If we get a strange pain, a skin irritation, or worse, a serious diagnosis, the first thing we do is ignore the doctor’s clear instruction of “Don’t Google it” and we Google it. We search on forums, online, social media and start reading. And we’re not alone. A huge 80% of us have searched online to find information on health diseases and treatments.

Clearly the internet, and social media in particular, is a huge source of useful information. So at first glance it’s surprising that there aren’t as many pharma companies active in this space as you’d expect. After all, the audience is there, the need is there, so where are the drug companies?

For anyone working in this space the answer has been quite a simple one. Pharma marketers have avoided social media marketing because of the potential for massive fines and all the bad press that follows a non-compliance notice from the FDA. Doing social was risky.

But today that’s outdated thinking. And we’re seeing major pharma brands who are thinking digital first, creating some excellent campaigns on social media as a result.

These brands are finding that by creating unbranded patient communities, taking out paid social ads, or even live-streaming videos, they are making important connections with their target audience.

But how are they staying creative and compliant?

So what are the more pioneering pharma brands doing? And, seriously, how do they stay compliant all the time? To find out, we spoke to a number of pharma marketing agencies drawn from across the US who work with some of the biggest pharma brands in the world. They shared their views on social media best practice for pharma brands. Here are some of the highlights:

Start somewhere, just make sure you start

For brands just embarking on their social journey, our experts were of the consensus that if you don’t know where to start, focus on just one platform first rather than try to do everything at once. Which one depends on your audience. Eileen O’Brien, Managing Director, Social Media at W2O assured marketers that there is no ‘best’ platform to start with; just like other industries, brands should be active where their target audience are. “We let the analytics lead us to the platforms that our client’s target audiences already use”.

It’s not just possible to be creative with your content, it’s essential

Video was one of a number of techniques highlighted by pharma marketing experts as a good approach for pharma brands – if done right. It doesn’t matter if it’s live-streamed videos on IGTV, embedded video on Facebook pages or interviews hosted on YouTube, people are turning to video to find out more. In fact, latest figures suggest that over 200 million health videos are being watched every month, and it’s not just patients who watch health videos. According to Ara Hagan, President & Creative Strategist at Hagan Associates, “37% of doctors use YouTube when they need information about a brand-name drug.”

Live streaming in particular is quite a new tactic for pharma brands due to concerns over compliance issues, but with the right format and plenty of planning it can be done well.

Compliance isn’t the responsibility of just one department

It is essential that before a pharma brand executes a social media strategy, the marketing team and agencies work hand-in-hand with the legal and regulatory departments to ensure all parties both understand FDA guidelines and what the campaign is trying to achieve. Compliance is pretty much pointless if no-one is engaging with your content. But on the flipside, an engaging, creative campaign could go horribly wrong if the right regulatory and reporting processes aren’t in place from the outset.

Kristin Mengel, Digital Health Strategist at Hill Holliday, feels that working closely is a good thing. “By involving the med legal team throughout the development process brands can ensure they’re adhering to regulations while fostering strong relationships with their legal teams to come up with solutions.”

A key part of regulatory and reporting processes is having online monitoring and moderation in place. These rigorous processes look at every comment left by patients, customers and other online users and pinpoint those posts which flout FDA regulations, such as reporting Adverse Events or breaking HIPAA guidelines around data privacy.

The time is now

The mindset of all the marketing specialists interviewed was clear: now is a hugely exciting time in pharma marketing, with audiences welcoming online information in new and engaging forms. With experts in regulatory issues, such as Adverse Event reporting, involved in the campaign strategy from the start, every pharma brand can adopt their own pioneering social media marketing strategy and seize the opportunities that social offers.

Download the full Best Practice Guide to Social Media for Pharma Brands and other useful pharma marketing guides here.

Emma Durant is a Senior Client Partner at Crisp, a leading social media risk protection company that keeps many of the world’s biggest pharma brands, consumer brands, social platforms and kids’ spaces safe online.