Award: Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2012 Facing Customers Award
Winner: Boehringer Ingelheim on Facebook

We have enabled our wall for commenting because we want to hear from you!” reads Boehringer Ingelheim’s Facebook page, inviting its 15,000 fans to post public comments on its wall. “Help us to keep this wall interesting by actively contributing…”, it goes on. And according to John Pugh, Head of Online Communications at Boehringer Ingelheim, the page is an attempt to proactively engage people online. “We’re deliberately trying to engage with people… We’re asking questions”, he says.

Boehringer Ingelheim has embraced Facebook as a channel that allows controlled two-way engagement, to facilitate public conversations with individuals. This is new ground in an industry that is highly regulated and where the boundary of acceptable communication differs from country to country. Yet here is a single interface to Boehringer Ingelheim that embraces stakeholders from all over the world, in their own language.

Responding to customers

In a recent post to the company’s Facebook wall, a patient based in Denmark asks about pack sizes for Boehringer Ingelheim’s COPD drug Berodual: “i am using berdual, with the six gun, wondering why those intelligent people with you, make a sixgun, and pacages with only 5 pac ammo 😉” reads the comment. The dialogue that follows in open comments between Boehringer Ingelheim and the patient includes an explanation from the Denmark office, an apology from the company and an apparently satisfied customer. “Hi thanks, good explanation… have a nice day…” he concludes.

Resourcing the strategy

What kind of resources does it take to run a Facebook page like Boehringer Ingelheim’s? According to Pugh, it takes a team of two, backed up by technology, an agency to handle “crisis situations”, and the company’s 42,000 colleagues. “We use our network; we’ve got 42,000 employees around the world”, he says. “If we get something in Spanish I’ll go and speak with my Spanish colleague, and he’ll whizz it back, but in the future he’ll be able to do it directly so we can start having those local conversations as well”.

The company’s Facebook strategy is supported by a number of tools including social media marketing suite Buddy Media. “We really want this to be a communication channel; our own two-way channel, and not just in English. We’ve just plugged in Buddy Media and are rolling that out across multiple languages – Spanish, German, Italian… So we can start having local conversations in those languages”, says Pugh.

A content partnership with PSFK is helping to broaden the range of health-related content published on the page, ensuring that it does not become merely a corporate communications broadcast channel but includes wider topics about healthcare, patients, and social media.

We look at Facebook as the centre of our social activities… we have our news and our corporate information, which is great and we encourage feedback, but what I really want to do is widen the funnel more”, Pugh tells me. “Then we can start segmenting who our followers are and start having newsletters with segmented messages.

This targeting of stakeholders has already been trialled by Boehringer Ingelheim over other social media channels. “On Twitter we’ve been segmenting our followers so we can provide segmented messages… and we want to start doing that on Facebook too. So if we want to do an oncology conference, we can look at who was there last year, what were the topics, and how can we target them. We want to do that with Facebook as well.

Pugh says that when it came to gaining internal support for the Facebook strategy, the company’s existing experience with other social media channels paved the way. “We’d already overcome the whole discussion about relevance of social media and ROI, because we’d already done so much work on Twitter and YouTube”. Yet despite this, and board-level encouragement to “try new things”, it took a long time to convince the business that Facebook could be used in this way. “I’d been trying to do Facebook for about a year before it came out… The biggest barrier was convincing the business that it wasn’t just a platform where people post personal messages, where friends connect; that it is now a communication channel where you have businesses on there”.

When we did our 125 year anniversary for Boehringer, that was the hook that I could hang it on”, says Pugh. “We launched a great photo competition around our Corporate Social Responsibility programme called ‘Making More Health’ so we asked our Facebook community, ‘what does Making More Health mean to you?’ and can you express it through a photo. We had around 850 photos coming in, amazing quality, and we chose 50 that we liked and asked people to vote for what their favourite was, and that became the photo of the campaign. We got this amazing photo from the Philippines… there was lots of news around it and then [the Facebook page] just took off”.

Just the beginning

Despite the active engagement taking place on the page, Pugh considers the journey to date to be just the start and seems more interested in what lies ahead. He is almost scornful of what he considers the page’s low number of fans to date. “There’s only 15,000 people on it which I think is pathetic. When we start getting hundreds [of thousands] then it starts to get a bit more compelling and that’s when we’ll segment it, and get the real benefit.

He says that the current environment is a place to learn how to engage well, before it grows bigger. “We’re still building it at the moment but what we wanted to do was to make sure we build it in the right way. We answer questions, and we try to use it as a customer response tool”.

Pugh hopes that in time, the Facebook page will play a role in changing Boehringer Ingelheim into a more widely patient-focused organization. “If you’re going to be committed to your customers then you need to make it easy for them to get in contact with you. We’re still a long way away from that at Boehringer, but we’re working on it. The more success stories we have, and the less nightmares we get, it can only be compelling…”, he says.

Learning lessons

The path of pharmaceutical social media pioneers is not well-trodden yet, and there are lessons still to be learned. Pugh is open about some of the lessons he has learned from mistakes. “We had a couple of campaigns that didn’t work. Early on I sent out 120 tweets in an hour, that didn’t go down very well”, he says.

Arguably the most significant lesson learned by the Boehringer Ingelheim team was in social media crisis planning. “Certain people had an issue with us and tried to disrupt our wall. They took the argument into places we hadn’t even considered.   At first we were caught by surprise and didn’t know how to deal with it. We didn’t have our process mapped with every conceivable event”, says Pugh. “We have now, thanks to that guy. We tried to address the issue directly but it was complex and in the end we let his posts sit on the wall and asked people not to respond. We decided not to delete it. We sat down with legal and had a rational conversation about it. One person is not going to drag down our Facebook page.

In fact, Pugh tells me, the case highlighted a point about information that was missing from the public domain and Boehringer Ingelheim took steps to address the balance through other online resources, away from the Facebook page.

Vision, governance, agility and mistakes

When I ask Pugh what advice he would give others who are embarking on a direct social media engagement strategy, he outlines four areas:

  1. Vision: “You need to have an inspiring vision”, he says. “Get top-down support; get internal alignment. You need people to get enthusiastic.”
  2. Governance: Pugh says that digital governance is essential. “Make sure you have your T’s crossed and I’s dotted when it comes to terms and conditions and internal guidance, governance structures and approvals.
  3. Agility: “You need to be able to make quick decisions and move”, he says. “Keep it small; keep it quick. Don’t try to do things by committee.
  4. Mistakes: In this environment, fear of mistakes might stifle innovation but Pugh says that making mistakes allowed the team to learn fast. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We jumped in feet first, made our mistakes, and learned quickly. What we gained from that was a well-rounded knowledge base.

Boehringer Ingelheim, for supporting customers in public on Facebook across international, regulated environments, we award you the Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2012 Facing Customers Award.