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Social Media’s Complex Climb

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive: January 2023
Volume 43
Issue 01

As new channels enter healthcare conversation mix, engagement strategies are changing.

Pharma social media advertising has been trending in the news as of late as a “blue check” snafu occurred on the newly-owned Elon Musk version of Twitter. Under the Twitter Blue program introduced by Musk, a supposed blue check-verified Ely Lilly post stated that the company was offering free insulin. It was a hoax, and because of a relatively slow response by an understaffed Twitter and by Lilly, real-world consequences emerged in the form of a stock plunge that didn’t recover for the better part of a month. The fallout as well as the loss of confidence in Twitter as a marketing vehicle has been pivotal as most large pharma organizations and partnering agencies have paused campaigns, labeling Twitter as a high-risk buy, and rightfully so. It’s an enormous, politically charged project that’s off to a bit of a rocky start for Musk.

Will Twitter recover?

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the Twitter retreat is likely a mere pause, as Twitter is wildly popular with healthcare professionals (HCPs) as a peer-to-peer network and as a vehicle to connect with patients. Twitter’s value is rooted in the fact that a clinician could share known and trusted information with credible experts in the field very quickly and globally—whether it is a debate around a clinical trial or new data or a conversation following an industry conference. And for pharma brands, Twitter was the place for them to be involved in the conversation.

Pharm Exec chatted with Matt Titus, VP and chief commercial officer, epocrates, a mobile medical reference app, to get background on Twitter’s value to the HCP community and an opinion on the current situation. “From an individual clinician standpoint, Twitter was the gold standard of scientific exchange among HCPs, but the current uncertainty around the platform is both interesting and dangerous at the same time,” he tells Pharm Exec. “If the platform goes away, there’s a big gap in terms of how pharma companies can get their brand and message involved in credible conversations.”

Titus believes this will be the big challenge pharma companies face in the year ahead.

Social monitoring captured by Ferma.AI shows that MDs aren’t really abandoning the platform in droves, which is a good signal. Ferma.AI’s study included 566 physicians, vetted and mapped to their National Provider Identifiers, found that 75% of physicians who were active during scientific conferences (i.e., the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the European Society for Medical Oncology, etc.) continued to post on Twitter in the chaotic week after the Lilly incident.1

The platform is essential to physicians; thus, it should continue to be essential for pharma marketers. While Twitter is likely going to regain its value as a must-have in a media mix, it’s not the only option or channel that should be utilized—many others are on the horizon, with noise around potential competitors, Mastodon and Bluesky Social. Companies should also keep an eye on other formats such as BeReal.

Zoom star replaced the podium star

Pharm Exec consulted Christian Rodgers, industry marketing veteran and senior vice president, social media, at PRECISIONeffect, to discuss key opinion leaders (KOLs), digital opinion leaders (DOLs), and useful platforms. Rodgers had regularly worked with KOLs, and when the adoption of social media in the industry took hold, it gave way to the newly coined DOL. Initially, KOLs didn’t prioritize maintaining a reputation on social media; so, the aim, which was challenging for Rodgers and his team, became finding doctors that had influence both at the podium and on social media and were the right fit for a particular topic.

COVID-19 was the accelerator, of course, as healthcare and life in general turned digital and virtual. The KOL podium was replaced by the DOL Zoom to handle peer-to-peer education and conference activity. It was cheaper, could reach more people, stimulate a more robust and diverse discussion, and it was convenient. Much like everything else that turned digital and social, DOLs established a firm foothold and are now more important than ever in terms of achieving the exponential reach social media offers.

Social media, previously an incremental investment for pharma, is now foundational, much like Google Ads were a year ago—its highest value lies in being able to push invaluable content out to the right audience at the right time via precision targeting. And there are many ways of doing that: Twitter, as previously mentioned; although Instagram is pulling away from Facebook, the pair offer the same algorithm and wide audience; LinkedIn has improved its tech slowly and is very important to HCPs; lastly, TikTok, despite its worrying connection to China’s Communist Party and its associated data concerns (at latest count, seven US states have banned TikTok from government phones), has incredible advantages and traits that distinguishes itself from competitors.

“Creating effective TikTok videos is less about generating polished, highly produced content and more about offering audiences content that comes off as authentic and genuine,” Rodgers tells Pharm Exec. “Content that feels professional or over-produced can convey brand messaging well but immediately reads as advertising—which means it must work harder to grab users’ attention and elicit engagement. Most digital media are ‘lean in,’ whereas new vertical video formats like TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube Shorts, require a ‘lean-back’ mindset, leaving social viewers with an experience much closer to television than the more traditional social media networks. The algorithms are so strong and responsive that content is more often about reaching the right audience at the right time.”

