Pharma Dives Deeper Into Social Marketing

A much-anticipated Facebook game from Boehringer Ingelheim, makers of Dulcolax, Zantac, and an array of prescription medications, is just one example of how pharma brands are plowing ahead with digital campaigns. Despite hand wringing about a lack of clear regulatory guidance, BI, Pfizer, and others were already breaking new ground before new draft social media guidelines were unveiled by the Food and Drug Administration in December.

Syrum is a social game in development by BI that has been in beta since last year. It promises to let players attack deadly diseases from their own virtual laboratories, discover new drugs, market them, and share and work with friends, according to the game website Players will be able to participate in clinical trials and learn more about patents.

The game initiative “shows a willingness to be in the space and test things out,” said Alison Woo, director of social media for Bristol-Myers Squibb. Woo spoke on a panel Wednesday at the ePharma Summit in New York, and mentioned the BI game as an example of digital innovation for a pharma firm. The game may also help the industry at large to “overcome reputation challenges,” she suggested, referring to the typically cautious approach taken by pharma brands using social media.

Current Google searches for “Viagra” and “counterfeit Viagra” turn up ads from the Pfizer brand, but pharma marketers have not always been comfortable using this otherwise popular form of digital advertising. In 2009, the industry was reluctant to try special search ad formats devised by Google to appease their legal counsels and the FDA.


But Pfizer is one company willing to test the waters. Google search ads stating, “Counterfeit Pills Can Be Dangerous” link to the Viagra YouTube channel. There, people can watch a series of investigative reports that tell the story of how counterfeit drugs are manufactured, trafficked, and sold to consumers by illegal online pharmacies. The goal of the videos and some Viagra search ads is to drive people to a list of legitimate online pharmacies selling the real thing.

Another important goal of the Viagra campaign: to push down otherwise prominent organic search results that link to illegal sites. Search results “for fake Viagra rank pretty highly,” said ePharma panelist Zoe Dunn, principal of Hale Advisors.

While unique, the YouTube effort exemplifies the risk aversion of pharma brands, many of which did not want to create YouTube content or channels before the video platform introduced its “Safe Watch” feature. It allows channel owners with 10 or more videos to control the videos that show up on watch pages. Exactly 10 videos were published to the Viagra channel in August, all of which are part of the “Counterfeiters are smart. You can be smarter” heading. In addition, the Viagra videos cannot be embedded elsewhere, a precautionary measure Google recommends to sensitive brands.

The FDA recently published its draft guidance for pharma marketers, only somewhat satisfying requests for clearer rules on how to handle posts, comments, and videos from people that mention off-label uses of drugs. For one thing, the new guidelines call on drug makers to respond to some remarks about off-label uses in a non-public forum, such as an email, rather than on Twitter, Facebook, or some other public platform.

“This is your chance to show that pharma can use social media appropriately and in a way that really does benefit patients,” wrote Jonathan Richman in reference to the draft guidelines. Richman, group director of strategic planning for digital agency Possible Worldwide, posted an in-depth interpretation of the guidelines on his Dose of Digital site.

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