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First, a provocative thought, just to get you in the mood:

Right?

Anyway, last week, I attended the 6th annual Digital Pharma East conference, put on by the fine folks at ExLPharma.

I think I’ve been to all of them – maybe I missed one? – but it’s pretty interesting to reflect back on what the event looked like a few short years ago. In the earliest years, I decided to live-blog the event, which was unheard-of in the industry. Would my laptop and I get arrested for real-time pharma updates?? Now, just about everyone has a tablet or laptop, and we’re increasingly living this digitally-connected reality that once we were only talking about.

Refreshingly, we finally seem to be past yammering over our Phase 1 Problems (P1P) – whether or not we even should participate in social media; what to do about off-label discussions; can (or should) we even be on Twitter; etc. This year, discussions were more focused on practical doing, and less on regulatory hand-wringing. That’s refreshing.

The event was attended by over 600+ folks – a pretty stellar attendance number – and it ran over 4 days. The first day was pre-event workshops; the next 2 days were the main event; and Thursday was Mobile Day. Chairing the event were two pharma digital veterans, Batman and Robin Shwen Gwee and Marc Monseau (each formerly worked inside pharma companies, both now on the agency side).

I like to give high-level summaries of events like this, so here is my string of thoughts and observations:

1. Digital Pharma East was well-planned and well-run. Bryon, Jayson, Jason, Warren, and the whole team did a solid job organizing, and were constantly circulating to make sure things stayed on track. Kudos to the ExL Pharma group.

Random thought: good food really does help the mood at an event.

2. The exhibit hall was packed with some pretty interesting vendor/providers – and I’m pleased to observe that we’re finally beginning to move from first-generation iPad apps (the one-off approach) to more robust system-level platforms. I have some definite opinions about this, and for pharma/biotech/device companies who are looking to do a digital technology audit and roadmap, I can help you with recommendations (commercial plug for my client-vendor matchmaking service).

Random thought: Having the meals and social events in the exhibit hall is smart. Also, if you’re going to give out water bottles, make really cool ones, like Klick Health did! —>

3. The social media backchannel (Twitter) was quite active during the entire event, with good participation from folks who were not physically present. However, live audience participation was somewhat muted, and this is a matter of concern – part of it, I suspect, was due to the lighting (audience in darkness), but also, we’re simply not effectively incorporating audience interaction strategies. Passive listening joined to a few minutes of Q&A at the end of a talk is so 2005. We need to do better here.

Random thought: Do not put unreadable type on your slides and expect the audience to be OK with it. That transgression lights up the Twitterstream!

4. Sometimes panel discussions can be a bore, but we did have some good ones. Tuesday’s Driving Innovation panel, led by Paul Ivans joined by Peter Justason (Purdue), Joan Mikardos (Sanofi), Melissa Bojorquez (B-I), Joyce Ercolino (CSL Behring), Alison Woo (BMS), and Patricia Choumitsky (UCB) was lively and informative.

Random thought: Along with industry expertise, it’s always nice to have a sprinkling of speakers from outside the industry at any event. New perspectives are generally quite helpful!

5. For me, and I believe for many attendees, the two most striking talks were back-to-back on Wednesday – Sinan Aral took us to school on the topic of Social Networks, Viral Hype and Big Data – Distinguishing Hope from Hype with Science. This was followed by the personable and entertaining James Musick of Genentech with a session on Social Engagement & Brands, talking about a unique digital/social experiment they did exposing people to genetics. Great stuff.

Random thought: It’s always a good idea to have some presenters who know how to have a bit of fun, especially if accompanied with an accent – like John Pugh of Boehringer!

6. Mobile Day was a reinforcement of a message that still seems to be very slowly sinking in – mobile is the new normal, and we are woefully behind as an industry even in the most basic stuff like having mobile-ready public-facing websites. This is truly the low-hanging fruit for digital development in pharma. We had sessions underscoring the tensions between centralized site development (to deal with multiple mobile platforms) vs. platform-specific creativity, and the main message here is that all of these details are still quite in flux. But mobile/smartphones/tablets are going to predominate, and it was refreshing to hear at least one speaker advocate for the approach of developing for mobile FIRST, then worrying about a “desktop” version. In my opinion, that’s the only approach that makes any sense if we understand current trends correctly.

Random thought: Presenting to doctors via iPad is not necessarily intuitive – training is necessary (this is also true of facilitating virtual classrooms, etc. – don’t assume that the same skills carry over!)

