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Big pharma and social media: who’s doing it best?

Think of industries at the forefront of social media and pharmaceuticals probably isn’t the first that springs to mind. With strict marketing guidelines in place around prescription medications, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a new report from the Worldcom Publications Group found pharmaceutical companies could be doing more to utilise the digital channels available to them.

The Digital Health Monitor report analysed the online presence of 25 pharmaceutical firms in 2018, including household names like Bayer, Pfizer and GSK. Activity was recorded across branded websites, blogs and apps, as well as on social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Join us as we look at what can be learned from the study and discuss how big pharmaceuticals can use social media to help navigate the strict marketing limitations imposed upon them.

Key findings from the report

Branded websites and blogs

While all of the companies in the study have their own website, none are fully utilising the opportunity to localise content. In fact, the report concludes that most global pharma sites fail to provide tailored resources for audiences in different countries.

Of the firms with a branded blog, the majority target international audiences and once again do little to cover topics that relate to users in a specific country or region. The study also finds that even when blogs are present, the frequency of posts and updates tends to be sporadic.

Facebook vs. Twitter

In the battle of the social media heavyweights, Twitter proves more popular than Facebook for businesses in the pharma industry. All 25 firms have a branded Twitter account, while just 23 are active on Facebook.

Despite Twitter having significantly fewer global users (321 million, compared with Facebook’s 2.41 billion), as much as 90% of all social media activity carried out by the pharma companies was on Twitter. Again, these profiles tend to be international, with very few firms owning separate accounts in different locations.

The best of the rest

All but two of the pharma companies are deemed as having little to no presence on YouTube, which is perhaps surprising given the site’s status as the second-largest search engine in the world. Again, localised pharma content on this platform is rare.

All of the companies studied own a branded LinkedIn account. However none of the profiles reach 50% in LinkedIn’s social selling index (SSI), suggesting that more could be done to build brand awareness on the platform.

Among the remaining social media channels included in the study are Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr and Tumblr. These platforms prove to be widely ignored by the pharmaceutical firms, together accounting for just 1% of all online activity recorded across the year.

Guidelines and limitations for pharma companies on social media

The fact that pharmaceutical companies aren’t currently at the forefront of digital marketing becomes even less surprising when you consider the strict rules and regulations imposed upon them.

In the UK, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) is responsible for setting guidelines around the marketing and promotion of pharmaceutical products. The association covers more than 120 UK pharmaceutical firms and sets strict limits on how medicines are sold to the public via both traditional and digital marketing channels. Under these guidelines, all products must receive prior authorisation before being marketed to the public, while prescription-only medicines cannot be promoted under any circumstances.

While the promotion of medicines is closely monitored, pharma companies are permitted to impartially share information via social media, assuming the materials used are compliant with the ABPI code.

With such strict rules around what can and can’t be shared online, it’s easy to see why pharmaceutical companies might feel inclined to spend their marketing budget elsewhere. Many big pharma firms are fighting to see the existing guidelines relaxed, which would undoubtedly revolutionise how social media is used within the industry. For now, however, questions remain around how these companies can optimise their online presence without falling foul of the rules.

What we can learn from the study

Even with strict marketing guidelines in place, the study uncovers some real areas for industry-wide growth. Recommendations given not only apply to pharmaceutical companies, but can be adapted for any industry where social media strategy is a concern.

Invest in employee advocacy

Employee advocacy differs from traditional marketing methods in that it introduces audiences to your company not through branded channels, but through the online presence of your employees. In heavily regulated industries such as pharmaceuticals, having employees share and promote content can be effective in getting your business in front of users that would have otherwise been difficult to reach. Research indicates that people are more likely to buy into the credibility of a regular employee than a company CEO or director, so investing in employee advocacy can really help to establish trust in your brand from the beginning.

Localise your online presence

Perhaps the most surprising result of the study is how little each company is tailoring their digital strategy to individual markets and locations. Particularly for multinational brands, a focus on moulding your content to audiences in different regions can show that you genuinely care about each market that you’re present in.

Tailor your social media strategy to your target audience

It might seem like marketing strategy 101, but the demographics of your target audience shouldn’t be forgotten when it comes to social media. With so many platforms to factor in, a blanket, cover-all-bases approach to social quickly becomes both unaffordable and unscalable. Understanding exactly where your audience spends their time online is the first step in building a social media strategy that directly speaks to the people who are interested in your product or service.

The pharmaceutical industry may be confined to a unique set of marketing guidelines, but studies like this go far in showing just how transferable key lessons in social media marketing can be. Take a look at the full Digital Health Monitor report, or find out about our own social media services using the form below.

Twitter is certainly the platform of choice when it comes to pharmaceutical and medical companies. With hashtags such as #MedTwitter averaging around 2,000 tweets a day, the ease with which a company can find and become part of a thriving medical conversation makes it hard for other platforms to contend. Using resources such as the ‘Healthcare hashtag project’ can help ‘patient advocates, caregivers, doctors and other providers’ connect with relevant conversations and communities. For pharma companies, it’s just important to ensure the information or knowledge they’re bringing to conversations is valuable, interesting and not too sales-focused. Sharing a good mix of blog content and product promotion, and curated content from trusted sources or thought-leaders is the key to a varied, yet effective social strategy.

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