a creative agency that takes care of healthcare brands
Dr Candice O’Sullivan
04 Oct, 2012

This is Part 2 of a five-part series exploring how Boehringer Ingelheim and its Director of Digital Communications, John Pugh, are leading the pharma industry’s shift into the digital space.

Like most large corporations, Boehringer began its foray into social media with fairly benign ‘corporate broadcasts’ on YouTube and Twitter. In 2010, Pugh launched the company’s Facebook page, which he now describes as ‘the centre’ of Boehringer’s social activities. The page currently engages around 20,000 people. In comparison, the company’s global Twitter handle has just over 12,000 followers while around 600 people subscribe to its YouTube channel.

These numbers are not huge by any means. Pugh, himself, described them as ‘pathetic’ in a recent online interview. As a point of reference, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, both Top 10 pharmaceutical companies, have around 60,000 ‘likes’ each – not what we’d really call huge either. The question, then, is what does a Facebook page or Twitter feed actually achieve for a pharma company?

In Boehringer’s case, its most successful disease awareness campaigns to date – Drive4COPD and One Mission One Million, each of which garnered over 2 million responses – owe a big part of their success to their ability to engage the general public via Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, the company has been recognised at award ceremonies the world over for the way it uses its social media presence to support customers in public. And this is what is so impressive about Boehringer’s approach. Industry rhetoric has dwelt for some time on how pharma companies need to evolve their business focus from ‘one disease, one drug’ to a more holistic management approach that puts patients’ broader lifestyles at the centre of its treatment models.

Social media supports this paradigm shift by bringing the patient voice into communications. Pugh and his team get this. At a recent eyeforpharma summit, Pugh said ‘we need to understand our customers [better] – digital can help us do that.’ He quickly followed up by describing Boehringer’s social media presence as a key and valued ‘customer service point’. The response of Boehringer’s German-led global Twitter handle to the daughter of a patient seeking affordable drug therapy in the US earlier this year is a case in point, an ‘event’ well documented and applauded by #socpharma followers.

When Boehringer isn’t using its Facebook page as a customer response tool, it’s trying to cultivate a site that people want to come back to. By using PSFK – a young, trends-led innovation-consulting firm with a publishing arm based out of New York – to aggregate interesting health-related stories, Boehringer has successfully broadened its Facebook content. It’s an inspired approach to content curation by a large corporation and has allowed Boehringer to evolve its Facebook page from just another broadcast corporate communications channel (a mistake continued by many of its peers) to a cutting-edge news source –– where the news isn’t just about them! The aptly named blog ‘The future just happened’ is a branding coup; not easily copied, very well owned.

The lessons are clear:

  1. When everybody else is doing the same thing the same way, try to find a different way of doing the same thing.
  2. Use your primary objective for using a medium as the litmus test for all your subsequent interactions. In Boehringer’s case, the company has used its social media presence to build a brand association with innovation and to better understand the customers it ultimately serves – patients.
  3. Don’t worry about numbers to start with. Let’s be honest, you don’t want huge numbers while you’re still learning and once you have found your feet, what defines social media success will differ from one sector to another. After all, we’re not all Coca Cola, aiming for 50 million ‘likes’.

Subscribe to our blog to receive each new post in the Boehringer series direct to your inbox. In the meantime, if you’re interested in understanding what social media strategies are achievable in the Australian pharma industry, join us at our next breakfast seminar featuring social media expert, Danny Phillips. Full details here.

By Candice O’Sullivan, Director and Head of Strategy at Wellmark. You can find Candice on Google+ at +Candice O’Sullivan.

Dr Candice O’Sullivan, Managing Director | Head of Strategy & Planning at Wellmark. You can follow Wellmark on Facebook @wellmarkcreative, LinkedIn @Wellmark_Pty_Ltd or Insta @wellmarkcreative.