‘Dude, where’s my R?’: pharma, social media and ROI


Yes it’s another pharma/social media/ROI post. Apologies, I’ll try to keep it brief so we can all get back to Powerpoint.

From ‘can we?’ to ‘should we’?

There was an interesting article by PMLive’s Dominic Tyer published yesterday about how pharma is becoming more comfortable with social media. This struck a chord with me because I recently found myself sitting in on a UK pharma board meeting with social media on the agenda and (to my surprise) no one talked about legal and regulatory issues and there was no mention of guidelines or procedures. However, there was a lot of talk about ROI.

This is pretty consistent with my on-going conversations with other organisations in the sector – increasingly reservations around social media initiatives tend to relate to value rather than legal concerns. A report by the Digital Health Coalition I saw recently supports this, identifying that the primary hurdle to adoption of social media is “measuring ROI” followed by regulatory then legal.

So, to respond to Dominic’s article, yes I do think pharma is getting more comfortable with social media, but (in my experience) the conversation seems to have moved from ‘can we?’ to ‘should we?’

If you think about it, this is totally rational. In an environment where budgets are being reduced and brand teams are being asked to achieve more for less, there isn’t really room for experimentation. When you’re under pressure, you tend to stick to what you know is going to work.

As a result, potential activities are considered in terms of comparative value – what’s the ROI of social activities vs. all my other potential tactics, and why should I put budget against a relatively high risk return?

A question of Syrum: Big “I”, so what’s the “R”?

I think part of the reason that Boehringer’s Syrum game attracted so much recent attention is that it appears to be at odds with this school of thought.

Obviously the level of investment in Syrum isn’t public, but given or not, it’s more an observation on the debate it sparked – which I think is indicative of the prevailing attitude towards social media (and experimental initiatives in general).

An alternative: Little “I”, don’t stress the “R”

So, in a climate where a big investment carries with it the expectation of a big return, and given the big red flag that Syrum appears to have raised above the heads of budget-holders, what should you be doing if you want to get the go ahead for ‘riskier’ digital marketing activities?

What we’re finding works for our clients is what you could refer to as ‘ROi’. Yes, that’s ROI with a little ‘i’. If you make the investment small, then people won’t worry as much about the return. Basically a pilot approach.

This has a number of benefits:

  • Although you should always look to build pilots around brand or business objectives, because the ‘i’ is small there’s less pressure to deliver value to the bottom line (and questions like ‘why did you spend budget here rather than elsewhere?’ are a lot easier to answer).
  • You still get the hard-to-quantify value around ‘experience in social media/app development/gamification’, albeit at a lower cost, and depending on the nature of the project you can also get genuine customer insight data (although the volume will be smaller).
  • You can start small then build up. This allows you to demonstrate the value of a particular initiative incrementally, at a small scale and a low risk (or if it doesn’t work, cut your losses quickly).
  • Approaching an initiative or programme in this way effectively breaks it up into more manageable chunks. This means that at each stage processes are less complex, technical issues are less likely and legal will be less inclined to freak out.

As a departing thought, it’s worth pointing out that you could assume that the industry’s increased emphasis on ROI is purely a function of financial pressure, however I think a more positive interpretation would be that it’s a sign of pharma’s maturing attitude towards social media and other shiny marketing objects.

Rather than gazing longingly at less regulated industries’ freewheeling approach, we’re now starting to ask the right questions. So well done. Now, back to Powerpoint.

This post was written for Blue Latitude by Marketing Coach and Pitch Guru Mark Walmsley

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