I’m gonna stop the song and dance about social media and how pharma can use it, because we’re all struggling with a mostly unspoken issue.

As marketers, we want to be able to get our message into every channel we can: we know that it’s not the first commercial that causes people to buy, it’s the tenth (or twentieth or hundred, depending), so we know being in every channel increases the odds of hitting that magic number of impressions (yes, it’s not about sheer numbers. A clever message can cut the number of necessary exposures from a hundred to two. But that’s not the point here).

But good marketers know that in order to work, our message needs to abide by the rules of the channel. Not much value in a TV commercial without video, a billboard that’s only four inches tall, or a banner ad that doesn’t link to anything, right? These are the rules of the medium, and marketers can bend them some times, but otherwise, they have to respect them.

So what are the rules of social media? Simple: people connect to people. That’s what the Social in Social Media is referring to. You can make an emotional connection to a brand, yes, but you can’t really talk to a brand and get a response. Plenty of people have an emotional connection to the Apple or Google brand (or Lexus or Audi or Skullcandy or Twilight or Twitter or or or…) but though I love Twitter and what it stands for, I don’t expect the brand to have a conversation with me. I will never meet Twitter at a party. I will never run into Twitter walking its dog.

I can have a conversation with anyone on my friends list. I might see them at Starbucks. I can be social with them.

But since the world went social, marketers have followed, trying to bend the rules of social to work for brands. Old Spice Guy. The Most Interesting Man In The World. I, myself, once was @BuckyBadger for the University of Wisconsin. I could interact as a person pretending to be the brand, but its was very limiting.

Once, before the advent of good Twitter tools like HootSuite or TweetDeck, I accidentally porn-spammed a thousand people (porn owns every typo version of Facebook, fyi) and fixed it five minutes later. I made a joke about how hard it was to type with big fuzzy fingers. The joke was funny and no big deal, but should the brand be making jokes? Can Coke make a joke? No, the people behind it make jokes. So marketers have realized that the key to successful social media is to make it a person in charge of the brand presence. Give them the brand a persona and let it interact (FYI: Colonel Tribune is a great example of this).

Here’s where thinks get super difficult. Pharma brands can’t interact. They can’t talk about what’s off the label, they can’t put themselves in a position where someone might report an adverse effect and they don’t see it immediately. Pharma rules are very strict in this regard. They have to be, because we all know that without regulations, pharma would be involved in the process, tainting it with… something.

Here’s where I suggest a different approach. I suggest we all embrace the idea that we’re all in this together, that pharma has all the data on its product (or at least 95% of it) and it should share. In return, they get a seat at the table in talking about their product. Of course, they can’t claim it solves problems it doesn’t, but to treat them like they aren’t a player is ludicrous. We need pharma to be involved as much as pharma needs a regulatory agency to keep everyone honest. This means that pharma can brand and talk about their brand like Coke or Disney does. They can be on Facebook and be given the benefit of the doubt that they can interact with people on it without breaking rules. That a big link that says “please send adverse effects here and not on our Facebook wall” is enough. That they can misspeak so long as they fix accidents with all due diligence just like Honda or Home Depot. 

Making pharma transperant solves the social media problem, but it has other effects: it removes barriers between company and regulatory and customer. It fosters innovation. It builds smarter companies. If Google can, why can’t Pfizer (who have very similar market capitalization)? 

Lets focus less on building more walls and build more transparency in pharma.