Pharma ventures into online marketing

By Jenny Westberg, Portland Mental Health Examiner

Many people who want health information turn to the Internet, but the vast waters of cyberspace are now inhabited by a few more sharks.


The Facebook group “ADHD Moms” sounds like a support community run by concerned parents. It turns out the only “moms” behind the group are “corporate spokesmoms” employed by McNeil Pediatrics, makers of the blockbuster stimulant drug Concerta. With 13,536 Facebook fans to date, marketing consultants are hailing the page as a brilliant success, and encouraging other pharmaceutical companies to follow McNeil’s example.

In another corner of the Web, AstraZeneca celebrated Mental Health Awareness Month this year with an informational post on bipolar disorder. Although the corporate blog carefully avoids mentioning any particular treatment, it includes several links for “further information.” That’s where you’ll find the Seroquel promotions.

As more and more people use search engines, blogs, and social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, pharmaceutical companies are recognizing an opportunity to share information, improve their corporate image, and – most of all – increase sales.

The profit motive is clear in “Social Media for Pharma Brand Managers,” an industry white paper with tips on Tweeting all the way to the bank.

“Leverage your social media presence by driving patients into customer relationship management programs,” the paper advises. “If [they] stay on a drug four months longer than those who aren’t in the program, that could be a $4,000 gain in revenue.”

While some drug companies have plunged into social media with both feet, others are waiting for the FDA to decide what they can and cannot do. One reason they’re wary: they might learn about adverse effects. If this happens, they’re stuck. They have to tell the FDA.

“If somebody goes into your chat room and says something bad about your drug, what do you do? You have to report adverse events to the FDA. What do you do when somebody says something bad, like your drug gave them nightmares and caused them to gain 25 pounds?” said Bill Trombetta, a professor of pharmaceutical marketing at St. Joseph’s University.

Pharma’s discussions about social media have, in general, treated adverse effects as if they’re only damaging when someone tells you about them. One way to make sure that doesn’t happen is keeping consumers at arm’s length. But if your company is on Facebook, engaging with real people, you open yourself to the risk of hearing real-life experiences. And if, like McNeil, you’re engaging with 13,536 people, you could possibly hear 13,536 complaints – and end up having to file 13,536 FDA reports. It’s not an appetizing prospect.

At the same time, online marketing has potential to grow sales, so Pharma wants in. They’re hoping the FDA can tell them how to get involved while limiting their liability.

But the FDA is not just concerned about adverse effect reporting, they’re worried about a potential increase in false or misleading claims. It’s a concern based on experience.

For instance, drug companies promoting atypical antipsychotics, such as Seroquel and Risperdal, made long-term efforts to deny the link to serious health risks like diabetes, hyperglycemia and weight gain. Although they were aware of the risks early on, and despite multiple warnings from the FDA, executives sat around conference tables planning ways to boost sales.

AstraZeneca, for instance, discussed strategies for “burying” the results of unfavorable drug trials for Seroquel. They praised employees’ “smoke-and-mirrors” efforts. They devised a “Weight and Diabetes Sell Sheet” to “neutralize customer objections.” When the FDA warned them to stop and told them to let physicians know about the risks, they issued the required warnings, but their letters were so misleading that the FDA had to warn them again.

Currently, however, most marketing efforts are limited to traditional media. If drug companies start exploring opportunities online, the deception could go viral.

Even now, with just the bare beginnings of online drug marketing, there are signs of the future. Earlier this year, the FDA sent 14 warning letters to companies promoting drugs by buying ads on Google. Before that, the agency discovered Shire had placed a video on YouTube to promote Adderall XR. The video not only exaggerated Adderall’s effectiveness for ADHD, it suggested unapproved uses for the drug. The FDA told Shire, “Take it down.”

The Consumer’s Union has serious concerns about the trend. At a two-day public hearing last November, they asked the FDA to shut down Internet drug marketing completely.

“Drug and device companies should not be engaged in any form of promotion of their products via direct email or text messaging to consumers, blast email, email list-serves, bulletin boards, Twitter, chat rooms, social networking or ‘patient-networking’ sites,” the Consumer’s Union told the FDA. [Emphasis in original]

Other FDA testimony included Joan Kovach of Kovach Consultants, who said:

“I work on an adult inpatient psychiatric unit. This is what I see. Many people legitimately ill with mental illness cannot get or afford essential medicines. Many walking well or walking wounded citizens are unnecessarily medicated to sluggishness, then remedicated for energy then medicated with sleep meds, all with no quality [of] life improvements detected.”

But  some people aren’t worrying, like Todd LaRoche, who recently wrote about a blossoming career opportunity.

Pharma, it seems, is looking for “professional Tweeters.”

Read about the strategy from an insider’s perspective:

Pharma 2.0: Heading Toward Social Media Marketing (PDF)

Social Media for Pharma Brand Managers (PDF)

Effective Social Media Marketing Strategies for Pharmaceutical Market

How One Pharma Company Successfully Manages YouTube

Pharma Social Media as an Integrated Marketing Strategy

Pharma Companies on Twitter as of September 2009

Pharma Jobs of the Future: Professional Tweeters