Pharmaceutical companies don’t need to interact with customers. Why would they? Their sales reps chat with the doctors and pharmacies, who in turn act as their feet on the ground. It’s a system that makes sense and works.

The fact is that more than not needing to interact, they don’t want to. What if Brent, the company’s new social media officer, flicks out a sharp reply to a comment on Facebook which includes some terrifically bung advice?

Classic Brent.

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Generally when drug companies do talk direct to consumers, it’s particularly one-way. A billboard. An extremely subtle TV ad. They set alight the poo-filled bag of information, ring the doorbell, then run away and hide in a bush.

A snapshot of the 50 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world is thus: less than half of them dabble in social media, and only 10 of the 50 (according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics) use the triple-threat of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

These are basics of a 12-year-old’s online portfolio. It’s fairly incredible that in one of the most powerful industries in the world, only 1 in 5 companies care to hit such a low benchmark.

Pharmaceutical companies cite the lack of up-to-date and social media savvy regulation. They don’t know the boundaries of what’s okay and what’s not in this new online and social marketing world. There’s a small black hill, a small white hill, and a massive grey plain in between.

And history tells us that it’s not a required feature of a pharmaceutical marketing strategy. These companies didn’t get as huge, powerful and successful as they are by putting up pimp memes on social media. The direct-to-health-professional approach has worked since time immemorial. The direct-to-consumer model – getting patients to approach a doctor saying, “this drug looks tops!”, rather than the other way around – is a more risky approach, but has been shown to also work (doctors with 30 years’ experience who have patients who think they’re now more qualified after a 30 second TV commercial may disagree).

But social media? Nah.

The problem for them is no-one wants to be the first to unreservedly jump into social media’s possibly piranha-infested waters. With governing bodies such as the United States’ FDA not willing to lay down a concrete set of rules, and with Big Pharma fairly safe without this marketing, the risk versus reward see-saw seems far too skewed.

This hesitation has resulted in an opportunity for someone in the right circumstances, and with enough cojones, to capitalise on. And this someone comes in the form of everyone’s favourite baby powder provider, Johnson & Johnson.

Johnson & Johnson is the 6th biggest pharmaceutical company in the world. In the fiscal year of 2014, it was the only company in the top 6 to record any sort of growth, and this to the tune of 15% (just a cheeky $4.2 billion on the bottom line). The reasons, no doubt, are many and varied. But it can’t be ignored that J&J have a social media engagement score almost three times higher than the next best pharmaceutical company.

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The reason? They have a mix of general health products (baby powders, shampoos, Band-Aids) that allow them to less-riskily interact with the public, and enables them to gather a good following. From there, they can start to leverage this following with their pharmaceutical products, interspersing posts about wet wipes with PSA-style general health campaigns that ever-so-gently touch on their pharmaceutical options.

With 600,000 Johnson & Johnson fans on Facebook and the small matter of 10 million for Johnson’s Baby, J&J are streaking ahead of their rivals in the social media sphere. And unless other Big Pharma companies find a way to get involved, they could be left in the dust.

A few are dipping their toes. The world’s 3rd largest pharmaceutical company, Roche, recently produced Drawn to Science – a cute little YouTube series that explains some of the technology they use. But efforts like this do smack a little of pissing in the wind.

In any case, at some point capitalist Darwinism will kick in, and companies will have to evolve to survive. But the seemingly boring nature of the pharmaceuticals business needn’t be reflected in pharmaceutical marketing up until that point.

Whether they’re riding the initial wave or paddling against a later torrent will be entirely up to them.

It just goes to show that being early on the social media marketing gravy train can be the difference between using a bit of 30+ and having a company covered in malignant melanomas.