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Social media are gaining in importance in the life sciences

Social network services are springing up like mushrooms; everybody seems to be talking about ‘Web 2.0’ or ‘Podcast’. The life sciences are also starting to use the new communication media for their purposes. Social network services are online platforms with a representation of each individual user who links up with a number of different social networks composed of other users. Terms like Web 2.0 and Podcast are commonly used and the World Wide Web is undergoing an inevitable change, but it is still not sure what the potential effects, opportunities and challenges of this rapid change will be.

The term ‘Web 2.0’ and the name Tim O’Reilly are closely inter-linked. Web 2.0 sites allow users to generate their own content and interact and collaborate with each other in a virtual community. © www.wikipedia.org

A recent survey of 81 biotech companies revealed that only seven had implemented Web 2.0 applications on their homepages (Decker). Biotech companies, it seems, are still rather reluctant to use social networks. On the other hand, many younger scientists at the beginning of their academic career play a pioneering role in using Web 2.0 for life sciences activities. This generation of scientists uses social communication networks in their private life and so it is a natural step to continue using the same media for scientific purposes. They are also at ease with experimenting with the new media in the search for new opportunities and benefits. In the 20th century, presentations were mostly about daylight and slide projectors, before they were gradually replaced with PC-assisted presentations and beamers. Presentations of scientific theses in the future will mainly be in the form of interactive ‘webinars’, online seminars, lectures or workshops that can be scheduled and run by users themselves.

Social media platforms are easy to set up and accessible from anywhere in the world, which makes them natural tools for the transnational exchange of scientific information. Renowned institutions have recognized this trend and provide special networks for the serious communication of scientific issues. One such institution is the Max Planck Society; the International Max Planck School for Organismal Biology in Konstanz also uses the Max Planck Society’s ‘maxNet’ platform for its internal organization (see respective article in this dossier).

New media for personnel marketing

Global players are increasingly starting to use social platforms, especially in the recruitment of new staff. In addition to its company homepage, the Bayer Group has established a 'Bayer Karriere' (Bayer Jobs) Facebook profile - a comprehensive, and pioneering, Web 2.0-based job portal. Bayer employees can post video portraits and commentaries about their work with the pharma giant. Philip, a student trainee at Bayer, uses photo galleries and blogs to provide insights into his work in Asia; he also answers questions asked by people interested in doing the same type of work.

Companies raise concerns about obstacles and dangers

In contrast to academic scientists, the research and development departments of life science companies believe that the use of social media has a number of potential constraints: there is uncertainty regarding the legal aspects of information disclosure and concern about giving competitors too much information about own research results or product development. Pharmaceutical and medical technology companies still stick to a careful, somewhat conservative style of information provision and have many concerns about uncontrolled public discussions on adverse product reactions, whether real or imagined, confirmed or unconfirmed. On the other hand, ‘crowdsourcing’ – outsourcing “tasks” to an undefined, and usually large group of Web users – is potentially extremely advantageous when it comes to exchanging information. However obtaining information in this way is often associated with Web postings that contain defamatory language and lack objectivity.

In 2010, the Baden-Württemberg life sciences sector was still reluctant to use Web 2.0 applications.<br />
In 2010, the Baden-Württemberg life sciences sector was still reluctant to use Web 2.0 applications. © Elke Decker: Die Rolle von Web 2.0-Applikationen als Instrument der integrierten Unternehmenskommunikation von Biotechnologie-Unternehmen in Deutschland. Am Beispiel der Biotechnologie-Unternehmen in Baden-Württemberg, Neuhausen ob Eck 2010, p. 55.

Between self-protection and the obligation to inform

Many life sciences companies are faced with the problem that they simply do not have the personnel they need to correctly and productively use Web 2.0 applications. What resources does a company require to manage social media? Although the initial cost of establishing a presence on online networks is relatively low, many small- and medium-sized companies would need to create a full-time post for the maintenance and management of social media applications, which is not really an option for the many small companies in the Baden-Württemberg life sciences sector.

Thomas Helfrich, from Bayer AG’s corporate communication department, believes that it is vital for a company to formulate a clear strategy for positioning itself in a “social media” context, and that this strategy should include the definition of the resources and personnel required. Bayer has dealt with the issue of social media at a very early stage and created a full-time social media manager’s post that is supported by experts in each of the company’s areas of interest. Helfrich explains that in order to successfully exploit the new social network channels, it is important to understand what they are and what they are able to do.

The majority of German companies seem to remain fairly sceptical about the use of Web 2.0 applications, believing that the risks are much higher than the potential benefits. This is in total contrast to US companies. In 2009, the highly influential American Food and Drug Administration organized the first ever symposium to debate the issue as to whether and how social media can be used to promote drugs without violating legal regulations. These are concrete issues, alongside which unrestricted public discussion might be equally beneficial in a way that is, unfortunately, difficult to quantify. On the other hand, drug companies run the risk that such public discussions might bring adverse drug affects to light. So the question arises as to whether unrestricted public discussions are actually a good thing, especially for ethical reasons. Elke Decker, Director Strategic Marketing & Corporate Communication at GATC, discusses these aspects in her report entitled “Die Rolle von Web 2.0-Applikationen als Instrument der integrierten Unternehmenskommunikation von Biotechnologie-Unternehmen in Deutschland”. It must be borne in mind that companies and regulatory authorities do not really have any alternatives for Web 2.0 applications: in the future, social media will be the only place to react to regulatory and other developments.

Changing marketing strategies – from one-way communication to interactive communication

As the situation currently stands, the marketing departments of life sciences companies are more successful in constructively using the new social media than their development departments. However, the demands on integrated company communication require companies to take into account consistent corporate identity measures, which are rather time-consuming and personnel-intensive processes. Along with a handful of European pioneers (including some Baden-Württemberg companies; see dossier article on the company GATC), non-European and US companies, in particular, are investing greater financial and human resources in these issues than the majority of European companies.

These new forms of communication drastically change the relationship between drug producers, patients and consumers. Consumers now have a voice and companies need to accept and address consumers as equal partners in the dialogue. One-way communication and controlled mass marketing measures are being replaced by interaction and two-way communication. This also implies that the control of the boundaries between companies and the environment, which are becoming increasingly blurred, is getting more difficult and requires a lot of careful consideration by companies.

Unexpected success – and publicity debacles

Many recent examples have shown that using Web 2.0 platforms can be risky enough to create problems for even high powered marketing initiatives: for example, a confectionery producer had to close down its Facebook profile that it used to advertise a popular chocolate bar – despite the fact that it had hundreds of thousands of fans. The producer took the decision to close down its profile in the wake of hefty criticism of its use of palm oil, which destroys huge areas of primeval forest and endangers wildlife. Another example shows how publicity can go wrong and generate uncontrolled public criticism: a washing agent producer ran a competition to find a new style of washing agent bottle and chose to ignore several suggestions for bottle shape that it considered offensive. Choosing to ignore these suggestions had major consequences and the company has been heavily criticized for the decision it took.


[1] Elke Decker: Die Rolle von Web 2.0-Applikationen als Instrument der integrierten Unternehmenskommunikation von Biotechnologie-Unternehmen in Deutschland. Am Beispiel der Biotechnologie-Unternehmen in Baden-Württemberg, Neuhausen ob Eck 2010, p. 55.

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/dossier/social-media-are-gaining-in-importance-in-the-life-sciences