Social Media in Pharma Done Right

In 2019, back when COVID-19 wasn’t even a thing, 65.3% of pharma marketers were including social media in their marketing mix. The latest numbers are not yet available, but since consumers have been spending much more time online due to the pandemic, we can expect a big increase in social media presence from the pharma industry as well.

This basically means two things.

  1. In 2022, as a pharma marketer, you need to be present on social media as your audience is there. 
  2. But so are your competitors. Literally, the whole pharma industry is involved with social media and thereby, being there is not enough. 

Differentiation is key to staying competitive. 

Now, we know pharma marketing isn’t the most creativity-prone market, especially when regulations stand in the way, but there are ways to stand out while remaining compliant. 

It’s all about knowing your audience and your options to reach them.

There are a few things you need when reaching out to patients and HCPs on social media. We’ll tackle them below.

Key Takeaways of a successful social media strategy

Educational content is key. We’ve said it several times, both patients and HCPs use social media to educate themselves on healthcare-related topics. Pharmaceutical brands can leverage that by producing educational content adapted to the audience and the platform.
Adapt to your audience. You won’t use the same techniques or the same platforms with patients as with HCPs. The communication also has to be adapted to every stage of the audience’s journey. 
Understand each platform’s opportunities and limits. Then build a mix of social platforms according to your goals, the kind of content you want to share and the demographics of your target audience.
Influencer marketing works. But authenticity and relevance are the keys! In pharma influencer marketing, less is more and KOLs are often a better option than celebrities and other macro-influencers to whom your target can’t relate.
Work on your brand’s image. Social media are the key to humanizing your brand, in several ways, such as patient advocacy, patient stories, social listening and video content.
Aim for interaction and creativity. These are 2 key components of successful social media. Pharma is a serious topic, but it doesn’t mean there is no space for creativity and interactive content. In fact, it’s a must-have in the crowded space of pharma marketing. Novartis’ dance challenge to raise SCD awareness is the perfect example. 
Keep the compliance team involved. Compliance is a theme that comes up in almost every section of this article, but it shouldn’t stop you. On the contrary, involve the compliance team in your social media marketing and bring creativity in places where many pharmaceutical companies are afraid to step in. 

Trying to Reach Patients?

This section is dedicated to social media for patients, and HCPs are discussed further down.

Let’s start with some context.

A study highlighted that 76% of respondents used social media to learn about COVID-19. But what’s alarming is the fact that 63.6% of them admitted that they would probably not double-check the info they found with a professional.  

Also, 90% of the healthcare consumers in the 18–24 year age group utilize and believe health care information presented in social media.

What information do patients look for on social media?

More and more, patients use social media to educate themselves on health-related topics, stay up to date with healthcare news and self-diagnose themselves.

A considerable amount of patients use social media during the awareness and diagnosis phases of their journey.

Also, they believe what they read, especially the younger generation. 

What this means is that there is an opportunity for pharma companies to adopt a patient-centric approach with social media, reaching patients through educational, reliable and easy-to-digest content.

This includes content that:

Raises awareness of new health concerns or symptomless illnesses

Keeps patients informed on health-related news

Answers patients’ common questions

Fights misinformation and busts myths

Inspires patients

Previews and brings to more developed external articles

While it can be tempting to use that information to throw healthcare ads and branded promotional content at them, this shouldn’t be the priority. Especially since patients are becoming warier and the pharma industry has a reputation to work on. 

Read more: Enhance your pharma brand image on social media

About HCPs and Social Media

Many marketers are reluctant to target HCPs on social media, but that’s a mistake. HCPs are active on social media and are reachable. The key is to understand their needs.

