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Do Pharmaceutical Companies Have “Social Media Anxiety Disorder?”

There’s been an ongoing discussion about how the Life Sciences industries can face and integrate recently-evolving media which the Web has been and continues to sprout. Remarkable as they are, the discussions are endless and most loop back into themselves without generating sufficient voltage to power an army of macrophages. Additionally, pharmaceutical companies (pharma) –- beset by a myriad of constraints –- are anxious about flipping on social connection switches which the Web furiously creates every day. We could say that pharma has a sort of social media anxiety disorder. What to do?

The answer isn’t in social media. It’s not in what the FDA decides to do. It’s not in echo chambers found within Twitter or blogs or conferences. It lies in simple, basic economic truths. It lies in radical acceptance and in brave recreation. It lies beneath the proverbial nose of obviousness. It lies far beyond any discussion about the meanings and promises and purposes of new media on the Web. Pharma’s social media anxiety disorder is merely a peripheral symptom of deeper pathologies. Let’s assess the patient.

NOTE: If you believe social media is the cure of business ills, this post may not be appropriate for you. See your doctor if you’re addicted to social media before acting on the information contained herein.

DEEP CONCERNS AND PERIPHERAL RISKS

Social media is nothing –- an oxymoron at best: media are simply media, incapable of being at all social. People are social. Information isn’t social either –- but it is everything. So let’s talk about information and why it matters in every nook and cranny of Life Sciences’ media challenges and wider business fundamentals.

Nobody doubts that the ultimate concern surrounding the the development, production and marketing of molecules and medical devices is their safety, efficacy and effectiveness. From production to marketing to administration/application, every step of the way involves risks: tiny flaws in R&D methodologies; overlooked nuances of human physiological processes, genetic mechanisms and anatomical structures; manufacturing and engineering oversights; misinforming marketing messages (unintended or otherwise); and administration error (provider or patient related).

At the core of all these risks lies information, which is the coherence of relevant data that helps to make decisions in light of risks. Any information indicating danger during any point of the entire pipeline can retard or terminate production or marketing or dispensation of a product.

Furthermore, the media through which information conveys its meaning determines its interpretation. Therefore, any discussion concerning the proper delivery of product information must base itself upon the most complete understanding of media possible. Few media are alike in properties, possibilities, limits and pliancy of re-purposing. Not all media can be used for the same purposes as other media. Twitter may help Dunkin Donuts move sales, but that doesn’t mean it would for Pharma.

And it’s this understanding of media which is at the heart of the circulatory system of discussions and decisions with respect to the Web’s place in Life Sciences. It’s one thing to say Let’s start a blog, tweet like sparrows, set up Facebook Pages and create forums. It’s quite another to do so remarkably without addressing both the deeper nuances of human communication, social interaction and individual psychological responses and their peripheral risks.

The order of complexity that arises out of the tasks involved in creating and cultivating safe and engaging environments for patients, doctors, pharmacists, employees and all other publics grows with every added layer of interaction.

It sounds hopeless – in fact it is anxiety-provoking. But it isn’t hopeless and it doesn’t need to be an unstoppable source of anxiety. But the reality is this: Life Sciences has far too many variables and concerns to tie together to ever completely satisfy everyone and everything when it comes to social media – certainly not right out of the gate. The Enterprise considerations alone are almost impossibly daunting.

It’s easy to see how most Pharmaceutical companies suffer from a sort of Social Media Anxiety Disorder. What will the FDA do? What about Adverse Events? What about them lawyers trawling for our mistakes? What about abusive flash mobs? What happens if 4chan decides to play pranks on us on Twitter or Facebook?

What’s the anxiolytic here? Simplicity: do what’s simple and simply do it.

More on that in a moment, but first a necessary but pertinent side trip off the path of new media onto the economic principles upon which any exploration of the uses of social media in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries.

NATURAL VERSUS UNHEALTHY RATES OF RETURNS

Let’s take a quick pan-back for a moment from social media to mention something about Capitalism and economic fundamentals because it’s the central economic context in which modern pharmaceutical marketing arose. An inquiry into the economic ramifications of a fast-changing world must the the foundation for any exploration into the role of media. And this will lead us to why simplicity is Pharma’s best prospect for long-term viability. Bear with me on this excursion. Why? Because if there’s no industry, who cares about social media?

The rates of return for the pharmaceutical industry over the last twenty years have been quite remarkable. After the industry radically transformed itself decades ago from a primarily scientific endeavor into a marketing Juggernaut, the stock prices of publicly traded life sciences companies soared. Blockbusters made careers. Fortunes bloomed. Investors beamed.

We could say that co-morbid with Pharma’s Social Media Anxiety Disorder is an addiction to quick hits of Blockbusters and above-average rates of return. As we know, co-morbid conditions are often the hardest to treat.

But the fact is, these rates of return were not natural rates of return. Sustainable long-term rates of return for industries in their natural states is on the order of a paltry two to three percent. Why? Because the resource-inflationary pressure of high returns inevitably leads to downward pressures on sustainability. When rates of return exceed rates of regeneration, eventually capital systems collapse in on themselves. Sooner or later, pendulums swing back – the higher the summit, the more momentous the tumult.

