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Eli Lilly aims to ramp up social media presence

September 8, 2012

Eli Lilly and Co. spends $40 million every month marketing its products in direct-to-consumer television, Web and print ads. But it spends nothing talking to consumers about its products via social media.

It’s a situation Lilly would like to change. But that’s easier said than done.

The Indianapolis-based drugmaker, like most companies these days, is caught between the old world of marketing where whoever spent the most blasting a message to consumers won the day and the new world of marketing where two-way conversations with consumers increasingly make the difference between winners and losers.

Lilly recently drafted social media guidelines it hopes can help it expand its use of social media to more of its employees—without running afoul of the regulators that watch over its drug promotions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to issue guidance on whether drug companies can put out tweets about drugs with only a link to the required medical disclosures about side effects that take up the latter half of most drug ads on TV.

That has stopped most drugmakers from diving into social media. But Lilly is now researching various ways it can expand its presence.

Kueterman Kueterman

“I don’t think we’re going to wait on more guidance, because it’s difficult to say when that’s going to come,” said Greg Kueterman, a director in Lilly’s corporate communications office, who has spearheaded much of the company’s social media activity to date. “We think we can make the right judgments and do things in the right way and still be effective.”

Two years ago, Eli Lilly and Co. made its first foray into social media with the launch of LillyPAD—a blog, Twitter feed and Facebook page that focuses on public policies about health and pharmaceuticals.

It also has a Facebook and Twitter presence for the Campaign for Modern Medicine, a Lilly-owned lobbying group, as well as for its annual Lilly Oncology on Canvas art exhibition.

In addition, Lilly runs a YouTube page under the banner Lilly for Better Health, with videos about Lilly’s research and philanthropic work, and a blog and Twitter feed about “open innovation” concepts in research.

Lilly also would like to communicate with patients about specific diseases and specific Lilly drugs, or with investors about its corporate finances or with various stakeholders about issues of corporate responsibility.

“Through Twitter, through comments that you might get on Facebook or on a blog, you begin to have a dialogue,” Kueterman said. “You begin to open up access to people who have an interest in our business, and not only to people who like us, but to our critics.”

Having such conversations are more important now than before, not only because customers expect them, but even more because they are or soon will be the way companies establish and maintain their brands, said Jeb Banner, CEO of SmallBox Web, a digital marketing firm in Indianapolis.

He argues that 20th century marketing allowed companies to establish a brand like icing on a cake—it could look appealing no matter what the cake of core services and products tasted like underneath.

But now social media has moved the public conversations about companies away from their marketing spiels and to the actual products and services they sell.

“As that has happened, companies are freaking out and are losing control of their brand,” he said.

Banner insists that companies must give at least some of their employees some amount of freedom to talk about their company and its products via social media—because that’s the best way to generate legitimate excitement across a broad range of social media users.

Doing that requires training and, in the early days, some oversight of new employees OK’d to write about the company, Banner said. But if companies don’t extend at least that much trust to their employees, their marketing power will begin to fade.

“Increasingly, it impacts your search rankings,” Banner said. “If you do not have good social signals around your brand, all that linking and all that [search engine optimization] work that companies did in the past is really diminished.”

Even though Lilly currently bars its employees from talking about Lilly business matters on social media, the company is preparing to do the training to get more of its workers talking about the company in the future.

“Sooner is going to be better,” Kueterman said, “because in the social media space it doesn’t take long to fall behind.”•

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