How the Pharma industry uses Social Media

Research shows Pharma has been slow on the uptake, but massive opportunities await

New communications technology has the potential to both disrupt and enhance the pharmaceutical industry, but research shows that pharma often needs to up its game when it comes to the adoption of new technologies.

Mobile devices have transformed how we access and consume content, and are poised to make similarly huge changes to the way consider our health. mHealth revenue is projected to reach 26 billion by 2017, and the number of health apps has doubled in just the past two years. Social is also likely to have a major impact in the way that pharma communicates in the coming years. 52% of physician’s surveyed by Deloitte in this research expressed interest in communicating with pharma companies via social media.

However, pharma currently lags behind other verticals for using social media. Pharma spending on digital advertising is far below that of other industries, and it still conducts most of it’s communications with physicians via traditional channels. There is big potential for new communications technology to make the pharmaceutical industry more efficient and more engaged with it’s customers. This infographic from Deloitte shows the potential for new digital technology to allow pharma to market itself more effectively.


There’s no debate that the growth of social media has changed the way that we, as consumers, access and share information. The proliferation of mHealth and other health care social platforms targeted at physicians suggests that this dynamic is no different for our doctors. With health care social media sites now reaching 50% of physicians1 and the user base for third-party physician social platforms growing rapidly, it is clear that the value perceived by physicians regarding interactions in the social space is increasing. Additionally, more than half of physicians polled in a recent survey expressed interest in interacting with pharma for practice-related purposes.2 Given the increased level of physician engagement in social, we are forced to wonder: What opportunities exist for pharma? What should pharma companies do to “win” in this new environment?

Pharma’s challenge

Despite physician interest in engaging, pharma has been generally slow to gain a foothold in the social space. This has likely been driven by a number of factors.

Even with new guidance around the rules of engagement, many pharma companies are still struggling to meet physicians’ social engagement needs. Pharma’s investments in the digital space typically do not show the same level of impact as other targeted efforts for physicians and consumers. For example, when compared to other health care and consumer apps in the Google Play store, pharma’s apps show a low number of overall downloads, specifically:

  • Pharma apps targeted at physicians: 100-5,000 downloads
  • Apps developed by third parties for physicians: 1M-5M downloads
  • Other consumer apps: Up to 5B downloads

This suggests that the information or format being offered by pharma is not as compelling as other competing sources and further explains why physicians still report that the majority of information they receive from pharma comes via traditional channels (e.g., sales reps, MSLs, direct mail, etc.). Either pharma has not invested heavily enough in emerging channels or is not offering information of value.

Additionally, trust appears to remain a big concern. The information that pharma companies provide has traditionally not been (and is still not) trusted. 75% of physicians surveyed indicated a lack of trust in information provided by pharma.3 When we asked physicians to comment on the criteria that would be necessary to engage with pharma companies on social forums, we received comments such as “transparency,” “information would need to be free of bias,” and “privacy – such that pharma companies weren’t monitoring the discussion.” 

When we asked physicians who were not interested in interacting with pharma via social why this was so, we received feedback such as “unlikely to be meaningful unless the company official is someone who is trustworthy,” “I don’t trust the info in that sort of forum,” and “they are not objective. Need a neutral third party to have credibility.”

The rise of third-party platforms

While pharma has been generally slow to gain a foothold in the digital and social media space, third-party platforms have taken advantage of the opportunity to meet physicians’ needs. Specifically, Medscape (63%), Epocrates (57%), and Sermo (56%) were reported as the networks most commonly used among physicians for professional practice.4 These platforms enable physicians to access critical practice-related information and share insights and recommendations with their peers. Many physicians also see value in the data and capabilities they offer, which has continued to contribute to their growth. For example, Sermo has experienced over 90% growth in users over the past two years; the site now boasts over 382,000 US physicians.5 As trust in these platforms remains and switching costs increases as a result of the network effect, we believe that physicians will continue to engage in social channels via these third-party providers.

What opportunities remain for pharma?


In an effort to overcome the lack of physician trust in information provided directly by pharma and the strong foothold that third-party platforms have already established, pharma companies should consider partnering with established third-party providers as a means to make a stronger entry into the social space. Specifically, pharma should offer the proprietary clinical data and insights that drive interest but that others are not able to provide. When asked, 65% of physicians surveyed indicated interest in engaging with clinical data via social.6 Additionally, 84+% rank safety/efficacy, clinical guidelines, and long-term outcome data as influential or very influential in drug utilization decisions.7 Given the importance of this information, pharma should leverage its exclusive insights as a means to contribute in the social space.

Pharma can bring something new to the table that could not only entice potential social partners but also provide tangible, unbiased data to its physician customers. Through these interactions, pharma can become more knowledgeable about its customers through data that, if collected and used properly, can help strengthen engagement and targeting strategies moving forward. However, pharma should act now.  Further delays in pharma’s social strategy may lead to a loss of relevancy among its customers and a gap in relationships that others would be more than happy to fill.

Deloitte published this research on Digital Marketing for Pharma and infographic


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