Here are some key facts about HCPs’ use of social media:

  • 50 million HCPs use social media worldwide and 81% use it for professional reasons as a trusted channel for scientific exchange. 
  • When it comes to their reachability, more than 50% of HCPs say they notice ads on social media as long as these ads are relevant and professionally appropriate. 
  • They use both “walled garden” HCP-only social media (Sermo etc – you can learn all about it in our whitepaper ) and traditional social media (Twitter, Linkedin and co) and they adapt their activity to the platform.
  • According to Sermo, around 69% of physicians spend more than 1h a day on social media. The average is 2h 22min but it goes up to 3h with millennial HCPs who represent 75% of the current workforce. 
  • They spend this extremely valuable time for professional reasons, including learning, debating, networking and interacting with patients.
  • This social media activity is mostly done after work hours, at home and while commuting. 

What does it mean for pharma marketers?

quote for hcp social media use

HCPs use social media to learn, share with their colleagues and engage with patients. So there is an opportunity for marketers to provide the content HCPs will interact with. However, there are strict “guidelines” to follow to get HCPs’ attention:

  • This content needs to be adapted to the platform. HCP-only social media is a place for more private and technical topics, such as discussions around patient cases or treatment issues. Traditional social media is used mostly for external information sharing, e-reputation building and patient interaction. From a pharma company point of view, you would avoid branded content on traditional social media as you can’t make sure who reads it.
  • HCPs don’t have patience for typical marketing outreaches. The content they get needs to be content they are willing to learn from and share. Science and transparency come first. 
  • The form is as important as the content itself, especially for the younger generation of HCPs. They don’t have the time or the focus for long articles. They want straight-to-the-point content that is engaging and visually attractive.
  • Considering the importance of millennials in the workforce, there is a growing opportunity to reach HCPs on less crowded platforms such as Tiktok or Twitch. 

Social platform selection

Now that we’ve tackled what to do on social media, one question remains: where to?

There isn’t a single answer to that question and as we will see, the idea isn’t to select one platform or the other, but rather to use the right platform for the right content. To do so, several factors have to be taken into account, including:

Who’s your audience (Patient or HCP)

This is probably the first element to take into consideration when selecting the right platforms for your marketing campaigns. As you can see in the table below, the best platforms to reach patients won’t be the same as the ones to reach HCPs. 

Obviously, the emphasis is on “best” here. For example, while Linkedin makes more sense for HCPs, you can surely reach patients as well on that platform.

It’s mostly about optimizing your reach.

Professional Social Media

Reaching patients

As shown in the table above, traditional/non-work-related social media platforms are where to look when targeting patients.

This platform is fast-paced and works great to share short company updates, new blog posts and third-party news. Everything is public, which helps to participate in patients’ discussions and know who says what. It’s also a community-building platform and can be seen as an extension of your customer support service.
It’s a good platform to reach a wide audience and allows for better targeting if paid advertising is part of your strategy (it’s slowly getting worse, though, as they are removing some ad targeting options). A lot of patients are also coming together in Facebook groups, asking questions, and sharing stories, but it is difficult to join the conversation as a pharma company. In short, you’re not really welcome there. All in all, Facebook is a good platform for brand awareness and lead generation, but it isn’t the most engaging platform
The saying “one picture is worth a thousand words” is especially true on Instagram, where the emphasis is on sharing quality photos. Instagram is great for storytelling, infographics and content supposed to connect on an emotional level. Instagram stories can also be used to humanize your brand by sharing behind the scene short videos, for example. 
It might be the newest kid on the block but it’s not to be overlooked as some pharmaceutical companies have had very successful campaigns on the platform (see the Mucinex example below). Companies from all kinds of industries, including pharma, are using TikTok to produce short simple educational videos on complex topics. The platform is a great way to make health information more accessible to a younger audience. It also brings opportunities for engaging campaigns that encourage users to share their own videos.

Reaching HCPs

When targeting HCPs, Twitter and Linkedin are the traditional platforms to prioritize. They are great for disease awareness campaigns.

HCP-only social media (like Sermo, MedShr or Coliquio) are a great place for more private and technical topics like discussing (anonymized) patient cases, and case studies with verified professionals.

