To help reinvigorate sales of its 13 year-old dry eye treatment Restasis in the face of competition from a new drug, pharma giant Allergan turned to the world's largest social network, Facebook.

The company, with the help of its agencies, launched a Facebook Page. According to Fierce Pharma, the effort has largely been a success. 

For instance, patient testimonials posted on Facebook received "more than 3.5 million views, while the overall work generated 35 million impressions and resulted in a 10.5% lift in ad recall."

But when looking at the Restasis Facebook Page, I couldn't help but notice that many of the responses to the company's Facebook posts were complaints about cost.

"Can not afford cost with savings card. Do you have any help. I am on social security," one person wrote. "Sad, my dad has severe dry eye and Restasis could certainly help, but he's got Medicare and can't afford it. Your savings program excludes Medicare recipients and he's got no other options," another wrote.

The team managing the Restasis Facebook Page responded to these comments, in most cases apologizing for the situation and directing the individual to call a toll-free number or visit a page on which they can obtain information about a patient assistance program that they might be eligible for. But many consumers aren't eligible for patient assistance, leaving them out of luck.

Pharma almost always takes the blame

Allergan's team deserves credit for responding to comments complaining about cost and availability, but such comments also serve as a reminder of one of pharma's biggest challenges: even when it effectively markets its drugs directly to the consumers who need them, there's no guarantee that those consumers will be able to access them. 

On social media, consumers have a voice, and for an already reputationally-challenged industry grappling with outrage over drug prices, that means that social initiatives like Allergan's Restasis Facebook Page come with the risk of highlighting these issues, as consumers who find themselves unable to obtain the drugs they need have a platform for speaking out about their experiences.

Of course, drug pricing and availability are complex issues and pharma companies aren't always responsible when consumers aren't able to obtain particular drugs. Healthcare providers and insurance companies play a big role in pricing and access. But because much of the frustration and outrage over these issues is frequently directed at pharma companies, they are most frequently the target of consumer complaints and that's bound to be true in social media.

To be sure, the risk that consumers will post complaints about pricing and access on their social accounts doesn't mean that pharma marketers should avoid social channels, which are increasingly popular with pharma marketers and have the potential to be quite effective. But as the Restasis Facebook Page demonstrates, pharma marketers should be prepared to deal with these when launching social initiatives. At a minimum, this includes being ready to field complaints, including those difficult ones related to cost and access.

Patricio Robles

Published 25 April, 2017 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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