To most pharmaceutical executives, the very thought of rates of return that low could cause chuckles or perhaps induce suicidal ideation. But eventually Pharma will face major reversals of fortune in the coming years. Here’s why:

  • The disruption of traditional marketing coupled with the infiltration of the Web into consumers’ lives will dilute their effectiveness;
  • The mis-coordination among the various international regulatory agencies and the industry will hamper innovation in customer outreach;
  • The internal weaknesses, complexes, inefficiencies of out-dated infrastructures will continue their pressure to reduce costs at the expense of development, resulting in positive feedback on tightening concentric loops of cost-reduction and market contraction;
  • The pool of bright young talent will flow to tech and other sectors while flowing away from an industry who’s public reputation has suffered years of traumatic wounds (many self-inflicted).

Furthermore, the revealing essence of media technologies will continue to illuminate fundamental truths about the industry and bear novel stresses on it:

  • The proliferation of social media will continue to shed light on weaknesses inherent within organizations: information about organizations will increasingly leach into the public sphere.
  • The raw scapegoating potential of new media will fuel public relations fires like never before seen and their financial impacts may be enormous, and their recovery will be slow and painful. Perhaps not in the immediate future (contrary to some of the hypers of the “power” of social media) – but as new media proliferate, the peripheral costs and risks associated with maintaining communities will rise considerably. (See Dennis Howlett’s excellent piece on how Nestle’s Facebook problem had no significant impact on its share prices.)
  • Worsening depressive global economic conditions will likely usher forth political demands for tighter regulatory controls. When people are hungry, they cry for blood.

Therefore, the industry must undergo a radical realization and acceptance that their fundamentals need serious attention. A critical dissection of assumptions and traditional business thinking will need to take place. The harsh realities of the 21st Century’s upending nature must be faced without fear. The marketing models which were co-opted from the Cereal and Automobile industries will be tough to break down and replaced with fresh perspectives on the ever-shifting ways in which people consume their information.

Meanwhile, the social engineering foundation of modern marketing ushered forth by Edward Bernay’s will continue to falter. Unless, of course, a few geniuses emerge who will discover some magical formula to mechanize social media into standard operating algorithms – as was done with traditional media. Not impossible, but it was much easier to do with unilateral oligopolies of mass communication.

There are times in our lives when incredibly hard and frightening decisions must be made. The same applies to companies and industries – entire countries in fact. And it’s always those simple decisions that must be made and are most often the most difficult to execute.

Pharma’s simple way out of its coming dark ages is nothing less than the task of utterly re-vamping itself into an entirely new industry – one which will be supple and cleaver and ethical enough to win the attention and social capital so critically necessary to hold sway in the coming world. It’s not social media, stupid: it’s The Capital.

Here are a few simple things Pharma can right now to inject true hope into its future:

  • Invest in education. Where will the next generation of molecular biologists and geneticists and engineers come from? Set up a consortium of education which extensively funds captivating educational programs which spark the attention of a youth easily distracted by the temptations of the Web. The Web is a perfect medium to extent in-real-life educational experiences, even while it opens up new temptations for distraction. The Web’s disruption of education means we must dovetail new media technologies with the traditional disciplines and rigors of learning about what matters. The public and private systems are becoming increasingly vulnerable in this regard, which implies opportunities for industrial talent to avail itself of its knowledge and expertise.
  • Shift capital-flows from over-marketing back to R&D. Wait? What? If we don’t invest in marketing we won’t have sales, which means we can’t develop products. The retort: the future of traditional marketing is bleak. Accept the losses now. A robust portfolio of novel pipelines for products – in conjunction with re-designing public relations with valuable social propositions – will lead to healthier long-term prospects for capital accumulation.
  • Begin the process of re-designing infrastructure and process from an assembly-line basis into info-social ecosystems. Capitalism is in the process of transitioning from deriving value through mechanized re-allocation and transformation of resources towards creating value out of the informational synergies of social connections. As the cost of technologies shrink while their powers expand, the opportunities to more fully realize the power of ideas and experiences expand. How many more discoveries and advances in molecular genetics be made if businesses were based upon social designs instead of mechanical rigors?
  • Extract value from the innate experiences of human capital within the enterprise. Building on the previous investment strategy, there is an entire sub-industry within the Pharmaceutical industry which has never been tapped. The collective wisdom-power of doctors, nurses, engineers, geneticists and other key players is an enormous source of business value. Entrenched stiff organizational structures have buried the collective values that can be derived from the vast array of product and service ideas inherent in these collective talents. Investing in re-designing business towards info-social ecosystems will develop the platforms necessary to yield the potency of human creativity and innovation.

Of course, maybe it’s already too late for the large pharmaceutical companies. If that’s the case, then the smaller enterprises have an open opportunity to gun for the future – especially if they refuse to be subsumed into the Juggernauts, which anymore are more like Holding Companies than actual creators and producers.

