Happy 25th birthday WWW! Is pharma missing out on the digital age?

Science, Technology 2014-03-14

There’s no doubt that the introduction of the world wide web was revolutionary, and one of mankind’s greatest inventions, so to celebrate the internet’s milestone birthday, we’re taking a look back in time to think about how the pharmaceutical industry has changed in the last quarter of a century, the impact of the digital age, and the potential for the future.

Like most industries, the pharmaceutical industry has transformed massively in the last 25 years. Although innovative and forward-thinking, pharma has fallen behind other industries in terms of visuals and marketing messaging online, including corporate websites, blogs and social media.

It is widely noted that whilst pharma has started to embrace social media at varying levels, the industry is still behind. In an IMS report in January this year, it was estimated that nearly half of pharmaceutical companies are using social media, with regulatory risk often considered to be one of the biggest hurdles (Source: IMS).

In the 1980s, pharma was faced with new safety and environmental regulations, and today, pharma still remains one of the most regulated markets. It is also an industry that has found itself in webs of scrutiny and controversy over the years. These pressures and concerns, along with laws on drug marketing that vary by territory and the need to protect IP and knowledge, make the cautious approach to social media and online knowledge sharing understandable.

In the 1990s, big pharma enjoyed huge sales and profits, until patents began to expire, and the generic ‘me-toos’ began to flood the market. Pharma companies had to evolve fast to survive in a more competitive market and with reduced revenues, costs had to be slashed. The R&D departments in big pharma began to shrink, and drug discovery had to become much more savvy.

With these cost pressures on pharma companies, the industry needs to adopt information technology that will help streamline processes to save costs. For example, in a recent report ‘Riding the information technology in life sciences: priorities, pitfalls and promise’ the authors encourage the pharma world to embrace the benefits – including huge cost-savings – of cloud-based technology that has been widely adopted by many other innovative industries, once security and safety is deemed suitable (source: Pharmafile).

The race to market, and the complexity of pharma research, discovery and development led to a great boom in outsourcing of contract research, development and manufacturing to contract research organisations (CROs), contract manufacturing organisations (CMOs), contract development and manufacturing organisations (CDMOs) etc.

In more recent years, strategic relationships and long-term partnerships have become more popular, and knowledge sharing is becoming more apparent. It’s hoped that this strategic change will help pave the way for a more open, trusting and conversational online presence.

Within the industry, blogging, Twitter and Facebook are considered core social media activities (source: PMLive). Reviewing the top 3 social media channels – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – Johnson and Johnson have ranked #1 in pharma in terms of reach across the platforms (source: Forbes).

Although the pharma industry is known for its late adoption of the latest online technologies, the industry is discovering, innovating and saving people’s lives every day.

The lack of online presence or dominance in many areas of pharma allows certain companies now to take control of the online space and find a voice in a tough, competitive, market environment. Companies need to create an online personality that reflects their company values and their technological capabilities. Those that don’t are already finding themselves left behind.