simply to make use of a broadcast communication channel that is quick and easy to update? In this case, success indicators might include the extent to which the blog’s content is found through Internet users’ search activities; the number and relevance of inbound links from other stakeholders; or subsequent engagement via other channels such as Twitter.

It goes without saying that the key thing for a pharmaceutical company embarking on engagement strategies using emerging channels is to be clear about goals and expectations. If the goal is to engage consumers and other stakeholders, such as the way that Johnson & Johnson’s Youtube Channel does, then it will be necessary to plan appropriate resources for proactive management and monitoring. If on the other hand the goal is to provide themed corporate communications, such as with Lilly’s LillyPad blog which describes itself as ‘The Place for Policy and Perspectives on Health Care Innovation’, then appropriate measures of success should be set up that will enable the business to understand the role that the initiative is playing. These success indicators may not be directly linked to the number or quality of comments received via the blog itself.

A word of encouragement for you if you are in a corporate communications or digital communications role in a pharmaceutical company: there are no definitive right or wrong ways to do this. You only have to do what works for your company and your business goals. Just be clear about what those goals are, and measure the extent to which you are achieving them. Today, there are many examples you can learn from.

4. Discover by learning from others

A little over two years ago I interviewed Johnson & Johnson’s Marc Monseau about his experiences setting up the J&J corporate blog, JNJBTW. Back then he advised others embarking on corporate blogs to start by discovering insights that will inform strategy:

“For those who wish to get involved, one of the most important things to do before starting out is to observe these online communities and to understand what they are talking about and what makes them work. That means reading posts and comments and understanding who is who.”

The difference today, compared with two years ago when Marc Monseau shared his experiences with JNJBTW, is that now there is such a wealth of best practice to learn from. Much has been written and taught about how to get this right.

I have found that many others in the industry are willing to share their experiences too. At Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2010 events which Creation Healthcare ran during 2010 in the USA and Europe, marketing and communications professionals from amongst the world’s top pharmaceutical companies came together with other health stakeholders from government, hospitals and medical equipment companies and all shared their experiences with each other in a collaborative effort to genuinely see better healthcare engagement.

We experienced the same phenomenon in our research for our first annual Healthcare Engagement Strategy Awards last year, when experts from PfizerJohnson & Johnson, Tudiabetes, PatientsLikeMe, Mayo Clinic, and Skcin shared practical insights and advice for others. The result was a legacy of best practice in this field that others have learned from.

Where next?

Communicating through interactive channels like social media can be a highly cost-effective approach that can provide a global communications tool at a fraction of the cost of traditional media. And because it can (and in most cases should) be started in small steps, there is a relatively low cost of entry. The key is to ensure that even in the early stages, clear goals are defined and achieved so that the value of the initiative to the business can be demonstrated.


Creation Healthcare has over twelve years’ experience partnering with professionals in some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. We work behind the scenes to help them discover insights; define strategies; engage internal and external stakeholders; deploy engagement initiatives and ultimately measure great results. With consultants in over 15 countries, we provide local cultural and language insights from the ground wherever you need us. If you would like to find out how we could help you, simply get in touch for a conversation about what you want to achieve.

Daniel Ghinn

Daniel Ghinn is Editor of Healthcare Engagement Strategy and CEO of Creation Healthcare, the online market research consultancy for healthcare. He is a prolific writer and speaker on emerging trends healthcare engagement in the digital age.