7. I did lead one magical session/discussion on The Future of Digital/Social/Pharma/Life, encouraging people to skate to where the puck is going when it comes to our new world of People (24/7 human connectivity), Pockets (mobile), and Pipes (data streams from devices and information stores). I think that many are still not aware that networks of things, information, and people are rapidly converging; and that forces of disintermediation/new-intermediation are changing our culture wholesale in ways that will totally re-shape business.

Random thought: Photoshop can make any presenter into a plasma-tossing superhero!

Reconnecting with old long-standing friends (like Wendy Blackburn, Kerri Sparling, John Mack (OK, he’s old), Chris Truelove, Zoe Dunn, Carly Kuper, and Jay Bryant is always a highlight of this conference; as is the opportunity to make new connections. I always look forward to this event and may even venture out to the West Coast next year for Digital Pharma West. Philadelphia is OK and all, but San Francisco + Digital stuff? C’mon…

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If you’ve followed my writing and speaking over the years, you know I’ve been a big proponent of social media as a vehicle for communications, network-building, and new business approaches. And I absolutely believe – more than ever – in the power and utility of digital networked communications

I was among the first in the pharma universe to begin blogging and tweeting pharma/healthcare topics. The first time I used Twitter at an industry conference, I wondered if I might be discovered and tossed out!

In fact, I even put together the first published list of pharma folks and companies active in social media – which, at the time, was a pretty small group! That number has since grown considerably, which is a very good thing.

As the industry has evolved, however, I can’t help but ask the question – is it time to give up on the idea of commercial prescription pharma interactively participating in the open, public social media space using current platforms? (please note the careful choice of words before having a knee-jerk reaction).

I’m not giving an answer – I’m asking a question. Here are the streams of thought feeding into this inquiry:

1. The FDA has shown zero readiness to give guidance about the use of on-line media in pharma communications. They are ready, however, to send warning letters about perceived violations in an ad-hoc fashion. This seriously inhibits pharma companies from getting involved. Regulatory fear does not go along well with open, public discussion.

2. The nature of current social media approaches and tools demands real-time interactive response and dialogue, out in the wilds of digital space. Pharma does not and cannot communicate that way.

  • Facebook demands interactivity and informal 2-way communication. Pharma companies are forced to come up with all kinds of work-arounds to make Facebook something other than it is, in order to participate. It’s like trying to enter a canoe into a speedboat race.
  • Twitter demands short bursts of communication. Pharma communications (prescription brands) demand fair balance, context, long explanation, disclaimers, and all kinds of monitoring/reporting. Would a congressman reading a speech from a teleprompter fit nicely at a cocktail party?
  • LinkedIn is all about the individual professional. Nice platform for recruiting, even in pharma. But my experience with pharma folks (I have years of it) on LinkedIn is that interactivity is almost nil. Pharma professionals live and work in an atmosphere of non-openness. You can sow seed on a gravel driveway, but don’t expect much of a harvest.
  • YouTube is one place where pharma companies can participate on a social platform, as long as you strip it down to, essentially, one-way broadcast and storytelling. It’s not social, but it is media.

3. Pharma companies tend to rotate commercial professionals (sales, training, marketing, etc.) through their job roles every 1-3 years. This means a constant default to short-term thinking. However, successful involvement in public social platforms demands long-term commitment and readiness to innovate. As soon as a little bit of expertise begins to accumulate, it’s time to move on to the next rung up the ladder (personally, I think that this, and the bondage of short-term quarterly profit reporting, are the two biggest hidden killers of pharma companies making true inroads in social networking).

4. Social media is moving rapidly to point-to-point on-demand mobile communications (including real-time UGC of all sorts, location data, commerce, and fragmented data streams). Pharma is all about centralized, one-way, controlled communications. Black, meet white.

We could go on, but the point is this: Public, interactive, real-time social media platforms and commercial pharma communications simply don’t mesh well. At all. And I don’t see that changing any time soon. Stuff you can easily say about other industries really isn’t going to translate well to pharma (as much as I like Chris Brogan, he’s out of his league on this post).

Is that a death knell for social media usage across all areas of pharma? Not at all. Non-branded communications can occur on existing public platforms, albeit often with a good dose of restrictions and care. Non-public networks (private communities) are a fruitful area of valuable involvement. Private, internal social networks (Yammer and the like) are potentially hugely useful apps for digital networked communications. One-way storytelling, while not fully social, can still add value, even in the public sphere (if done very carefully). Mobile apps that provide information or services are great – though again, they are using social-ish platforms in a less-than-fully-social fashion.