What about patients?

Sure, the pharma industry is certainly aware that the patient is a target, but what’s developing as of late is a patient-centric strategy, where pharma’s involvement doesn’t stop at time of prescription; it extends throughout the entire customer journey, from initial interest through adherence and positive outcome. Nearly 60% of adult Americans have at least one chronic disease.2 As such, sticking with patients is of the utmost importance for the brand, for business in general, and for the patient. Social has a big role in this positive relationship.

Pharm Exec reached out to Steven Xie, former director, omnichannel marketing at Biohaven and current director, omnichannel innovation migraine portfolio at Pfizer (after Pfizer’s acquisition of the biotech in October). Biohaven’s migraine treatment, Nurtec ODT, was recently named the top brand in TGaS Advisors’ “Digital Marketing Competency Report,” which analyzed more than 160 biopharma brands through the lens of digital patient branded execution.3

If you’re looking for success via social, you should consider modeling your approach or at least take lessons from the small company of 1,000 employees, which in the middle of the pandemic, launched and rocketed their brand to the top of the market within 18 months and continues to widen its lead. Biohaven’s lean, patient-centric, omnichannel strategy is one that heavily relies on a digital ecosystem, a wise and necessary approach for a company that had entered the migraine market against a competitor 40 times its size in AbbVie (and its drug, Ubrelvy).

“Using social is not about chasing a shiny object—social doesn’t operate in a silo. It’s about the overall media design: using different channels at different moments in time to create different types of engagement with different objectives,” Xie tells Pharm Exec. “Twitter can help us drive traffic to our website, for instance, and Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok all have different roles to deliver different content and drive different actions.”

Social is a place where a lot of honest and dynamic conversation are taking place, but people communicate very differently on these various channels, and the Biohaven team knew they needed an authentic, low-cost, big-impact, native social strategy that helped it connect emotionally with audiences on different platforms during different times of their health journey.

“We couldn’t compete with the large pharmas and big TV budgets; so, we employed a curated high-value, action-oriented approach to maximize every dollar spent,” says Xie. “The idea was to understand what ‘stops the scroll’ and use precision targeting with different data partners to address multiple segmentations and create a unique personalized journey at different touchpoints by using dynamic and personalized content.”

Xie and his team also leaned into cultural moments by creating memes and posts that piggybacked on the topical and trending with humor and intelligence.

Additionally, the company utilizes genuine influencers and patient advocates from all walks of life to help tell the authentic patient story at different times in a patient’s journey. For example, those people affected by migraines who are still not quite ready to talk to their doctors about a solution would receive disease awareness content tailored to consideration; meanwhile, others further along their healthcare journeys would receive information about the benefit, the patient experience, how they take it, or the savings program—content more tailored to conversion.

Engage now

A recent DHC Group/Aktana survey of 50 industry executives across digital, brand marketing, field sales, and data analytics indicated 98% of them found omnichannel strategy to be “very important,” while more than 50% of these companies say they are not yet optimizing HCP engagement across touchpoints.4

If pharmaceutical organizations aren’t optimizing for their traditional primary target (HCPs) across touchpoints like social, for instance, are they optimizing for other stakeholders? From one perspective, this screams “get in gear;” from the other, it indicates “double down,” as less than 50% of companies have a distinct advantage in the marketplace. Somehow, it’s still early days for the industry and social. Time is of the essence.

Fran Pollaro is Pharm Exec's senior editor and can be reached at fpollaro@mjhlifesciences.com.


  1. Physicians aren’t quitting Twitter over Elon Musk! Blog, Ferma.AI, November 18, 2022. https://blog.ferma.ai/physicians-arent-quitting-twitter-over-elon-musk/
  2. National Association of Chronic Disease Directors, Commentary on Chronic Disease Prevention in 2022, https://chronicdisease.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/FS_ChronicDiseaseCommentary2022FINAL.pdf
  3. Annual Digital Marketing Competency Report: 2022 Ranking of Pharmaceutical Rx Brands. TGas Advisors, November 15, 2022. https://trinitylifesciences.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/TGaS-Advisors-Excerpt-2022-Annual-Digital-Marketing-Competency-Report.pdf
  4. The State of Omnichannel HCP Engagement in Pharma: Where the Industry Stands in 2022, https://aktana.showpad.com/share/14p09odurOUsDn4Iuufy4
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