If 20th Century Capitalism taught us anything, it’s this: Juggernauts often jeapordize their long-term sustainability by assuming their ways of doing business are eternally solvent. They aren’t: Technology brings forth into world both opportunity and obsolescence. It reveals the status quo even while it destroys it.

THE SIMPLE TRUTH

If the industry is to be what it aught to be – a leading creator of technological solutions to biological problems – then it will have to abandon the now false hope of generating unnatural rates of return via outmoded mechanisms, processes, strategies, tactics. Because if it continues to believe its industry is an exemption from the eternal laws of supply and demand, of resource and allocation, and of creativity and innovation, then it will perpetuate a belief system that will continue to funnel its efforts into practices which forgo richer long-term prospects.

This is not only a matter of industrial health: it’s a public health urgency. A bankruptcy of novel bio-molecular advancement would be catastrophic for health care.

Connecting points of suffering with points of care. That’s the simple going concern of the Life Sciences industry.

This connecting is what marketing is all about. All efforts from idea to development to production to consumption create the ribbon of presence which is marketing.

BACK TO THE WEB OF CONNECTIONS

It’s not that the Web doesn’t matter – far from it. But the basic economic principles outlined above are the priority for all companies curious about how to integrate Web media into their enteprises.

There are places for new media within Life Sciences but the industry needs to be very basic in its approach.

For one, companies won’t get very far with “social marketing” efforts until executive leadership actually has hands-on experience with new media and a working comprehension of their properties.

No, the only way things will move is when middle and executive managers start using these media personally (none of it is hard). They need to go through this process before clear-headed strategies can be well formulated. Here’s how, in order:

  1. Executives must gain Web Literacy (this is a limiting agent).
  2. Then they must step back and re-frame everything they think they understand about media.
  3. After that, they need to imagine the re-purposing possibilities of the various media.
  4. They need to put together small packs of champions who – with permission – can go forth and lead the way with small steps.
  5. They will have to initiate the system-deep integration of social design into their companies (and Enterprise versions of Facebook ain’t it).

Once they understand how to use these media themselves, only then will they see the potential and pitfalls. They will realize the importance of accumulating Social Capital. They will see more clearly what it takes to create content and communities and the safe connections which engender markets where information can be safe and effective.

The economics of life science products and the realities of emerging shifts in the properties of adopted media dovetail each other over time. Perhaps not immediately, but it won’t be too long before the industry sees the need to change. That’s why the previous discussion about Capitalism is so important and relevant to any discussion on social technologies. Social media are merely revealing the deeper needs to re-vamp the industry’s microecnomic and enterprise schema.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR INSTEAD OF A DOG

The Web decentralizes centers of information. It rewards erratic volume at the expense of disciplined silence. It atomizes the world’s data while it connects disparate sources of information.

The Web is seductive. It promises Democratization. Unfortunately, seductive promises usually break.

And so it is with Pharma’s relationship to social and other media. In lust for easy returns by the promise of cheap media, fundamentals are easily forgotten. Longevity of industrial health is put at risk. The savviest get-rich schemes don’t sound like get-rich schemes. And yet, most of the talk about “social marketing” does in fact possess within it the underlying pitches of get-rich schemes.

Pharma will have to get back to fundamentals in economic design and collaborative networks. It needs to bring the life scientists back to front-and-center as pioneers of not only innovation but also creativity (and not in the way David Ogilvy abhorred the word). It will have to develop new ways to work with doctors and nurses, patients and the public.

It will have to answer, continually, questions such as these:

  • What is the effect of the Web on the health of human beings, from birth to death?
  • How does the Web affect collaboration? What about culture in general?
  • How can those with expertise create music that shunts the attention and interest of consumers away from the cacophony of charletons or from well-intended but misguided people? After all, a little knowledge can be more dangerous than complete ignorance – life science and health care aren’t always intuitive.

It will need to propound into the FDA’s collective head the one eternal truth of the web: On the Internet, nobody knows your’re a dog – but they may think you’re a doctor.

The imperative for leaders in life sciences businesses to understand the emerging roles of emerging media has never been more important. Moreover, the enframing of these media must line up with a fresh perspective on the nature of Capitalism in an age where social currencies emerge as substantive elements in the Capital System at large.

Pharma: Give up false hope in a Social Media Utopia. Overfed Utopian desires always end up backsliding into disasters. Get back to the science of life and the art of being a hero. Re-examine the fundamental meaning of marketing. Remember that marketing is about Presence. Realize the costly long-term error in mistaking Messaging for Marketing. History will hate you if you abandon your duty to be spotlessly heroic.

If you’re going to integrate rapidly shifting new media into your efforts, keep things simple. Don’t aim for marketing gold – you’ll not only miss the pot, you’ll ruin your reputation forever because the Web is your last hope, even if it’s your biggest fear.

Find what’s simple and simply do it.

It’s that simple. But like life itself, simple is rarely easy.

*This blog post was originally published at Phil Baumann*


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