Also, the maturation of a platform like Google Plus could lead to more controlled communications to distinct, defined groups – and that is where the future could well be brighter.

Commercial, prescription pharma communications happen within thickly-walled gardens. The open, public social web is anything but that – and it’s not going to change for the pharma industry. Current platforms make it very difficult to marry the two. The future may well lie in walled social gardens, but existing approaches are still maturing through the wild west stage. Maybe we should expend less concern about “getting on Facebook” or Twitter, and architecting a social strategy that fits the industry – rather than trying to fit this square industry peg into a round, shape-shifting hole.

What do you think? Agree or disagree? Add your comment!

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For years, I’ve advocated that healthcare companies gain a clear picture of the opportunities (and potential problems) presented by social networks. It’s a somewhat complicated and very fast-moving world – how does a pharmaceutical company, or a healthcare agency, get started on the right foot?

Here are three key perspectives. Start here!

1. Start small, but with a strategic, long-term plan. Don’t be “that guy”!

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2. Don’t treat social media as its own topic. It is part of a holistic business strategy.

Social Media is not a Strategy

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3. Realize that you’re not dealing with an isolated trend, or a marketing fad. Digitally-fueled networked communications is The New Normal.

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There are many particulars to learn about how social networks are impacting the healthcare space, but the most important thing you can possibly do is begin with the correct perspectives. When you understand how and why the landscape is being re-shaped by networked communications, then all the details about tools and platforms begin to line up.

One perspective to bear in mind – the usage of social networks is exploding. Check out this real-time updating table to see! And – what percentage of pharma professionals use/plan to use social media in 2011? Answer here.

Of course, everyone is (or should be) interested in current examples of how social media is used in healthcare. The absolute best resource for this is at Jonathan Richman’s Dose of Digital blog – the Pharma and Healthcare Social Media Wiki. Explore!

Roche is a leader in articulating and publishing common sense social media guidelines for its employees.

PLUS – here are some blog posts providing helpful analysis:

Social Media is NOT for Advertising Pharma Brands – Jon Richman

The Beginner’s Guide to Pharma Social Media – Jon Richman

10 Things I’d Like to Start Hearing about Pharma Social Media – Jon Richman

The Rise of the ePatient – Steve Woodruff

But Are We Communicating? – Steve Woodruff

Oh – and about those reportable adverse events

Want more? OK – Just scroll through my Impactiviti SocialRx page.

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This week, I enjoyed the opportunity to gather with a large number of professional colleagues at eXL Pharma’s 4th Annual Digital Pharma East conference.

I’ve attended this conference 3 or 4 times and it gets better every year. This year was no exception. The eXL team (Bryon Main, Jason Youner, Jayson Mercado, and others) did a great job organizing a multi-faceted event that contained far more variety than most of the ePharma conferences I’ve attended.

Instead of giving a recap of content (ably being done by several others – here, here, here, here, here, here, and including this very cool video essay by DoctorAnonymous, Mike Sevilla!), I’m going to list out some of my high-level impressions and perspectives as a veteran conference correspondent and industry networker.

1. It was great to have participation from savvy ePatients and ePhysicians. I can’t underscore enough how much it matters for pharma professionals to be exposed to “customers” on the ground, especially those emerging into thought leadership. Not only did I get to renew ties (and meet for the first time) some of my ePatient friends, but I was also privilege to have long discussions with Mike Sevilla (DoctorAnonymous online) and Bryan Vartabedian (Doctor_V online). Bryan ably served as co-host along with Shwen Gwee, the social media guru at Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

2. Mobile is huge. And getting huger. If you’re not thinking about the intersection of communications and mobile devices, then you’re trying to make a faster horse-and-buggy while cars whiz by.

3. We’re finally moving past the first few years of very limited social media case studies into a variety of interesting approaches and efforts. Frankly, the ePharma conference circuit was getting a bit wearisome as industry struggled with the very basics, but now the on-line efforts are maturing, and increasingly being tied into off-line (integrated) efforts (Applause from audience). The best part is that these efforts will only increase in number and creativity.

4. Including speakers who are not embedded in the industry is very smart. We enjoyed hearing from Doc Searls (one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto), Bob Garfield (Advertising Age columnist), and futurist Ian Morrison. Getting high-level perspectives about cultural and technological trends definitely stirs up more creative thinking and discussion. As we all know, pharma can be very insular, and we need fresh infusions from the outside to keep us from being boxed in by our own self-made ruts.

