Facebook Tells Drug Companies: No More Ignoring User Comments

Last Updated May 24, 2011 6:49 PM EDT

Facebook will drag Big Pharma kicking and screaming into the social media age on Aug. 15 when it will force all drug companies to allow comments on company Facebook pages. By amazing coincidence, the move will likely funnel more pharma ad dollars to Facebook.

Until now, Facebook has let companies turn off comments, a practice known as "whitelisting." (Here is an example of one.) Drug companies have wanted this function for several reasons:

  • It's a highly regulated industry in which the FDA controls what companies can and cannot say to consumers.
  • The industry is extremely conservative and risk averse -- some companies have even asked Facebook if they can remove the "Like" button.
  • Companies are afraid comments may contain complaints about drugs that qualify as "adverse events" that must be reported to the FDA (the more adverse events a drug collects, the more likely a company is to be sued by its patients). A similar situation happened at Sanofi (SNY), when female patients complained they were not warned that the breast cancer drug Taxotere might leave them permanently bald.
The move will be met with fury at drug companies, which have been waiting for social media guidelines from the FDA since 2009. Companies literally do not know what the FDA does and does not allow on Twitter, blogs, apps and Facebook.

It also means a lot more work for drug company brand managers. They will either have to monitor their pages 24/7, or install an app like PharmaWall, which places reader comments in a queue that is only published after a staff member has approved them.

No such thing as a free Facebook
Facebook's logic for forcing drug companies to communicate was expressed in an email to drug company clients:

We think these policy changes support consistency for the Facebook Pages product and encourage an authentic dialogue between people and businesses on Facebook. However, we also understand that these changes may lead you to re-evaluate your strategy and presence on Facebook. We are committed to helping you during this transition.
That last part, "helping you during this transition," is probably the key bit: There is still one way for drug companies to promote themselves on Facebook while not allowing comments: By paying for advertising. Few drug companies advertise on Facebook, a fact that Facebook seems to have noticed -- the first line of its email to drug companies about the new commenting policy stated, "As you know, Facebook Pages are a free product for organizations, public figures, businesses, ..."

So, yes, it is all about money.

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