What Is Social Media?

Posted on January 10th 2014

What Is Social Media?

ImageWithin the pharma industry, and indeed all other industries, there is an abundance of talk about how social media should or could be used for business benefit. A quick Google search alone returns almost 200 million results for “social media” and over 6 million if you add the word “pharma” in there too.

Among all this feverish blogging, it is rare that anyone stops to explain exactly what they mean by social media. But surely it’s obvious and we all know what it is, right?

I’m not so sure.

You see, I would observe that there are many companies proclaiming to be avid social media users who are actually not, and even some who think they are not but actually are. Confused? Well , it all depends on exactly how you define social media.

My own view (representing a sample of one, and possibly just one) is that we get rather fixated on ‘channels’ when we talk about social media. For example, “our company has a Twitter account so we use social media”, or “our Facebook page has 1,000 followers so we use social media”. However, these are just online media channels, which are enabled for social engagement, but it’s how you use them that makes them social.

So here is an alternative definition of social media (with apologies to anyone I am inadvertently ripping off as I promise this is just from my head):

“The term ‘social media’ refers to using digital media channel channels to engage in two-way or multi-way conversation with other individuals and therefore have online social interaction.”

OK, so it’s not the most punchy, but it does make you look at who is active in using social media in a different way.

For example, a big pharma company that has a Twitter channel with many thousands of followers, but only ever uses it to broadcast its own messages and never responds to questions or feedback, is not using social media, by this definition (and you know who you are…!).

Equally, there are pharma companies who are not very active on any of the ‘classic’ social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook etc. but do publish blogs where readers are allowed to comment – and the company responds to those comments. This is social media, by the above definition, even if it might be a bit Web 1.0.

So here are some important questions to ask about your own social media use:

  • Do you ever respond to questions from other users?
  • Do you ever ask questions of other users?
  • Are your followers mostly real people working outside your own company?
  • Are most of your posts about something other than you / your company?

If the answer to all of the above is no, I would suggest that you are not using social media, but just broadcasting via social media channels.

To put that into a more real world perspective, it’s a bit like turning up to a networking dinner and standing up in the middle of the room as the first course is being served, then shouting about yourself right through the meal until people have finished the after dinner chocolates and are making their way home.

I’m guessing you wouldn’t do that would you? So why do it online.

So my challenge to pharma is this – make 2014 the year of looking in the mirror and asking “am I really being social or just broadcasting via social media channels”.

And if you fall in the latter camp, try talking to people – it’s a business trick that’s worked for thousands of years.

Paul Tunnah

Paul Tunnah

CEO, pharmaphorum

Paul Tunnah is CEO & Founder of pharmaphorum media,which provides digital content marketing and communications solutions for the pharma sector and also manages the industry leading channelwww.pharmaphorum.com, a digital podium for communicating thought leadership and innovation within pharma. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter@pharmaphorum.

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Mikko Marsio
Posted on January 10th 2014 at 8:53AM

Great that some others as well try to underline and explain what things are when you take hype away

In many occasions for years I have tried to explain people in different occasions that "social media" = Interactive Internet. Next step in how to utilize Internet or how Internet evolves over time. 

Same hype has been around "mobile internet" that it is somehow different than "PC internet". It is same Internet but how one can and should utilize different services from different devices based on their usage situation and occasion varies. 

Paul Tunnah
Posted on January 10th 2014 at 2:32PM

Agree Mikko - hype is the enemy of usefulness. It's when we stop hyping stuff and simplify that we learn how to really use it. At the end of the day it all comes back to simple communication skills.

Thanks for talking the time to share your thoughts.

Posted on January 10th 2014 at 10:25AM

"To put that into a more real world perspective, it’s a bit like turning up to a networking dinner and standing up in the middle of the room as the first course is being served, then shouting about yourself right through the meal until people have finished the after dinner chocolates and are making their way home."

I absolutely love this. Not only does it paint a pretty funny mental picture, it speaks to one of my greatest branded social media pet peeves; when all you do is talk about yourself, it leaves little room to be social. And if you're just going to treat social media like another e-newsletter or email, what's the point? 

Thanks, Paul, for the excellent perspective!

Paul Tunnah
Posted on January 10th 2014 at 2:30PM

Thanks Betsey - glad you found it useful :)

Posted on January 11th 2014 at 1:18AM

We need such articles from time to time to keep people grounded with common sense and not to dilute the basic "irreducible fundamentals"(as I call it). I define social media as "online social interactions" or even simply "people talking to people using online tools". I even insisted with this: http://varadh.com/2011/01/social-media-is-people-talking-to-people.html

Thanks Paul for writing a simple post and reminding the basics again, especially for "pharma".

What is surprising is that "pharma" already knows that it takes 10s of visits to bring results with a HCP but when online they want quick results. Shouldn't they think it takes even more time? The upside of social media is the synergy on value addition it creates in the medium and long-term rather than the quick-cutting-results expected. 

This post is an assurance that the social media world that we dream for Pharma is not lost. Thanks again. 

Paul Tunnah
Posted on January 12th 2014 at 3:40AM

Thanks Varadh :)

Terence Hale
Posted on January 16th 2014 at 3:51AM


What Is Social Media? Social Media a neighbor gossiping technology developing in to a useful means of communication can help industry in saving advertising and educational costs. The pyramid nature of it structure give industry a wide outlet.