In November 2009, the FDA held hearings to discuss how companies involved with regulated products should use social media. The meetings were effective in getting the dialogue started, but it became clear that social media communication guidelines would not be made available for some time. This outcome has led many to mistakenly believe that social media is stalled for the entire industry, when in fact, many opportunities exist for companies in both nonregulated and regulated industries.
What is social media (also referred to more broadly as “new media”)?
Since the Internet’s inception, websites have continually evolved, becoming dynamic, interactive applications that allow users to exchange information with anyone in the world—be it friends, colleagues, or even companies. Unless you’ve been living in a cave over the last few years, you’ve likely heard about Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other applications. When used correctly, companies can leverage social media to build relationships for marketing, business development, and corporate/investor relations.
How is this relevant for biotech and life science?
At the core of our industry lies a wealth of information that must be shared and utilized to better understand the science behind our business and to use it to make greater progress. I encourage you to think beyond the tools such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter and to embrace a new way of thinking about how we communicate and gather information. There are so many ways our industry can benefit from using new media now.
Life Science. Companies that sell nonFDA-regulated products have no government-imposed restrictions for utilizing social media. I have talked to many life science companies that are beginning to see the value in using tools such as blogs, Twitter, and Facebook to reach out to customers. A wide range of life science companies are utilizing social media. While many are just getting started, my conversations with those who are implementing campaigns show that they are impressed with the results they have seen so far.
Sigma Life Science launched a campaign called “Where Bio Begins”, which utilized a coordinated social media blitz including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and a blog. The company’s identity was kept secret at first, leading to natural curiosity and interest. The campaign attracted around 3,000 followers, fans, and viewers in a few months and is still growing.
To be clear, my company Comprendia did some consulting for Sigma during the project, but the idea was conceived by Sigma’s Research Biotech’s eBusiness team.
“Communication tools such as blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook are a key part of our web initiative,” explained Sigma’s president David Smoller, Ph.D. “They allow us to connect directly with scientists and develop better products that truly facilitate their research.”
Dr. Smoller hits the nail on the head in describing the benefits for life science companies in employing social media. They strengthen their brand by developing stronger relationships with their customers and gaining more feedback from them, as more lines of dialogue are opened.
The rules of new media mean less broadcasting (e.g., traditional advertisements) and more engagement. Perhaps I am biased, as I am a strong proponent of social media, but I feel as though life science companies that don’t engage in social media run the risk of spending more marketing dollars for less effect, and at the same time becoming more out of touch with customer needs.
Small Companies. The great news with new media is that smaller companies can do more. Previously, only companies with large advertising budgets could get exposure through print ads in life science publications. Today, a small company with a great product can build an engaging, content-rich website and be found by search engines, sparking a lot of interest in so-called “inbound marketing,” where emphasis is placed on leading visitors to a company’s website.
Comprendia created the San Diego Biotechnology Network (SDBN) using a small budget, while leveraging social media in combination with face-to-face events. Membership has grown to 3,500 professionals. SDBN is a community dedicated to improving communication in the local industry.
In the same fashion, small companies can create a buzz and/or extend their reach with a small budget. Social media tools allow creative small companies to carve a niche and to leverage the web and applications such as LinkedIn to grow their business.
A great example of a relatively small company making the most out of its web presence using social media is MO BIO Laboratories, which provides products for nucleic acid isolation.
Social media’s casual tone is natural for MO BIO Labs, which was founded by two surfers in 1993 who are serious about their science. The company is lucky because the blog is aptly written by director of research and development Suzanne Kennedy, who understands how to communicate with scientists. Because of her talents, the blog content is targeted, relevant to MO BIO Labs’ products, and does not market to scientists—it engages them.
Small companies can also leverage third-party social media applications outside of their websites. LinkedIn is a great tool for small companies, as individuals can develop a large personal network or create groups based on their company’s offering. When used correctly, LinkedIn can be a great source to generate leads. The information stored in LinkedIn, from user and company information to the way it connects professionals, has enormous potential to enable small companies, and the industry, to grow.
Social Media Monitoring. Web content about life science, biotechnology, and pharmaceutical companies is becoming more user-generated because scientists and consumers can now easily share and discuss news and opinions openly.
All companies, regardless of whether they are regulated, can benefit from monitoring the sentiment about their company and products. From free tools such as Google Alerts, to myriad specialized tools, companies can gain useful feedback from customers that they can respond to or use for product development.
Of course, larger brands such as pharmaceutical companies will find much more information as their customer base is significantly broader. I’m sure that many marketing professionals in pharma companies are closely tracking social media sentiment about their products and brands, even though they might not yet have the regulatory guidance to take external actions.
In summary, there are many ways in which social media is relevant to our industry now, and all evidence points to it gaining traction. I see it as a natural progression from the ways scientific companies have communicated with customers for decades. How different is a blog from a useful newsletter, or answering questions on Twitter from customer service calls? The biggest barriers I see are in companies that view social media as being strange, new, and risky, rather than embracing it as a powerful and essential tool.