Online social networks pose unique marketing opportunity

Pharmaceutical CommercePharmaceutical Commerce - January/February 2009

Drugmaker participation in physician communities requires a light touch

Pharmaceutical companies should absolutely pursue physician marketing efforts via online communities, but they need to tread softly. That’s one important conclusion from a recent Manhattan Research analysis of physician online social networking. Another one: The doctors who participate in such networks are more frequent drug prescribers than those who don’t.

“In this channel it’s especially important for pharmaceutical companies to participate in non-intrusive ways and to take cues from the community of physicians themselves,” cautions Erika Fishman, author of the analysis and research director at Manhattan Research, a New York-based unit of Decision Resources Inc. “It’s less about pushing promotional content and more about taking the pulse of the opinions, clinical advice, and experiences of doctors, and identifying key opinion leaders.”

One such online community, Sermo, currently boasts 105,000 physician members from every U.S. state. Members are active: last fall, some 90,000 of them responded to an online poll concerning the presidential candidates’ healthcare policies. The physicians “cover 68 specialties, and the breakdown is similar to physician specialty breakdown in general,” says Sermo spokesperson Jennifer Brown. “This includes large cohorts of high-prescribing specialties: primary care physicians, general practitioners, and pediatricians, for example. They have submitted more than 30,000 discussions and 3 million observations.”

According to the Manhattan Research analysis, physicians currently participating in professional online communities write a mean of 24 more prescriptions per week than physicians with no interest in such communities. In addition, the majority of physicians report that they expect drugmakers to monitor professional community sites and view this monitoring as a positive undertaking.

Fishman estimates in her analysis, Physician Online Communities: Physician Social Networking and the New Online Opinion Leaders, that while 99% of physicians use the Internet today, about 60% are already using or interested in using physician online communities. The research was conducted via telephone and online in the first quarter of 2008 with a nationally representative sample of 1,832 practicing U.S. physicians.

Useful and relevant information

She notes that many physicians are open to pharma companies providing product and treatment information in this setting, but it should be done from the standpoint of enhancing given discussions with useful and relevant information.

Fishman says that some of the most valuable opportunities on physician social networks lie in mining data from real-time discussions and member polls. Responding to relevant physician questions is another opportunity. “Client-facing tools at networks like Sermo and Medscape Physician Connect give companies access to discussions about off-label uses for products, new side effects, clinical trials, and other types of information that may have otherwise taken months to obtain.”

Although physicians are more in favor of drug companies monitoring their online communities than they are about direct communication in these forums, the majority report that they’d be interested in interacting with a pharma, biotech, or device companies as part of a conversation thread or discussion about relevant products. “The key to pharma participation in these channels, as is the case with many marketing endeavors, is relevancy,” Fishman says. “Physicians will be more open to pharma engagement if representatives provide them product or treatment information that answers the question at hand.”

Fishman distinguishes marketing opportunities via physician online communities from e-detailing. “Used to its fullest, e-detailing allows reps to inform physicians one-on-one about products and treatments in a rich, interactive way. One of the unique values of physician social networks, though, is the wisdom that can be gained from the aggregated knowledge and opinions of a large, engaged physician community. Few, if any, other channels can provide the amount of insight as quickly and efficiently as physician social networks.”

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