Big pharma is gradually and progressively riding the social media bandwagon with a host of tactics towards listening, analytics, engagement, brand promotions, and much more. This has meant successful handling of the regulatory hurdles — what to share, what not to share, how much to share and most importantly the safety events that need to be reported. But even as all of this is afoot, companies are generally observed to be reticent in embracing social media wholeheartedly. While companies in other industries may only fret over a social media faux pas because it can potentially lead to public embarrassment of sorts; for pharma, social media could be unforgiving, not to mention the regulatory implications it can have. But when looked at closely, it can be seen that social media is no safe haven for other industries as well. All industries see consumer outrage over any issue that affects them but companies don’t always shy away from confronting this. So is there a message for global pharma that needs to be heeded?
Imagine checking into a hotel late in the night but not being able to get the room you had so carefully chosen because the call centre didn’t align with the hotel on the specification! Customers in such scenarios find themselves at a loss for venting out their frustration and social media seems a good refuge. Industry specific review portals and social networking sites are flooded with such comments from customers. Companies across most industries have developed their response and engagement strategy for handling such scenarios. Responding to the customer’s post with an immediate apology and following up till the issue is resolved fully is the goal that most companies target for. Though even with this the end result may not always mean a happy or satisfied customer but the company is at least able to showcase that it cares.
Given the prevalence of social media in our lives today, there is a lot being discussed on Social media etiquette — whom to respond to, whom not to respond to, how to handle trolls and who is a troll in the first place. But in the pharma industry defining anything in black and white is difficult because its illness and patient safety that we are dealing with. But given this, it's more so important that companies heed to what patients are writing, their sentiment and underlying emotions, address their concerns as best as possible and even then if there is further negativity at least not delete those posts. A drug which has come to the market post a proven positive benefit risk profile has some value in being there; but it’s also a fact that the likelihood of its benefits and the severity of side effects would vary from patient to patient. Those who experience severe side effects are likely to react just as we do when we don’t get the service we expect from a brand but removing these negative posts from the social media pages amounts to not showing any empathy towards a patient who needs help and that surely can’t leave a positive image for a brand.
So how do companies in other industries handle social media comments, appreciation and crisis? In most industries the benchmark is for customer service to be present all through the buying cycle and definitely long afterwards. “Nowadays, consumers expect brands to offer help way before they’ve decided to buy, and long after they’ve made the purchase..” says Joel Chan on mention.com. In this setting, even the well-meaning reticence of pharma companies is likely to be construed as lack of empathy. So how do brands in other industries really engage? Experts believe being transparent and empathising with customer concerns is the key. Below is an approach followed by AXA, a leading insurance company based out of Paris, for handling Social Media comments. The team works with the goal of touching/responding to every post that is made even if negative and then transparently posting data on their performance. This strategy helps reassure a customer that whatever be the nature of complaint at least she is heard.
In other industries as well the practice continues; consider the Social Media stalwart airline, KLM, which was also one of the pioneers in the space. KLM Social Media support runs with a team of 300+ agents who handle 180,000 messages weekly. KLM though has come a long way from just providing prompt responses to its customers on Social Media channels and now also leverages the vast record of interactions for enabling better services and improving the overall customer experience like helping with lost and found items by just engaging on Twitter.
Chobani, an American yogurt brand takes the job of Social Media Customer Service even further through bespoke responses and taking several other measures for driving customer delight. In one particular case when a customer posted a positive comment thanking the brand for their Yogurt which helped her healing post a wisdom tooth extraction, the company replied requesting for her address so they could ship a ‘get well soon’ note. It may be a very small gesture but it goes a long way in driving customer perception and engagement.
Handling positive or neutral scenarios may be simple but what do these brands do when confronted with negative sentiment? Zappos social community manager, Jessica Oberst says, “We truly care about our customers, and when there has been a loss of service, we bend over backwards to understand exactly what has happened, take strides to make improvements in an effort to prevent future losses of service…”. This may not be possible in each case or every time, because customers are just as prone to be on the erring side as a brand could be. But it is important for a brand to take the right steps to handle such situations well else it could lead to spiraling negativity on Social Media channels. Some of the best practices and social media dos and don’ts in such scenarios are:
• Don’t delete such comments from the page unless it’s a clear case of trolling or is profane or anathema to the brand ethos
• It’s important to appear engaged and respond to the customer genuinely
• Stay true to what you commit or promise and ensure full closure
• Try to take the conversation offline
There could be many more such best practices to keep sight of, the key focus being empathy and stepping in the shoes of a customer (patient) who has had a negative experience.
