It happened again. We were invited to meet with what we thought was a forward-thinking life science company to discuss social media and digital marketing. They seemed to have done their homework about what we do, but we were soon barraged with questions about the utility of social media for life science marketing. When talking to many life science companies about marketing, especially those in the tools space, sometimes we feel as though we’re trying to sell them Marty McFly’s futuristic hoverboard from the movie Back to the Future Part II. However, it is 2015, the year in which the movie took place, and such “futuristic” technologies should be as commonplace as video calls, another prediction from the 1989 movie. Why are life science companies so behind on incorporating these marketing strategies? Here we outline some changes that we feel need to happen before life science marketers will adapt to using social media.
- More acceptance from scientists. My esteemed colleague Hamid Ghanadan, who is always blazing trails for life science marketing at The Linus Group, said to me once “life science companies will start using social media once their customers, research scientists, do.” In that statement, he expertly distilled one of the biggest obstacles we face in utilizing social media. Life science companies are not convinced that their customers are using social media, so they believe efforts there are fruitless. I would extend Hamid’s insightful observation to say that the problem extends to the ways researchers are incentivized to participate in social media. Currently, the incentives are either nonexistent or negative, as researchers can be led to believe that they’ll be “scooped” if they share their data online. However, we’ve seen some developments which portend a change in this perception both due to the current funding crises and some high profile attention to the problem of scientists communicating in general. Hopefully, a silver lining of this current dark cloud of decreased funding and support will be that more scientists will embrace social media. We have seen an uptick in some activities, such as the number of Twitter status updates shared at conferences (which we noted in 2012, and adoption continues to grow). I would also argue that life science companies could lead the way instead of waiting, showing the utility of social media in many different ways (perhaps a follow up post).
- Success in the industry. We are often asked to give examples of life science tools companies who have succeeded with social media. We normally point to companies such as Life Technologies (see this clever conference campaign incorporating Twitter hashtags) and IDT DNA (see their use of Pinterest), but the truth is that the number of examples is exceedingly small. We need a really successful campaign or a game changing strategy, as we see in other industries. We also wish companies would realize that by making a splash in social media, that they could be the example that we and others share for years to come.
- Adoption by related industries. The main impetus for writing this post came this week as DNA testing giant 23andMe announced several collaborations with pharmaceutical companies. If you followed the news closely, you saw that with at least one collaboration, they’ve also announced leveraging their new research portal to study disease. Most biotech and pharma companies, understandably, focus their social media efforts on their customers, the general public. In addition, these marketers are limited by FDA guidelines (or lack thereof) which stunts progress and leads to fewer good examples to share. This shift by 23andMe and their pharma partners, which gets researchers involved, may represent a sea change in how life science tools companies view social media. 23andMe previewed their research portal at the American Society for Human Genetics 2014 meeting in San Diego, and anyone can create an account and look around. When researchers can log in, and benefit from the big data created by social engagement, we’ll hopefully start seeing #1 of this list come to fruition.
- Exceedingly small returns with traditional marketing. Time and time again we hear life science marketers complain about returns on staid trade show exhibits and other supposedly tried and true marketing strategies and tactics. The world has changed. Exhibit halls were invented before the internet, scientists can now see all of a company’s new products from the comfort of their lab, obviating the need to visit a trade show exhibit. I’m not saying we should abolish them, as face to face interactions are still very important, but we should enhance them. Much like the 3D shark interacted with Marty McFly in Back to the Future Part II, we can use technology to engage and even delight (but not terrify) them. We can only hope (?) that continued disappointment with the status quo, as well as information and examples that we can provide, will effect change.
- Rebranding and rethinking social media. As we pointed out first in 2009, social media is really just a new flavor of an engagement strategy that life science companies have been using for a very long time. We see that life science marketers have an easier time relating to content marketing, as opposed to social media marketing. Hey, we’ll take acceptance of the concepts however they’ll come! Sometimes, we only bring up later that a solid social media strategy is key to successful content marketing.
We are hoping that these changes are indeed taking place, and the 23andMe announcements this week are indeed a very exciting development. A very interesting corollary to this post is that the self-tying Nike shoes, also predicted in Back To The Future Part II, have been prototyped and used to raise money for Parkinson’s disease through the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Michael J. Fox was diagnosed Parkinson’s disease in 1991, only 2 years after he starred as Marty McFly in Back To The Future Part II. Indeed, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, with its patient and researcher-focused mission to cure Parkinson’s Disease, founded in 2000, was clearly a look at how the future of biomedical research may be funded. It’s no accident that Parkinson’s Disease is one of the top 23andMe research initiatives. Marty, er, Michael, we’ll follow you on your hoverboard into the future, any time!