Pharma’s Opportunity for Innovative Product Design: Social Media

lwarburt    October 19, 2015

Title: Pharma’s Opportunity for Innovative Product Design: Social Media

Industry: Pharmaceuticals

Name of Contacts: Peter Carr; PhD, Dept of Management Sciences, University of Waterloo, Ray Chepesiuk; Commissioner of the Pharmaceutical Advertising Advisory Board

Web References: Wikepedia,  Eye for Pharma, UCB, YouTube, MyHealthTeams, CMS Wire, Bloomberg Business , mPedrigree Network, Social Media for Business Performance, Facebook,

The pharmaceutical industry has an opportunity for innovative product design during this exciting digital transformation time, particularly due to the internet introduction of social media.


In a recent telephone discussion with Ray Chepesiuk, Commissioner of the Pharmaceutical Advertising Advisory Board (PAAB), Mr Chepesiuk eloquently and matter of fact stated: the utilization of social media is quite simply another form of  marketing”

If you missed last weeks blog containing video of Ray Chepesiuk, you can find it here:  A New Frontier: Customer Engagement in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Being fairly marketing naive, I was not completely in agreement with Mr. Chepesiuk statement. I had personal need for a more thorough understanding of “marketing ” before continuing this blog topic. I will slightly digress and touch on the possible public perception of  “marketing” and interestingly enough my perception before I spoke with Mr. Chepesiuk.  In a small experiment, I posted the following question on my FB page: What is marketing ?  Below are some responses to this question.


The results of my small social media experiment demonstrates that marketing is most often thought of in the realm of ” push” to the consumer, sell to the buyer and promote, promote.

However, as I have learned, in reality marketing can and should encompass ongoing research and development to fulfil specific needs. This unscientific, yet useful snipet of information  is an example of using social media for creating an innovative product: this blog  minus the pharma component.

With the availability of social media and its various platforms, marketing in the 21st century allows us to take an step beyond the “pushing” of content and utilize technology and social media, for benefit, at various production stages. In a holistic model of marketing the pharmaceutical industry has a grand opportunity to integrate social media into research/development of new/ repurposed products that the consumer, patient, caregiver, health care professional, unwittingly or not, uncovers as an unmet need.

Perhaps the most obvious question is why should the pharmaceutical industry employ social media strategies to enhance product design? Quite simply for the same reasons other industry companies do.

In a Kalypso White Paper by Amy Kenly & Bill Poston titled Social Media and Product Innovation: Early Adopters Reaping Benefits amidst Challenge and Uncertainty

  • 46 percent of companies indicated that they have gained more new product ideas or requirements from the use of social media in product innovation
  • 43 percent of companies have benefited from better new product ideas or requirements.
  • Additional benefits were faster time to market, faster product adoption and lower product development costs.


Further to these commercial reasons pharma is in a unique position to provide strong leadership and partnership by positivity influencing socio-economic health outcomes and the overall  betterment of society. The topic of forming healthcare partnerships beyond the molecular creation of a pill, is a interesting discussion and debate currently occurring  within the industry and is perhaps another blog topic in the future.

For the purpose of this blog I will touch on 3 distinct areas in which pharma can and has been utilizing social media in respect to innovative product design:

  • Recruitment of participants for drug trials
  • Uncovering auxillary resource needs which enhance product design
  • Consumer protection

1. Recruitment of participants for drug trials 

In the early stages of research and development pharma can utilize social media to recruit participants for drug trial studies.

The possibilities of social media’s offering is endless, as the digital world connects millions of individuals. It is an active database of information and insight well beyond any other at any time in history. Prior to the availability of social media, companies recruited through more traditional costly and time consuming avenues. Today social media platforms can provide companies with a large database of potentially qualified participants worldwide and do so in a timely manner.

“A number of recent studies have pointed to the rising complexity and costs of clinical trials.  On average, study timelines have to be doubled in order to meet enrolment levels across all therapeutic areas and 37% of all research sites typically under-enroll patients. -eyeforpharma

The use of social media in this context can ensure appropriate participants are enrolled in a timely manner and that specific secondary ends points of the study can be clearly set or tweaked at the onset dependant on the study pool.

 Enrolment accounts for up to 40% of total US clinical research budgets; accordingly, finding ways to reduce such delays has become a hot topic. Pharma companies suggest lost sales revenue attributable to each month’s delay in clinical trials can reach $40m.” -eyeforpharma

The costs associated are not just those of the individual company, but should be recognized as an overall healthcare cost. The efficiencies through the utilizing social media increases the ability of the industry to bring more affordable drug(s) to market and continue to invest Rx&D  in other molecules. The use of social media in this context can assist in ensuring new, innovative medicines for the future and more affordable ones today.

