The biggest challenge to treating patients with diabetes isn’t doling out medications, it’s making sure that people control their habits. Poor diet and lack of exercise generally create complications with the disease. To combat the problems, researchers in the diabetes division of Sanofi US took an unusual step for Big Pharma: they went social, jumping into online networking with a Facebook page, Twitter presence, and eventually three different engagement platforms.
“Treatment is an important aspect to blood sugar management, but it isn’t the only aspect,” says Laura Kolodjeski, Sanofi’s diabetes community manager, who has become the virtual face of the company. “There is a huge community of people already that live with diabetes and are connecting and sharing [online] to improve each other’s experience with the disease.”
Sanofi now helps direct and police those interactions online. The company won’t release total visitor numbers, but it has about 4,000 followers on Facebook and another 4,000 on Twitter, all of whom are sharing links to broader content. And for better or worse that community is going to grow: About 8 percent of Americans or roughly 26 million people have diabetes, and the Centers for Disease Control predicts that as many as one third of us could have the disease by 2050.
But the social frontier is potentially prickly for Sanofi because the FDA has not yet written the rules about how pharmaceuticals are allowed to engage with potential customers and patients. The only guidelines came out in a December 2011 advisory statement declaring that while allowing virtual comments about things like off-label uses isn’t technically illegal, it’s shady territory; basically, pontificate at your own risk. “We are working on the area and it’s something we feel is important but we don’t have a specific timeline right now,” says Ernest Voyard, senior regulatory council at the FDA’s Office of Prescription Drug Promotion.
For Sanofi, drawing up their own social media strategy is also a defensive move: In 2010, the company’s cancer division suffered a PR nightmare after a patient, who claimed to have experienced permanent hair loss from one of their treatment drugs, posted complaints and photos on that group’s unmonitored Facebook page. John Mack, the editor of Pharma Marketing News, which tracks shifts in the pharmaceutical industry, says such hits are common anytime you try to pioneer a new space. “They’ve had some rough times, but they are learning a lot,” he adds.
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