For a patient or their caregiver, who is also a customer and has experienced this service in other industries, these are the benchmarks in customer-centricity, service available at the fingertips and on the go. So when dealing with an illness and an uncommunicative brand or pharma company, the experience can be even more frustrating. Some pharma companies are taking cognisance of this reality and can be seen responding actively on social media channels. GSK’s global Twitter handle for instance (@GSK) can be observed replying to patient and caregiver posts, similarly Abbott is observed engaging with its @ AbbottGlobal, Pfizer with its @pfizer handle10 and a lot more. Like Jay Baer, Social media expert from Forbes says, “A lack of response is actually a response. It’s a response that says, ‘We don’t care about you very much’.”
While Pharma brands are taking baby steps and developing well rounded social media engagement strategies, the key tenets which are noticeable in other industries need to be well imbibed. Negative comments may look bad on a brand’s page but deleting them does not quite stop the comments or resolve the issue. A patient or caregiver who is looking for empathy or seeking advice may wander to other forums where there is extensive interaction leaving room for the negativity to grow and the entire reason for which a brand has chosen to be there on social media, to showcase that it cares is lost.
When used effectively, social media on the contrary offers an opportunity for building a better perception. What brands like Chobani and KLM do are but small cues for the art of possible. If a patient is posting repeatedly with frustration on disease burden it may help if she is re-directed to any prevailing support programs and if there is none then a small gesture of support can go a long way in managing a positive perception.
Another social media engagement tenet that is well adhered to by companies in other industries but not so much in pharma is posting customised, user-specific responses. Most companies tend to post generic responses for issues that can’t be resolved immediately or which will take some time for the executive to circle back and provide full closure on. In case of pharma this may well mean almost every other complaint or issue but in such cases a customised, patient-specific response even if it means an honest apology can go a long way in building a better perception. After all, patients and caregivers despite their predicament, are rational human beings barring a handful individuals who may make it a habit to stay negative. In cases where there is an ongoing issue and a deluge of comments on social media, it may be difficult for a social media team to keep up with customised responses. Infact, in such scenarios, most posts may just have the same message or be of a similar nature, so in such cases posting a pre-approved standard response that acknowledges and apologises may work just as well. Like Nicole Klemp, social media expert from Sales force says, “Have a plan in place and official statements drafted”.
The third key tenet is the response time itself, responding within the first one hour being the goal here. For a pharma company this means aligning a lot of other steps internally (operationally). While in other industries, companies may choose to empower their front line executives enough to make the right judgment and post a response, in pharma, due to the likely regulatory implications, most companies would be queasy posting a non-standard response which has not gone through a chain of approvals internally. In such a setting posting customised responses within the hour may be ambitious, even unreal, in some cases but why not try to determine the shortest feasible response time which could be anything within a day’s timeframe? If this still looks ambitious then a company also has to realise that social media in today’s context is serious business and if negativity on social media can have serious ramifications for a company then trying to create or maintain a positive perception may require a little more investment and effort.
The last one here is not a key tenet or even a best practice, it’s just a simple step that companies across several industries take to earn brownie points or bring in that wow factor – responses posted by senior company executives sometimes even for simple issues but mostly in times of major negativity. This may be a hum and haw subject as it’s not easy to implement, after all would this mean that in cases where a patient’s health is seriously impacted would an executive come to acknowledge who dropped the ball. In most cases infact no one may have actually, it may just be the nature of the disease or limitations of the treatment itself so this is still in the grey, a difficult to tread space!
Are there social media trolls in pharma as well, if so, how should a company deal with it? The jury may still be out on how to best deal with trolling on social media but experts lay out some best practices. For instance, Jay Baer, author of Hug your Haters, advises readers to apply the “Rule of Reply Only Twice” and not to engage in a constant dialogue. In the pharma industry, it’s difficult to discern trolling as compared to other scenarios but there are some scenarios when we know that it’s not genuine complaint or even a patient/caregiver who is posting. Such as when individuals start posting negatively on a jingle that a brand may have used in its digital ads or on the frequency or content of the ads. In such scenarios we know that it’s not a genuine patient or caregiver and given this the rules of trolling can apply.
For ages, companies across industries have been creative and thoughtful in how to achieve customer delight. The advent of social media gave way to a plethora of tactics and even more room for the creativity to bloom but at the same time it has its perils, the major one being the choice and the power that a customer has to express what she doesn’t approve of. So it’s a tight rope walk and a constant balancing act for a company to stay relevant but not draw public ire. For a pharma company, the opportunity that social media brought came with even bigger risks, wider exposure to regulatory scrutiny, but also an opportunity for patients and caregivers to look for empathisers when the brand doesn’t listen. It’s also a scenario where a pharma company can reap the benefits of social media with a thoughtfully chosen but patient-centric social media engagement strategy. If showing the customer or a patient that “we care” is the key then who can know this and practice this better than a pharma company, in letter and in spirit?