Using social media to market medical devices

Last summer, Robert DeSimone of MediComm Consultants, Inc., a colleague from the Medical Development Group, mentioned that several of his clients had inquired about social media.  Recognizing that medical device companies face special marketing challenges because they are regulated by the FDA, we decided to go right to the source.  Here's what we learned:

Is social media part of the medical device marketing mix?

Our primary objective was to learn whether and how medical device companies are using social media to communicate with prospects and customers, and the effect that FDA regulation or the lack thereof, is having on these activities.

Our methodology

We developed an online survey to learn more about what types of medical device companies are using social media, how they're using it, what they hope to accomplish, and how they will measure success.  We partnered with medical device trade associations and on-line social communities to distribute the survey and solicit participation.

Then, we conducted qualitative interviews with a subset of respondents to learn more about how their companies were using social media. This subset encompassed individuals working for an FDA-regulated concern that are using social media as a company.

The respondents

The sample was self-selected in that members of the groups that participated in the survey could opt whether or not to participate. The trade associations we partnered with are in California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. We focused on these three areas due to the heavy representation of medical device companies within these geographies.

Most of the social communities were sponsored by LinkedIn and focus on the medical device industry. A couple of the groups are associated with the partner trade associations. We specifically excluded pharmaceutical concerns, as this segment, unlike the medical device industry, has traditionally been more aggressive in directly pursuing consumers.

251 people participated in the survey. Fifty-seven percent of the total respondents work for regulated medical device companies; and, of the regulated group, 67% work for companies with greater than 51 employees.

The individual participants work in a number of functions. Our report, however, focused on those whose jobs include communications with customers or prospects. Of these, only 11% work for companies that include social media in the marketing mix.

We conducted follow-up interviews with five survey respondents, all of whom work for FDA-regulated companies and use social media to communicate with customers and prospects.

How medical device professionals and medical device companies are using social media

Our analysis focused on respondents who work for FDA-regulated companies. Of these, 63% use social media for job-related activities, and only a subset, (16%), use social media to communicate with customers and prospects.

Of the FDA-regulated companies that use social media to communicate with customers and prospects, most have been using social media for less than six months.  They are still in the early stages and are testing multiple social media venues.

In most of these companies, the Marketing Department initiated these communications. Only one company, among the 18 that use social media to communicate with customers or prospects, indicated that they have been able to quantify success. Nevertheless, all plan to continue funding at current levels or increase the funding for their social media programs.

Individual medical device marketers' perspectives on social media

The responses to the follow-up qualitative interviews were relatively consistent with the quantitative findings. Everyone we interviewed had started using social media relatively recently and most were careful to limit posts to content previously approved for press releases, website, and/or print communications. All the respondents we interviewed said that Marketing had initiated the company's foray into social media.

In one case, the marketing executive learned that their customers were active social media users from her customer advisory council.  She decided to pursue social media marketing because she felt it was important that the company participate in the conversation.

In another case, the company's agency recommended that they begin participating in social media. In the remaining cases, the companies began experimenting with social media because their competition was already actively involved. Most engaged the services of an agency to jump start the process.

Most of the respondents researched the market and the competition before jumping into social media. At least, one company also established social media guidelines. A couple reported the differences in participation levels they are seeing between consumers and clinicians; and even more interesting, that there are participation differences among clinicians in different roles and medical specialties.

The respondents told us they were listening as well as posting. The listening tools they use run the gamut from Google Alerts to one company's decision to pay an agency to listen in their stead.
It was our sense, however, that the listening and the posting were somewhat independent, and not necessarily social conversations per se.  That is, companies listened to learn what was important to their prospects and to determine where to post. Nevertheless, because they limited their posts to pre-approved content, outgoing communications were not necessarily in direct response to what others were saying.
As for measurement, most expressed the desire to do so, but didn't believe they had a definitive approach. One pointed to retweets and the opportunity to discover, and congratulate a customer about a recent award as early indications of success. Perhaps due to their short social media tenure, and the restrictions they face as a regulated industry, most had relatively few followers.

Perhaps surprising, except in the case of one respondent, FDA restrictions were not the major concern about launching social media programs. It was our impression that these marketers had accepted the fact that medical devices are a regulated industry with a given set of constraints.

Instead, the respondents appeared more concerned about resource limitations. None had a dedicated social media resource, although several commented that their competitors did. One didn't even have time to do much listening on a consistent basis.

Medical device companies believe they must participate in social media to remain competitive

The medical device companies that we interviewed are in the early stages of social media participation. Most are optimistic that social media will accelerate their marketing efforts, but few have enough data to measure success. Nevertheless, they feel they must participate to learn or risk being left behind. That said, medical device companies are likely to lag the competition, at least until the FDA clarifies the regulations governing the use of social media.

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