The digital communication that consumers favor today to discuss retail products and food might have more to say about the future of pharmaceutical marketing than the still-ubiquitous television commercials promoting the latest lifestyle drugs.

Pozen (Nasdaq: POZN), a Chapel Hill, N.C., drug-development company, took the unusual step in July of appointing a digital advisory board whose members include executives experienced in digital marketing, but not necessarily in the marketing of medicines. During a video-conference panel discussion yesterday, board members talked about where pharmaceutical marketing is today and where they think it needs to go in the future.

Dr. Daniel Palestrant, CEO and founder of physician social-media site Sermo, made a reference to AstraZeneca's (NYSE: AZN) heartburn medication Nexium, which is known to many because of a marketing campaign that touts "the little purple pill." Such marketing efforts are a thing of the past, driven out by social media.

"The ability to control the message is no longer possible," Palestrant said. "The opportunity for industry is no longer to control the conversation; the opportunity is to be part of that conversation."

Few pharmas are doing enough digital marketing so far, according to the panel. Marc Monseau, founder and principal of MDM Communication and previously a Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) executive overseeing social media, said AstraZeneca and Sanofi-Aventis (NYSE: SNY) have started programs using digital and social-media practices. But for these companies and most others, such efforts are an "add-on" to existing marketing rather than being the core strategy.

Bonin Bough, PepsiCo's (NYSE: PEP) director of digital and social media, said digital communication is taking over every aspect of people's lives. Companies need to be part of that digital change. But so far, they've not moved fast enough to keep up with their customers. The challenge for pharma companies, said Raj Amin, CEO and co-founder of HealthiNation, is embracing a new way of thinking and giving up the message control that they've been accustomed to.

Pozen has time before it needs to implement new marketing techniques. The marketing for two of its commercialized drugs is handled by drug partners. The first product Pozen expects to commercialize on its own, an aspirin combination drug candidate to prevent cardiovascular disease that for now is called PA32540, is not expected to reach the market until 2014. It's that product where the digital advisory board's work will become evident. Pozen might be at an advantage compared to large pharmaceutical companies. The company can create its own digital strategy from scratch rather than transitioning a large legacy workforce into a new model. Pozen Chief Commercial Officer Liz Cermak said that Pozen will share its ideas as they develop because the company could be pioneering new practices that other pharmas will use.

In the meantime, regulators are expected to come up with guidelines for how companies communicate in the digital realm. Palestrant said companies can't wait for regulators. It's up to industry to demonstrate how new ways of communicating with doctors and patients can be successful.

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