An interesting area of clinical trial recruitment is the independent outsourcing of this service. These companies utilize digital outreach platforms to recruit participants for clinical trials. One such company is  MyHealthTeams an independent, venture-capital backed startup. The platforms operate similarly to Facebook for people with a specific chronic condition and the actual engagement is driven by the users.

Dr Javier Zambrano of Biogen Idec, (global biotechnology including drug discovery, research, development) has been working with the MyMSTeam platform as part of an outreach program to recruit participants for one of Biogen Idec’s  clinical trials.



2. Uncovering auxillary resource needs which enhance product design 


Greg Cohen, Associate Director of Global Strategic Marketing (Multichannel Engagement Lead) at UCB  shared on a recent webinar Eyeforpharma Webinar: Patient empowerment digital communication for improved outcomes, ( 31.33mins) a creative example of utilizing social media to both recruit for a marketing program and to uncover auxiliary resource needs for a particular product.

“Social media creates the biggest focus group in the world, significant because it captures actual behaviour rather than opinion. -eye for pharma

UCB  recruited via social media, patients, caregivers, developers and industry strategists and organized them to  attend a 2 day, 48 hour intensive on-site disease (epilepsy) related  hackathon. Several business objectives, mainly focussed on  “creation’ as opposed to ‘research gathering.” were set at the beginning of this 2 day intensive. One of which was to develop prototypes for projects (apps, websites, etc) that address key needs of patients as identified through pre-event research as well as during-event participation.  The information rich, relevant tools and learnings of the hackathon populate the Epilepsy Advocate community on Facebook . This community is only open to US residents.  Another digital social media resource is the E-Action :Taking action against Epilepsy, online community. Although an E-Action is a different project entirely the content, resources and tools are drawn from identified needs of patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals. This UCB creative and well executed project and outcome demonstrates the use of social media at the front end: recruitment and also use of social media in the uncovering and creating auxiliary resource needs for multiple stakeholders.


3.  Consumer Protection

The rise of counterfeit pharmaceuticals is an ever growing concern. World Health Organization (WHO) studies have shown  30 to 60 per cent of medicines in Africa alone are counterfeit or substandard.  On-line purchased pharmaceuticals have been shown to reveal that 50% are in fact counterfeit.  Alerts and bulletins from the WHO are released to the public, however ensuring the actual drug is authentic and the consumer aware and ultimately protected can still be a challenge.

The mPedigree Network, the global leader in the use of mobile and web technologies in securing products against faking, counterfeiting and diversion is providing product protection for business. government and consumers.

Peter Carr, PhD, Dept of Management Sciences,University of Waterloo who has been involved with social media in this sector of the pharmaceutical industry commented via email message  on the current challenges facing this sector:

“The politics in it are complex but are primarily who benefits and who should pay? Costs include the technology and infrastructure needed plus the promotion and administration,  including law enforcement. “

“The pharma’s have a lot to gain in increased sales because counterfeiters are reduced. Third world governments have other priorities and are also cautious about close collaboration with big pharma. Amongst the pharma’s – how much should each company pay? Further issues exist with the technology selection.”

Social media utilization in counterfeit drug problems is in its infancy and as technology expands, perhaps so will social media solutions that may overcome some of the inherent challenges Mr. Carr has mentioned.

Social media can provide exceptional opportunities for pharmaceutical companies boost  product innovation. However, few pharma companies have moved beyond the passive listening mode to include social media in the development of their products. Perhaps one reason is that the adoption of social media tools for consumer research is more challenging to illustrate a return on investment verses the traditional marketing model. Whatever the “slow to embrace” reason is, it can not be argued that the digital world of social media is here to stay and the pharmaceutical industry must jump into the 21st century to stay relevant or someone else will in their place.


Lessons for others:

  1. There are multiple opportunities in various stages of the product development where pharmaceutical companies can employ social media to assist in  developing innovative product design.
  2. The pharmaceutical industry, as a whole, has been timid to utilize social media in the context of product innovation.
  3. Those pharma companies that embrace product innovation through social media may secure faster to market, more affordable and relevant products which can positively affect their bottom line profits.


Submitted by: L Warburton, Student, Social Media for Business Performance, University of Waterloo

To contact the author of this entry please email to :

If you have any concerns as to the accuracy of anything posted on this site please send your concerns to: Peter Carr, Programme Director, Social Media for Business Performance, University of Waterloo.