While users tend to mix pleasure and work on other traditional platforms, conversations mostly revolve around the professional sphere on LinkedIn (from job research to working conditions or achievements). 
Generally speaking, this is the first platform to consider to demonstrate both your company’s and employee’s expertise, to share events and job offers.
But when thinking about HCPs, the great potential of Linkedin is the precise targeting options allowing for very targeted campaigns (eg. cardiologists in the UK). You can use it to bring traffic to your website, but it’s often more efficient to embed videos to reach HCPs directly on the platform.
It is the only platform that we listed in both columns. That’s because both patients and HCPs are very active there. As we said earlier, physicians use traditional social media to build their e-reputation and to interact with patients. Twitter is their favourite platform to do so, and therefore, they are easily reachable on that platform. Actually, that represents a unique opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to get involved in three-party conversations! 
Professional Social Networks
Once again, we repeat ourselves, but 50 million HCPs are on professional social networks. There is no other online platform offering such a reach opportunity. Also, for safety and relevancy reasons, most of these platforms require physicians to verify their profession in order to join… which in turn allows for better targeting for advertisers, but also branded campaigns.  Now, because these platforms are strictly for professional use, reaching HCPs there is slightly different from traditional social platforms. Campaigns need to be more subtle as physicians are there to engage with like-minded people and educate themselves, not for sales communication. Note that professional social media really differs in popularity depending on the users’ location. For example, Doximity is mostly used in the US while DocCheck has a stronger audience in Germanic countries.
You can learn everything about professional social networks in our free whitepaper.    

Your target audience’s demographics

Even though the line is often blurry, the age, location and gender of your target audience play a big role in your platform selection. 

For example, TikTok or Instagram are probably going to be much more relevant to target teenagers than Facebook or Linkedin. 

Or maybe your audience is mostly feminine? Then Instagram is typically going to be a much better choice than Twitter, as 62% of Twitter’s users are men

Note that even though Facebook is losing ground, it still remains the largest social platform across all age groups, especially for adults over 30. It remains a good platform to include in the selection, regardless of targeted demographics. 

The content format

Not all platforms are made equal when it comes to content format possibilities. 

Twitter limits the character count, for example. While it’s a great platform to share short communications, more developed communications are easier to share on Facebook or Linkedin, depending on the conveyed message. 

TikTok and Instagram don’t allow third-party video sharing and limit video length (even though TikTok just expanded its video length limit to 10 minutes). When sharing longer video content, Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin are the way to go.

On Instagram, it’s not all about tropical islands and chef-prepared meals, but these dreamy scenes represent Instagram’s focus. It’s all about the quality of the visuals. Pharma organisations can also leverage the visual platform through well-designed content that connects on an emotional level.  

Influencer marketing – a big role in social media marketing

When handled with care, influencers can have a huge positive impact on your brand. It’s a unique way to increase your brand’s share of voice online, reach a broader audience instantly and increase sales.

Stats prove it. 70% of millennials trust influencers more than traditional celebrities and 40% claim that some influencers understand them better than their friends. Trust being an issue for pharma brands, it is clear that influencers can’t be overlooked.

However, influencer marketing has to be planned carefully, especially in healthcare. 

Most of us remember Kim Kardashian’s fail, back in 2015, when she promoted Duchesnay’s anti-nausea drug on Instagram but didn’t mention the side effects risks, which didn’t amuse the FDA. Fierce Pharma went as far as asking “Has Kim Kardashian ruined pharma marketing, too?“. 

You don’t want to be the next Duchesnay, but with the growing popularity of influencer marketing in healthcare, it can be difficult to find the right influencer and it can be tempting to just pick the influencer with the most followers within your budget. 

