Social Networks, false innovation and pharmaceuticals

Social networks, false innovations and the pharma industry

Regarding social networks and elsewhere, technology changes, but bad business habits remain the same.
A new functionality for the  moderation of the posts,  and Instagram , a photo and video sharing medium, is depicted as a new “social” communication tool for pharmaceutical labs.

This article will highlight the authors’ fresh expertise in this domain…

You certainly have already met already a salesperson who explains that a car has “a direct fuel injection engine” and is “the only one of its kind”. At best, the salesperson will explain that the car consumes less, pollutes less, etc.
The questions that remain are whether you need a car, and if so, which kind, for what usage and mileage, how frequently will it be used, etc.

Sadly, it is the same old song for digital communication. Consider Starr (2015), who published an article titled “5 Reasons Pharma Should Reconsider Instagram” on the InTouch website.


Instagram in Brief

instagram logo
Instagram is a social network for easily sharing photos and videos with other subscribers; it also allows users to efficiently share photos and videos on other networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr. Launched in October 2010, Instagram was acquired by Facebook in 2013 for one billion US dollars. Today, it acts as a complement to Facebook that can somehow compensate for its weaknesses regarding photo and video sharing, which is growing in popularity. Some editorialists, probably in their quest for inspiration, regularly publish articles regarding the competition between Instagram and Facebook, comparing the performance of the two companies; as the companies are part of the same group, such digressions are pointless.


Promote the use of social networks at all costs

The title of the article, “5 Reasons Pharma Should Reconsider Instagram”, is very tendentious: it implies that the industry had previously considered and abandoned Instagram, and that it is time to reconsider this specialized social network. Of course, this should clearly not be the case.

The author lists five points to support her statement:

  1. Visual content is still on the rise
  2. Facebook reach is falling
  3. There are new moderation capabilities
  4. Analytics
  5. Pharma is already testing the waters with Instagram

When considering these points, unfortunately, and without any surprise, it is discovered that they are unrelated to the regulated environment of the healthcare industry.


Point # 1: Visual content is still on the rise

If we trust the author, adding a visual element in the headline across all social networks increases total views by 94% when compared to text-only headlines. Do not look for any logic here, or for the connection with the pharma industry: there is none. At best, it is a generic recommendation suitable for all types of activity.


Point # 2: Facebook reach is falling

The author cites a study claiming that a growing number of brands “are shifting” to Instagram because of their difficulties in managing changes to the algorithm of Facebook. Assuming this is correct, is it relevant to the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries? No.

facebook vs instagram

Posts frequency per brand (sample 164 facebook, 171 instagram)


Point # 3: There are new moderation capabilities

This is the first relevant point made. The author is referring to the critical need for regulation of the discussions, posts and comments on social networks, as there is anywhere else. In this case, the Instagram account administrator can delete comments deemed questionable.

Note that this option is possible only once the comment is published; at best, it allows the administrator to limit the duration, and, therefore, the reach of any controversial, illegal or fraudulent comments. This remains far from being considered ideally safe.


Point # 4: Analytics

It is infrequent that one of the “new experts” elaborates on the topic of analytics, we should not be too demanding. However, in the case of Instagram you needs a dedicated paying applications: in this case, Iconosquare.
Iconosquare is an app specially developed for measuring performance on Instagram: it measures the number of likes, comments, followers, etc. Why it should encourage pharma labs to “reconsider” Instagram for their promotional activities, you are free to imagine, and try to be creative…


Point # 5: Pharma is already testing the waters with Instagram

The author implies that some of your colleagues and competitors are already using Instagram, so you had better get started.

However, after a closer look, the author makes it clear that the most active healthcare companies on Instagram do not market Rx products.

The example of Boehringer Ingelheim as the first (since September 2013) Instagram active pharma lab is amusing.
It is best to read the article on the viral marketing on the  involuntary YouTube success of Boehringer Ingelheim.

The author justifies the point by directing the reader to the 124 “posts” and 828 “followers” (874 in April 2015) for this “pioneer”; these numbers are infinitesimal in the Instagram universe!

Consider the following for comparison:

  • Starbucks has 4.2 million followers
  • Microsoft has 77,300 followers
  • Harley Davidson has 443,000 followers

One can measure how wide the gap is between the reach and coverage of consumer and pharmaceutical brands; eight hundred and twenty-eight followers is only a small fraction of the lab staff and regular prescribers. If you cannot engage staff members and prescribers, how could you dream of reaching a wider audience? Maybe after a long stay breathing hallucinogenic air in Silicon Valley?


A touch of clear-sightedness?

The author is wise enough to declare in the conclusion that each brand must consider first its own objectives in order to decide whether the use Instagram is justified. That is the least of it.

Yet here, as in numerous articles published daily on the same topic, it is impossible to find any rationale supporting the broad or regular use of social networks by regulated industries such as pharmaceutical laboratories.
If such activity is already questionable for the most popular social networks, such as Facebook or Twitter, it becomes adventurous for more specialized networks like Instagram or Pinterest.

Clearly, while the benefits are uncertain or even non-existent, the risks are very real; when it comes to the control of promotional messages, authorities, such as the FDA, do not modulate their sanctions and penalties based on the number of followers or Internet users exposed to the litigious messages.

To better understand this point, the article about the first sanctions by the FDA for the promotion on Pinterest should be read.

A quick review of the points made in such articles establishes that we are conversing about propaganda and brainwashing rather than about a new opportunity for the healthcare industry. The authors are generally employed by advertising agencies who (more or less) specialize in digital communication and believe that, by hammering the same topic repeatedly, they can convince some leaders in the pharmaceutical industry to urgently contact them. Any critical reader can see through their arguments.