5. There is no substitute for face-to-face networking. Attaching names to faces to feelings to ideas to potential collaboration…you cannot replace human networking with technology. This came up several times in talks as well, about the potential for pharma to be overly enamored with e-solutions such that human contact with physicians gets lost. And for me, it was a welcome chance to rub shoulders with old and new friends like Shwen Gwee (credit for photo above), John Mack, Eileen O’Brien, Gilles Frydman, Phil Baumann, Daphne Swancutt, Bruce Grant, Faruk Capan, Jess Seilheimer, Mike Myers, Ellen Hoenig, Jeff Greene, Len Starnes, Christiane Truelove, Cheryl Ann Borne, Hannah McDonald, Allison Blass, Mark Senak, Gigi Peterkin, DJ Edgerton, Cynthia North, Zoe Dunn, Kelly Dane, Chris Campbell, Quang Pham, Lance Hill, Carly Kuper, Alex Butler (who, for being an industry pioneer, won the Hawaiian shirt off of John Mack’s back!) and many others – these are the people that are shaping the future of pharma digital. And many have become good friends, both on- and off-line!

6. Having tracks and unconference sessions is a really good idea. The problem, of course, with tracks is that you want to be in more than one session at a time – but I think it’s great for drawing a more diverse set of attendees, and open discussions during unconference sessions can be very lively and invigorating (note: successful unconference sessions rely on a skillful moderator who knows how to draw others out, and at least a few people who don’t mind sharing opinions and being a bit provocative!)

Three years ago, live-tweeting a pharma conference was brand new territory. Now it’s becoming common practice. If you want dig deeper into the content, quotes, impressions, and resources shared, do a Twitter search under the hashtag #digpharm. This is also a great way to discover some of the most active folks involved in pharma social networking.

There is much more that could be said, but I can’t close without thanking the many sponsors who helped make the event possible, especially PixelsandPills, HealthCentral, and HealthEd, who sponsored social events in the evening.

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If you already know what a TweetChat is, just skip the next paragraph. If, on the other hand, you think I’ve just caught a strange disease, read on.

A TweetChat is a block of time – usually an hour – set aside for anyone on Twitter to “chat” about a specific topic. Usually there is one designated leader, and a specific pre-announced topic. Each tweet is appended with what we call in the Twitter universe a #hashtag, so that people can follow that stream of discussion separate from everything else going on in Twitter. It’s like a big, on-line cocktail party conversation. With me so far?

OK, so on Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 12 noon ET, there will be a chat about Pharma+Social Media, hosted by yours truly, Steve Woodruff, obscure-and-probably-best-left-that-way pharma social media progenitor. Hashtag: #SM78. People from the whole spectrum of interests participate in the @SocialMedia chats, so this is a good opportunity for my pharma Twitter compadres to help educate others about our industry.

To follow along (and participate!), you can go here: http://hashtagsocialmedia.com/live

or here: http://tweetchat.com/room/sm78

starting at 11:55 am or so. Warning – if you’ve not done one of these chats before, the pace of information flow will get your blood pumping!

Now, as a special treat, a couple items to prime your discussion pump. First, if you’re not in the pharma marketplace (or other regulated industry), this helpful blog post by Abby Carr sketches out some of the challenges we all face.

Secondly this little video I created takes a more fun approach to the upside-down world of pharma social media (warning: if you are sipping coffee, you might snort it out your nose – just saying…):

Thanks to Marc Meyer and Jason Breed for inviting me to lead this chat (this is #78 in their #socialmedia chat series!)

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How does the use of Social Media fit into a highly regulated industry like pharmaceuticals/healthcare?

With difficulty. At least initially. And trying to convince others often leads to plenty of resistance.

So here’s my advice: Don’t start with social media. Start with the much bigger trends, which are making social media inevitable.

It’s all outlined here: Pharma and Social Media – What’s the New Normal? This Slideshare explains that technology-fueled Trend Currents (not current trends!) are shaping society in such a way that the use of social media/networked communications is inexorable – and inevitable.

Social Media (or, as I prefer to more accurately call it, “Networked Communications”) is not some add-on to a marketing strategy. It is a pervasive fact of life, and these digitally-fueled forms of connecting people and information will continue to accelerate and impact how we do business.

If you are seeking to grow awareness in your company about Social Media and the pharma/biotech industry, Impactiviti provides specialized consulting services, as well as workshops for executives, marketers, and innovators to help fuel the business discussion.

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