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Social Realism

Social Realism

The pitfalls and payoffs of embracing social media

A biotech company can only call itself innovative once it has mastered social media and the Internet of Things. Forever changed by major advances like systems biology and CRISPR-Cas, biotechnology is being further transformed by everyday objects imbued with smart technology. With the deluge of cutting-edge social media tools currently available, all those involved in the biotech community—investors, patients, politicians, scientists, clinical-trial volunteers and journalists—need to find new ways to make better use of the unprecedented amount of information now at our fingertips.

Medical technology, particularly digital health, is way out in front of biotechnology in its understanding of how to use social media. The hashtag #digitalhealth is consistently the number one trending regular hashtag according to Symplur, an analysis site that tracks social media conversations in healthcare. The hashtag #pharma comes in seventh, while #biotech doesn’t even make the top 10. Clearly, the businesses and individuals comprising the biotech sector have a way to go in harnessing the full power of social media. (See “Top 7 Reasons That Biotechnology Should Get Social.”)

Some biotech companies are ahead of the curve. Admedus, an Australian firm that I follow closely, has a wonderful Facebook page with a highly engaged group of followers. They actively support Admedus by sharing announcements with their networks and cheering on the company, but they can also be pretty vocal, posting comments to the company Facebook page when they have criticisms or complaints. Admedus recently blocked and deleted comments from a follower who had made a habit of personally abusing company executives and other followers. After a fair warning by the Admedus Facebook community manager, an attempt to take the discussion offline and reference to the “house rules,” the offender was blocked and his comments deleted. The tip here is: Create and publish “house rules” that dictate behavior, give people a fair warning if they cross a line, and don’t put up with abuse. On the other hand, don’t be afraid of negative comments; leave them on your company Facebook page and respond to them quickly and in as much detail as possible. Transparency is very attractive, and it models behavior for followers, letting them know that the page is actively managed and fair comment is encouraged.

Empowering the People
To support a friend who is undergoing immunotherapy for stage IV melanoma, she and I both turned to Facebook to research and share information about the side effects she was experiencing with a new drug. We engaged with patient support groups, physicians and scientists from across the globe late one night, and we are now heavily invested in some wonderful patient support groups. In fact, patients are turning to social media and digital platforms more than ever for therapeutic support, treatment suggestions and information about side effects and clinical trials. Social media has connected a global population of patients into extraordinarily powerful and valuable lobby groups and support networks, and this creates a gold mine of information.

Online patient networks are of considerable value to biotechnology. This is the population pool in which you want to be fishing for clinical trial volunteers—motivated, relevant, reachable, educated. On the other hand, recruiting through social media requires a dedicated contract research organization (CRO) that fully understands the medium and can effectively caution and monitor trial participants to ensure that information is not unwittingly disclosed by volunteers for investors and competitors to consume.

For people in the biotechnology field, social media offers additional benefits. Since being on Twitter, I read biotech industry news more than ever. I use social media to monitor my stock portfolio, keep up with political and biotech news, follow key journals, collaborate nationally and internationally, participate in global conferences and conversations, market my company, publish my own thought leadership material, influence journalists and politicians and network globally (with prejudice). With social media, life skills and business skills complement one another.


Top 7 Reasons Biotechnology Should Get Social

1. Access the world’s largest focus group and listen for value.
Monitoring social media can transform the millions of posts by patients and caregivers into valuable insights that can form the basis for a successful marketing strategy. By listening to patients and healthcare providers, developers can identify unmet needs and market opportunities.

2. Keep your investors informed.
Companies that genuinely commit to updating shareholders will be using social media for investor relations. Publically listed companies should be monitoring social media, actively promoting and protecting their brand, managing reputation risk and identifying and correcting false statements.

3. Recruit for clinical trials.
Read anything about the future of clinical trials and social media will be cited as the key to success in three critical areas: recruitment, retention and confidentiality. Meeting recruitment deadlines is one of the biggest concerns for biotechnology companies, and social media can recruit faster, more efficiently and with greater accuracy. Social-media advertising is crucial to recruiting, so it’s worth reading up on this one, as all trial recruiters are going to need to be experts to survive.

4. Alert your networks to newsworthy events.
Journalists and politicians are all on social media, with the exception of a few dinosaurs. As technology continues to reshape the way news outlets deliver news, journalists find themselves in an increasingly precarious position. Consequently, many reporters are turning to social media to invest in their own brand and build dedicated followers as an insurance policy against an unstable work environment. They are hungry for stories to share, and social media is a very effective mechanism for building relationships and selling story ideas. Politicians are not so different from journalists; they too are constantly searching for ways to connect with their communities, and social media is a great way of highlighting issues that attract support. Bloggers are also major news providers and are astonishingly influential with investors and journalists. If bloggers are not on your media distribution list for press releases, they should be.

5. Protect intellectual property.
Patients are quick to share health information, including their experiences in clinical trials, which has become a major issue for biotechnology companies. CROs and clinical trial sites need to ensure that volunteers understand their obligations concerning disclosure of details on social media of their clinical trial experiences. A number of very high-profile breaches have been publicized, with companies being put into trading halts and competitors gaining an advantage because key information was inadvertently disclosed.

6. Improve healthcare outcomes.
Social media is awash with medical and scientific misinformation. Scientists, physicians, pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology companies have so much to gain by utilizing the power of social media to educate, inform and influence. If authoritative voices are not on social media, the lunatic fringe will fill the void. Educating patients and raising awareness of treatment options, trials and current thinking are some of the most compelling reasons for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to embrace social media.

7. Raise capital.
Social media is not a capital-raising silver bullet, and anyone who says so is naïve, misled or just plain lying. Nonetheless, social media is the foundation for crowdfunding, which is a lifeline for start-ups across the globe, drawing larger and larger amounts each year from increasingly ambitious campaigns.


Michelle Gallaher (@StartupShelley) is the cofounder and creative director of The Social Science (@thesocialsci), which helps companies make the most of social media, and cofounder of Women in Science Australia (@WomenSciAUST).

Illustration by © NEIL WEBB

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