There’s a tension between opportunity and risk”, says Simon Quayle, Director of Digital Communications at GSK, describing his work leading the company’s corporate social media engagement. And he should know – he was responsible for making GSK’s Facebook page one of the world’s first ‘open’ pharma social media environments, encouraging public stakeholders to post comments during a time when most pharmaceutical companies kept their pages tightly locked down.

That was in the days when Facebook allowed pharmaceutical companies to ‘switch off’ commenting from their pages; a practice that has since been banned by Facebook, forcing less-prepared companies to either close down their Facebook pages or rapidly adapt to two-way public engagement.

GSK featured in my “Top 10” pharma social media firsts of 2013 for exceeding 90,000 Facebook ‘Likes’; today, Likes on the company’s page are rapidly approaching 100,000. But according to Quayle’s colleague Janet Morgan, Director of Corporate Reporting at GSK, the most successful channel of engagement is in fact not Facebook, but LinkedIn, where the company has over 400,000 followers actively sharing its content.

Quayle and Morgan tell me that their secret to success in social media is to focus on selected channels where they can be most effective: currently Twitter; Facebook; YouTube; LinkedIn and Flickr. As they share some of their stories, I sense that the lessons they have learned through both success and setback have developed the company’s mature approach to social media.

1. Learn what engages people

Morgan says that the most active engagement from people with a genuine interest in what GSK is doing comes via LinkedIn, where the profile and behaviour of users is quite different to Facebook. On Facebook, what works best is “feel good” stories about positive news and corporate responsibility. Quayle says that it can be surprising to learn what kinds of content leads to positive engagement. He was surprised to discover, for example, that a photo of the GSK headquarters building attracted more positive comments than a story about a community partnership.

A recent example of content that inspired a positive response was the profiling of women in management within GSK, to mark International Women’s Day which took place on 8th March. The theme of International Women’s Day was “inspiring change” and GSK’s take on that was to profile inspiring change in the workplace, with content published on the company’s website shared via a photo album on Facebook; Tweeted; and posted on LinkedIn. After just three days, Morgan says that engagement was 50% higher than average.

2. Stream specialist conversation into channels

I ask Quayle & Morgan about @GSK_conferences, the dedicated Twitter profile featuring “Tweets from GSK employees attending scientific conferences”. Quayle says that this is an experiment to allow the company to engage actively at conferences without the corporate @GSK Twitter profile becoming too noisy for the majority of its 40,000+ followers who may not have an interest in the particular conference. Tweets from @GSK_conferences are sent by GSK team members while they are on site at conferences. “It’s important to actually ‘be there’ if you are tweeting form a conference”, says Quayle.

GSK uses other dedicated channels, too. In the US, for example, a dedicated customer channel exists to handle responses to product queries. Ultimately the conversation is usually taken offline, but using a dedicated account for responding to product enquiries keeps the corporate channel focused.

3. Know the channels

Quayle, who launched the company’s Facebook and corporate Twitter accounts himself, started in social media with his own personal profiles on the platforms, so that he could learn about the environment before taking the helm of GSK’s social media engagement. Quayle & Morgan tell me that GSK staff with an interest in using social media for the company are encouraged to have their own accounts, and to start out by simply following others, listening, to learn about the channel.

4. Always experiment

A key aspect of Quayle’s approach to GSK’s social media engagement is to continually be experimenting, discovering what works and learning from every experience. He likens the company’s history with social media to learning to ride a bicycle, and says while it is important to understand the opportunities and the risks, it is even more important to actually try things: “You don’t learn to ride a bicycle by reading a manual – you have to try it”, he says. “And when you go out, you need to have a rough idea of where you are going.

Working closely with legal and compliance colleagues is essential”, says Quayle, adding that an aspect of experimenting is being happy to close things down if they are not working.

5. Be prepared

Returning to the bicycle analogy, Quayle adds that it is important to be prepared for what could go wrong. “[When riding a bicycle, you need to] have a view about what might be ahead – take a first aid kit, and a puncture repair kit”, he says, indicating that the corporate social media equivalent to these might be a crisis management plan, and a clear escalation process.

Being prepared for change seems to be something that Quayle relishes. He is eager to make the most of opportunities as they arise, and yet both Quayle and Morgan are clear about their goals: “Building [GSK’s] reputation; building trust; developing transparency”.

It’s not just about sales

Does social media bring commercial benefits to GSK? That’s not exactly the point, according to Quayle and Morgan. “Increasing sales is not one of our KPIs”, says Morgan, “although building reputation and trust will do that”.

The way that we do business is just as important as what we achieve”, adds Quayle. “You cannot be a company that’s performing well if you’re not living up to the expectations of society, and living transparently”.

I am left with a sense that despite GSK’s success in social media to date, the team have a lot more up their sleeves yet. “We have to organise ourselves around the needs of the customer”, says Quayle. “We’re starting to do that”.

 

This article was originally published in PharmaPhorum.