According to an article published this month by eMarketer, approximately one-third of all companies now have a blog - a number that is trending to increase to 43% of all companies in just two more years. Reasons cited include increased customer service and the ability to drive traffic.
That might be a surprise to those working in the medical products world. Highly regulated industries have been gun-shy in their use of social media in general and healthcare certainly has in particular. That is especially true since, from time to time, the regulating agency has wielded the gun in an erratic manner (the infamous 14 letter nonsense) creating such headlines as the New York Times' "FDA Rules on Drug Ads Sow Confusion as Applied to the Web".
In fact, very few medical product companies have blogs if you consult Jonathan Richman's excellent social media wiki at Dose of Digital. There is the premiere blog at J&J called JNJBTW, there is the AZ blog AZ Health Connections and there is GSK's More Than Medicine. And I recently came across one by the CEO of a company called NeuralStem – a company researching stem cell use for CNS treatments, though the postings are highly infrequent and there has been no activity since April.
Yet is it fear of regulatory issues that has kept pharma out of the blogosphere? Some may doubt that given the rapidly expanding presence of pharma in Twitter, which is also an excellent traffic-driver. In fact, I have made a Twitter-list of pharma companies in the medium and again, Jonathan has also compiled a list on the Social Media Wiki. The use of Twitter by companies is all over the map, with some being frequent and consistent and others with nearly dormant feeds. But still, in terms of numbers, there is a clear presence.
And there are a growing number of companies involved in Facebook.
So what accounts for the lack of pharma blogs? My guess is the commitment factor. Blogs are, after all, a heavy lift (believe me). In addition, while Twitter is 140 characters, a blog posting is longer and there is more room for error on the regulatory front.
Still, three companies are managing it. J&J in particular has been at it for a long time. Each of the three has seen some evolution. There is always an obsession (I think wrongly) to try to answer the question regarding the "return on investment" (ROI), but clearly there is a benefit to blogging in terms of relating to the public in a way that other vehicles don't permit. Even a Facebook page is pretty shallow stuff when compared with the real "get to know you" nature of a blog. And, there is also the factor that when there is something specific you need to communicate, like during a crisis, a blog is an excellent vehicle. It isn't on a Web site waiting for people to find it, it is communicated directly to people who know you and want to know you better.
So, what should a pharma blog have to look like? It doesn't have to look like anything in particular and it is not necessarily something every company should do just for the sake of doing it. However, if there is a particular need to relate to people in general, or with respect to a particular issue, it would be an effective means, and it is obviously part of a growing trend.
For example, a company that has a real commitment to philanthropy could write about what it is doing, what it sees as trends for the future, models for care in developing countries, links to global health and development resources, etc. Philanthropy by pharma is vast and yet awareness is very low. Another might be researchers who write about trends in research, motivations, and needs with respect to specific clinical trials for patient recruitment. Or it could just be a jobs blog that talks about jobs that are available in a way that enhances a job description.
But if you are a pharma company thinking of a blog, here are just a few of my own thoughts on pointers:
- Have your communications house in order – Recently Roche devised its own social media principles that incorporated pre-existing communications guidelines. Especially if one is going to step into blogging, that isn't a bad idea. Make sure you have thought-out policies that are clear and easy to understand.
- Get your own domain, don't make it a sub-domain of the Web site - Having a separate domain is subtle, but signals in my mind a seriousness about the effort and that it is a two-way communication between the company and the public, as opposed to being buried in a company Web site.
- Be regular, be true – Don't be sporadic. A blog is a means of getting to know people. That requires fealty. Too many pharmas have done this with their YouTube channels.
- Find a Niche - There are already blogs out there by companies talking about health care – try something specific that fulfills a business goal for you.
- Don't Talk About Products – Want to be in a good regulatory space? Don't talk about products. That way there is no omission of risk, overstatement of efficacy or anything else. Plus, there are plenty of places to go to find out about your products, this is a place to go to find out what you care about.
It is a big blogosphere out there. Lots of companies are in it and lots more are going to be in it. It may seem safer to stay out of it, but then one yields some territory to the early adapters – and pharma companies may find themselves having to play catch up later on.