Comparing the use of social media by Pharmaceuticals

In my previous article I suggested that a social media policy was an essential basis for engaging with people online. Without it your ability to react to problems (or opportunities) that arise will be severely impacted. You won’t have the trained people in place, nor the process for escalation or the guidelines for response.

Having a social media policy in place not only sets up your company for engaging with people online but when you make it (or a version of it) available to the public its puts in place the parameters and expectations for discussion. After all, how you deal with the issues you encounter could make or break the success of your engagement strategies.

But does it make a difference for day to day, non crisis, engagement if you have a social media policy or not? I’ve had a look at various pharmaceutical sites to see first if they have a published social media policy and second, how successful does their digital engagement appear to be.


By far the most successful pharmaceutical company channel on YouTube is Johnson & Johnson’s Health Channel. With over 270 videos they have the most content and perhaps not surprisingly therefore the most views.

One factor in generating YouTube views is the number of subscribers to a channel. Whilst not all the pharmaceutical channels reviewed showed their number of subscribers, Johnson & Johnson’s channel was far ahead of all those that did with 2,200 subscribers. It is worth noting that Johnson & Johnson has a clear policy on its channel homepage and it allows comments on its video posts. It could therefore be suggested that a regular flow of content, offered to an engaged and listened to audience is the route to successful engagement. The only other channel which appeared to allow comments was Boehringer Ingelheim’s. It is fair to say that neither had many comments but Johnson & Johnson’s had the most and had posted responses.

YouTube channels reviewed:

Company URL SM Policy Comments Subs Views Joined
Abbott AbbottChannel No Off 124 21216 08/10/2010
AstraZeneca azvideochannel No Off 29 4593 09/08/2010
Boehringer Ingelheim boehringeringelheim No On 137 34936 08/01/2010
Johnson & Johnson JNJhealth Yes On 2323 1905648 08/05/2010
Novartis novartis No Off 218 31779 09/08/2010
Pfizer Europe PfizerEurope No Off 41 4072 09/09/2010


Following the suggestions in my first article about employees being given the freedom to speak in their own social media profiles it is no surprise that many senior names from the pharmaceutical industry are on Twitter. I think it is fair to say that the most talked about of these are in communication roles which is again no surprise. Perhaps interestingly, of the profiles reviewed not everyone referenced their employer or stated whether the views expressed were their own. Roche’s Sabine Kostevc gives the clearest disclaimer in her profile stating that “All tweets are my own and do not necessarily represent my employer’s view”.  To see if a social media policy makes a difference to the level of engagement it is perhaps better to look at official brand profiles on Twitter.

Of the 17 pharma Twitter profiles I reviewed, only two made direct or indirect references to their social media policy – @roche_com and @vertexpharma. Interestingly Vertex were only conducting a test at the time to see the viability of using Twitter yet they conscientiously created a Twitter Policy and linked directly to it from their profile – a very user focused and sensible thing to do rather than direct only to a corporate homepage or media page as all others do. In the short time since my review, Vertex has just relaunched their Twitter activity so it would appear they felt the trial was a success.

Roche has recently come in for some praise for their Twitter activity. With over 3500 followers, a presence on 307 lists and having sent 788 tweets since Feb 2009, TwitterGrader.com gives their profile a score of 99.8 out of 100. It would be hard to say that is simply because they have a disclaimer on their Twitter profile page but what it does suggest is that the existence of the disclaimer shows that the Twitter activity is well considered and that there is a framework for people to operate in. Based on the @Roche_com tweets  and the level of interaction with fellow Twitter users I would say this offers an increased level of freedom to engage people and build a trusted voice.


A review of the corporate pages on Facebook shows a greater number of disclaimers and policies around what is and what is not permitted. As to whether this encourages more fans or not is hard to define, as the numbers across each pharmaceutical company’s page varies and the intentions of the pages also are not the same. However only Johnson & Johnson’s page has any form of engagement with its audience – who have commented, shared and liked various posts made by Johnson & Johnson. They state in their disclaimer that “While community members can make comments, we reserve the right to remove those that are off-topic, abusive or that are spam. Product questions should be put to our companies”. As you will see on their page there is a healthy amount of conversation, and not all of it positive towards Johnson & Johnson.

I assert that Johnson & Johnson have confidence in their policy and that it is has buy-in from across the organisation. The level of fear about what might be said would appear to be at a comfortable enough level to allow some freedom to speak. This makes them seem more real – like a person – and after all this is social media remember. I also suggest it allows a certain amount of conversation to go on under their control and in a place where they can directly respond, which is a positive thing.

Interestingly Sanofi-Aventis have the most detailed disclaimer on their Sanofi-Aventis Voices Facebook page. Given their recent experiences with negative comments it is perhaps no surprise. However this issue has not gone away yet and the majority of comments from their followers have been removed. The disclaimer is doing its job in policing the site, but the strategy has not done its job to deal effectively with the issue. A social media strategy is not about just one channel and as yet Sanofi-Aventis seem to have their activities on hold because they did not have the means in place to handle this issue appropriately online.

This review is by no means exhaustive but I do believe it shows that the existence of a social media policy does allow greater levels of engagement with the audience. I think it is no surprise that where participation has been thought through in advance – at least enough to post a disclaimer – then those running the channel have a greater level of confidence and freedom to engage the public.

Social media success and failure are closely linked to the level of engagement that you have with people. The engagement aspect is what shifts it from another form of broadcast media to a channel that can build trust, add value and make a difference to the people you serve. Avoiding the engagement can have exactly the opposite effect.

If you would like help to define a social media strategy and policy for your organisation then talk to Creation about how our Discovery methodology would establish the right approach for you.

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