The Social Problem: Consumer Health and Web 2.0

As the global media landscape continues to evolve at light speed, consumer health companies face the dilemma of operating without guidance in one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world. Euromonitor International examines the potential opportunities and risks of social media in the consumer health arena.

A whole new ball game

In the last decade, the internet has revolutionized the way consumers gather information. From this new platform, social media outlets have developed, which allow consumers to engage more directly with not only the brands and companies they patronize, but also with other consumers. This new dynamic has had a profound impact on the way companies engage with their consumers and disseminate their brand narratives. The amount of information the millions of social network users willingly self-publish and the relatively inexpensive platforms themselves enable marketers to more easily identify and target potential consumers. The ability to create more customised messages allows brands to achieve personal and incredibly high-level engagement with their consumers. Additionally, the moderator status inherent in site ownership and the ability to quickly disseminate information via a Facebook status update or a Twitter blast provides companies with powerful sway over the discourse of their brands. As internet usage and social network membership rates continue to skyrocket, companies will find social media savvy to be an increasingly indispensable commodity. Those who do not engage are likely to fall behind.

A shaky start

Consumer health companies have been active in social media for some time now. While several large brands have managed to establish themselves on marquee platforms (Claritin, Centrum, and alli are all great examples of brands with popular, engaging pages), the industry as a whole has had a somewhat uncomfortable history with social media. The problems came to a head in July 2011, when Pfizer’s official Facebook page was hacked. A British “hacktivist” group calling themselves the Script Kiddies (script kiddie is a common term for someone who uses pre-existing programs to launch attacks on websites) took credit for the virtual assault. The group was able to temporarily take control of Pfizer’s page, eventually blanketing the page with unsavoury photos and status updates referencing some of the more damning accusations being raised against the company. While Pfizer regained control of the page relatively rapidly and was quick to ensure more robust security would be implemented going forward, the incident served as an eye-opening reminder that while positioning a brand in the social media arena can provide new benefits, it also comes with new risks.

Perhaps the most bizarre social media snafu occurred in November 2011, as, like two siblings fighting over a prized toy, the unrelated US and German Merck companies found themselves entangled over the rights to the domain Facebook.com/Merck. Though the German Merck KGaA claims to have worked out the rights to the page with Facebook as early as March 2010, the company lost access to the page in October 2011 at which time several of the American Merck & Co. products began appearing on the page. Merck KGaA has threatened legal action, but as of December 2011, no defendants have been named. In the meantime, Facebook has turned the proverbial car around by shutting down the page until both companies can reach an agreement over ownership.

Reason for concern… and hope

Though these incidents may seem embarrassing, but ultimately benign, for the large, multinational pharmaceutical companies that lead the consumer health industry, social media also presents a fairly serious conundrum. Despite operating in one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world, official guidance for social media usage in the world’s largest, most important markets is practically non-existent. While Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Novartis and other major companies produce traditional print, radio and television advertising in a fairly clearly structured ecosystem, where beneficial claims accompany lengthy declarations of potential side effects, the most popular methods of dissemination in social media stubbornly refuse to fit the old paradigm.

The potential for misuse became reality in August 2011, when Bayer AG – one of the world’s most respected chemical companies, according to Fortune Magazine – was harshly reprimanded for inadvertently advertising prescription drugs on Twitter in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Though the Tweets in question (which advertised the prescription erectile dysfunction drug Levitra and cannabis-derived analgesic Sativex) included a link to company-approved news releases, they earned the Leverkusen-based company a strict, verbal reprimand from a leading British pharmaceutical industry group. Because there were non-medical professionals among the company’s British and Irish Twitter followers, the advertisements could be seen as promoting a prescription drug to the general public, which is against the law in most of Europe. The Tweets themselves also failed to mention any drug interactions or potential adverse effects (though the linked press releases did include all relevant fair balance statements). Fortunately for Bayer, the British and EU governments did not take action, likely due to some extent to the swift condemnation on the part of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). The ABPI is a great example of trade organizations stepping up and trying to bridge the gap while regulatory agencies work on official guidance.

In June 2011, the ABPI published a document on suggested digital communication best practices. Key among these are: the prominence of transparency, including clearly stated intentions of the site and declarations of intent for usage of any user-generated content; if applicable, clear explanations of how and why the company may censor users; easy access to adverse event reporting forms; and stringent monitoring of the site, to ensure that adverse events are reported in a timely manner and that users are not posting inappropriate content, including off-label usage or disparaging comments about other brands. These suggestions will go a long way toward ensuring that companies responsibly manage the content of their brand pages, and it is likely that any forthcoming official regulatory guidelines will include similar stipulations.

The prospect of accountability without guidance understandably leaves consumer health companies in an uncomfortable position. However, when major players leverage their extensive experience in traditional media advertising and the best practices provided by trade organizations with a healthy dose of common sense, the results are often remarkably successful awareness campaigns and brand engagement, which regulators have, as yet, not targeted.