Here are some tips for a successful influencer marketing campaign:  

  • Aim for relevance. In most cases, it’s primordial to collaborate with an influencer who has a relation with the condition (patient, caregiver, speciality doctor,…). Authenticity is key and the audience will see if the influencer’s promotion is genuine or not. Of course, the selection might be more flexible for a flu campaign than an aids campaign.
  • KOLs are cool. Generally speaking, KOLs (short for Key Opinion Leaders) are always going to be the better choice against lifestyle influencers, even though KOLs probably have way fewer followers. KOLs are trusted, authentic, and knowledgeable on the condition and their lower follower count allows for more engagement with their audience. They are also generally going to be less expensive and more flexible to work with.
  • Differentiate HCPs and patients. The influencer selection will naturally be different whether you target HCPs or patients. With HCPs, prioritizing KOLs is even more important than with patients, especially when the KOL is a professional peer. Some of them “only” have a few hundred followers, but they are considered sincere, reliable and knowledgeable by their peers, which can easily compensate for their smaller audience. 
  • Define clear guidelines. As we said earlier, let’s avoid a Kardashian situation. A clear brief is important to align with the influencers on what can or can’t be said, and how it should be said to avoid compliance issues. An extra safety step is to agree on content approval before posting to make sure the guidelines are respected.
  • Make the campaign interactive. Influencers have a large and/or loyal audience and you should take advantage of that. By making the campaign interactive and engaging, the audience will participate and visibility could grow exponentially. One very good example of this is Mucinex’s #BeatTheZombieFunk Challenge on Tiktok. More than 1 million user videos were uploaded and it was Mucinex’s most successful product launch ever.
  • Be serious, but not too much. The example above is great, but what about more serious illnesses? Wouldn’t it be disrespectful? Not necessarily! Novartis did a similar dance campaign on TikTok to increase SCD awareness and the results were great. It’s all about respect and empathy.

Keep up with compliance and ever-changing regulations

That’s a tough one. Pharma is a heavily regulated industry and between local, social media, FDA and HIPAA regulations, it isn’t easy for pharma companies to communicate on social media. Your company’s reputation is on the line and non-compliance sanctions include fines and legal actions.

As if doing good marketing in such a regulated environment wasn’t already complicated enough, marketers also have to keep up with constantly changing regulations. There is always something that’s going to stand in the way of your social media campaign… if not from the FDA, then from the platform itself.

For example, Facebook now forbids ads targeting patients based on their health conditions (this means, for example, that it’s not possible to target a user based on the specific medical websites he visited). 

Despite this ever-changing environment, there are some static rules to always keep in mind when handling social media as a pharma company :

Wording must always be clear. Leave no room for misinterpretation.

Don’t make any claim that could be interpreted as misleading or deceptive

Comparisons with competitor products are risky and need to be backed up with uncontradictable evidence

Any user-generated content, release forms, material compensation,… must be disclosed

Full scrolling ISI is required for branded ads with indication.

Risk-benefit information has to be balanced fairly both in content and visual weight (this is especially important when the platform has character limitations). A link to a complete description of these risks and benefits has to be provided

Misinformation or inaccurate product statements made by a third party doesn’t require a correction from your company. However, if you do one, it has to be factual, relevant, non-promotional and it should include the required labelling

This is obviously a non-exhaustive list as compliance is a highly complex topic. 

Our point is that all these rules might seem like a huge barrier to creativity… and they are going to be for pharmaceutical companies that don’t have a strong compliance team (in-house or outsourced) and/or don’t include that team in their digital transformation. 

This report from Deloitte states that compliance teams are struggling with keeping up to date with compliance as the related activities require more and more resources. The report also claims that, even though digital technologies could considerably improve efficiency, “use of digital technologies in compliance is an exception rather than the rule”. 

As a consequence, a pharmaceutical company that doesn’t invest in its compliance team will be several steps behind the ones that do. And that’s a big deal considering how competitive the pharmaceutical digital environment is. 

Finally, marketing and compliance teams should work hand in hand, not only to ensure compliance but also to enable the marketing team to spread their creative wings without fearing unknown regulations. The compliance team’s role is to keep a pulse on changing regulations and to translate these rules into clear, up-to-date guidelines on each social platform for the marketing team. 

About the author

Photo of author

Jonathan Davies

Jonathan is phamax Digital's own digital swiss army knife. He makes sure everything works seamlessly across all our channels. He was born in Belgium but has been on the move for about 10 years as he can't stand the rain!

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