And while over half (52%) of physicans surveyed indicated they are interested in interacting with pharma through social media, third party platforms like Medscape, Epocrates and Sermo have grown to be the most commonly used social networks for physicians in their professional practice.

Digital spend, trust are impeding digital success

One of the biggest reasons pharma seems to be lagging in mobile and social channels is that it might not be investing enough.

According to Deloitte, just 8% of its outreach to physicians is through emerging channels and pharma’s digital ad spend significantly lags other industries.

For example, financial services and automotive advertisers each spent $6.2bn last year on digital ads compared to just $1.4bn by health care and pharma advertisers.

In fact, healthcare and pharma as an industry falls behind virtually every every industry, from retail and CPG to travel and consumer electronics.

But pharma’s digital shortfall isn’t about where money is being spent and how much is being spent. There’s also a significant trust gap.

According to Chris Franck, a principal in Deloitte Consulting’s Life Sciences and Health Care practice, “The information that pharma companies provide has traditionally not been (and is still not) trusted. 75% of physicians surveyed indicated a lack of trust in information provided by pharma.

“When we asked physicians to comment on the criteria that would be necessary to engage with pharma companies on social forums, we received comments such as ‘transparency,’ ‘information would need to be free of bias,’ and ‘privacy – such that pharma companies weren’t monitoring the discussion.'”

Is proprietary content the answer?

The good news for pharma companies looking to catch up is that they have a potentially powerful weapon: content.

A large majority (84%) of physicians Deloitte and GLG surveyed indicated that efficacy and outcome data, as well as clinical guidelines, influence their drug utilization decisions.

65% of the physicians surveyed stated they’d be interested in interacting with pharma over social channels around this type of content, which could include clinical trial data, updates on new studies and comparative effectiveness information.

Franck sees proprietary content as an equalizer for pharma. “Pharma should offer the proprietary clinical data and insights that drive interest but that others are not able to provide,” he advised.

Pharma can bring something new to the table that could not only entice potential social partners but also provide tangible, unbiased data to its physician customers.

Through these interactions, pharma can become more knowledgeable about its customers through data that, if collected and used properly, can help strengthen engagement and targeting strategies moving forward.

Pharma could be running out of time

But pharma companies may find that their ability to catch up using proprietary content is a short-lived opportunity as new entrants to the market seek to fill the voids pharma is leaving.

“Further delays in pharma’s social strategy may lead to a loss of relevancy among its customers and a gap in relationships that others would be more than happy to fill,” Franck warned.

Fortunately, pharma companies don’t have to start from scratch.

They have the data to produce the content physicians are interested in, and they can tap into the large and growing audiences third parties have built.

As a starting point, Deloitte suggests that “collaborations with established third-party providers may offer pharma companies the opportunity they need to engage with physicians.”

While partnerships probably aren’t a long-term fix for pharma companies’ digital woes, they could be just what the doctor ordered and allow pharma to avoid watching as its relevance online fades away completely.

And for more on this topic, read our report on how healthcare companies should organise marketing in the digital age or our blog post on five startups disrupting the life sciences industry.