Should Pharma Avoid the Twitterverse?

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Any brand managers eager to jump into Twitter as soon as the FDA gave the go-ahead? No such luck. Last week’s social media guidance on risk disclosures may have cleared up some of the regulatory fog, but in this case, clarity isn’t a positive.

By requiring every brand-oriented tweet to include risks and benefits, the FDA left drug marketers almost no room to add more. By Digitas Health’s calculation, packing those disclosures together can take 135 of the 140 characters Twitter allows. That leaves room for one four-letter word. And forget engaging in conversation: no way to squeeze in a chat partner’s Twitter handle.

Pharma marketers could be making lists of four-letter words right now. With a few choice ones directed at the FDA.

“From a brand perspective, what these regulations do is basically say not to use Twitter,” said Michael Leis, Digitas Health’s SVP of Social Strategy, adding, “it’s really about restricting brands.”

It’s also about the FDA failing to understand how people–read: patients, not just marketing types–actually use Twitter, Leis contends. Twitter “chains pieces together” to create information. Why not slot the required disclosures up front, and then allow a conversation to carry on, using a hashtag to collect the various tweets–including the obligatory fair-balance messages?

The FDA’s draft guidance is open for comment, of course. Digitas Health will weigh in, Leis says. If the agency doesn’t rethink its proposal, drugmakers can do what they’ve been doing–in other words, very little. Or they can move past the usual image-oriented PR messaging, taking a page from some of their competitors’ playbooks.

The @AZHealth group, for instance, scans for mentions of AstraZeneca ($AZN) products, and then dispatches links and phone numbers to direct the Twitterati to more info. Boehringer Ingelheim hosted a disease-focused Twitter chat, using a hashtag to gather a series of expert and non-expert messages about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

As for trying to shoehorn brand marketing into the Twitterverse, forget it, Leis figures. And the proposals could well quash Twitter ambitions for the pharma companies mostly sitting on the sidelines now.

“[Brand managers] can follow the guidelines and be compliant with promotional messages, but I’m not sure that’s a valuable investment,” Leis says, adding, “I feel like more than anything this is a solid reason to not use the platform, because it doesn’t allow people to use the platform as it was designed to be used or how people actually use it.”

What might turn things around is some input from Twitter itself. As Leis notes, Apple ($AAPL) worked with the FDA up front as it was developing its new HealthKit for iOS, and the FDA’s app-related guidelines turned out to be favorable to app developers. If Twitter sees this as an opportunity to get more involved with the FDA, then it might help the agency think about the platform in a new way.

– find a link to Digitas Health’s regulatory alert