A Call for the Digital/Social Expert [Consultant] as a Priority Partner


We are at a crossroads in communications, and we’re seeing many digital/social experts venturing out on their own. It’s a time in which we need to get ahead of the curve, identify pitfalls in advance and navigate them appropriately. Acknowledging that I am a consultant, this post is not meant to be self-serving, rather I hope to shed some light on what is contributing to the lack of progress in the Pharma digital/social space. As a good consultant should always do, I’m here to tell you what to keep an eye out for. The use of the terms “Digital” or “Social” in most cases can be considered interchangeable.

With more than 12 years working in the rapidly evolving industry, I’ve noticed a variety of reasons why the pitch process, relationships between digital/social experts, account teams at agencies and properly following through on execution are not working smoothly. This is one of the core reasons behind Pharma’s lack of progress – not to minimize regulatory hurdles at all – but we also need to recognize that traditional PR, advertising, marketing processes and people are being deployed into what is a very complex, dynamic environment.

Both agencies and companies alike face this challenge. The troubles often lie in areas that can be cleaned up by creating process and a standard of operating that is flexible for the people, disease states, necessary integration with technology and by learning not just to use social media, but to be social.

Many agencies do have things streamlined, leading to great success – but success is often defined by the wrong metrics. A Facebook page may have a million “Likes” but posts may go unseen by the majority of those people. Have you asked your agency how they are adapting to some of the changes to the Facebook Algorithm?

Under the digital umbrella, there are a ton of disciplines to coordinate, here’s the a very high level view:

  1. Communications (marketing, advertising, PR)
  2. Technology/IT (devices, design, web/mobile development)
  3. Social and Community Management (social channels, sharing, content, copy)

However, we have a unique opportunity to guide these disciplines together. In these coming years, it will be a matter of finding the right balance of talent to identify the strongholds for cross-discipline teams to work through barriers to success. There is a somewhat intangible need for a thread of connectivity through all of these worlds, across many disciplines – a need that requires the right person to orchestrate, which has its advantages:

  • Smaller budget spends up front, setting a malleable strategy, putting your team or agencies on the right. From that point, if you’re a client you may then handle things internally; if you’re an agency, you can enjoy the benefits of content creation, community management and long-term campaign development/maintenance.
  • If a relationship isn’t working out (something that often happens), there’s flexibility to find someone new. Appointing someone to a senior digital position entrenches them in your business – you never know what you’re getting these days.

A Quick Guide to Assessing Partners

From start-ups to medical comms, to branding, tech and large global PR or advertising firms, there’s an endless supply of agencies. Here are a few things to keep an eye on as you assess partners:

  • Clients: Find the right person to ask the tough questions about proposals and press your agencies/teams for rationale behind activities.  Give agencies time – a week or two to respond to an RFP is not enough time nowadays. In the old days of PR campaigns and creative concepts, it was easier to figure things out later. With technology and social, giving time to uncover insights offers a chance to find the right approach, navigate technology and make sure the strategy can work before proposing it. Press for those details.
  • Agencies: Don’t just name the campaign; give it a logo and worry about it later. Have someone familiar with all aspects coordinating web, mobile, media, social, content, ads and analytics at a high-level – there’s a lot to consider, and it’s always a challenge to integrate. Find the insights, coordinate communication, think through the functionality and ensure your plan is possible before proposing it. Research connects to strategy, strategy guides creative, development, a blueprint to implementation and the analytics to gauge success.
  • Beware of Jargon: It’s entirely too easy to misrepresent and misjudge digital/social skill-sets and many now in decision-making roles do not have the digital acumen to cut through the fluff. This isn’t breaking news, but too often have I experienced agencies focused on winning the pitch, but not thinking through the technology pieces that you have to actually know are functionally possible. If you’re still getting recommendations to create custom Facebook tabs or a Twitter handle to push people to a website, start asking tough questions about the approach. If you fear you may not know the right questions, that’s why I’m here. Don’t let someone tell you to create a Google Glass app (yes that’s happened to me).
  • Ensure Process Exists is Adaptable: Despite seeing hundreds of slides with chevron’s showing an agency “process,” rarely have I seen it implemented that way (see Beware of Jargon above). Startups/social media-focused agencies may have little to no process, whereas large agencies have fragmented or archaic processes that aren’t flexible enough to handle adaptation. The driver of potential trouble on the startup side is the pure need for dollars, leading to over-promising. We also see that on the large agency side, in addition to account, digital, design and development teams being silo’d and struggling to work together smoothly. Keep your team honest; make sure they’re collaborating smoothly.
  • Assemble the Right Team: With the speed by which digital/social has evolved communications, I often see marketers with years of experience (but none in digital/social) thrust into new digital roles with little understanding of what to do. A mentor of mine likened building a digital/social team to filling positions on a baseball team – you wouldn’t put a shortstop at first base, sure he can play it, but is that really the best idea? Don’t let a Project Manager dictate your website User Experience or Search Engine Optimization and be cautious if the ad guy is also the Community Manager for the Facebook page. Also make sure there’s Creative Direction, a key bridge often missing between strategy and designers.

This post is a call to rely on true experts to assess hires, brands, agencies and develop a clear plan for your future in digital/social. The right consultant can provide agency-level quality of work, breaking down silo’s, politics and ensuring the focus is on setting you up for success saving you money and time.

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