The life sciences sector long shied away from advertising on social media platforms, largely fearing the FDA’s stringent regulations. Now, more biopharma companies are jumping into the online direct-to-consumer marketing game.
After all, with over 50% of the world flocking to social media sites daily and spending an average of two and a half hours across the platforms, the life sciences industry can no longer afford to ignore the impact they would have on social media.
Biopharma heavyweights including AbbVie, Eli Lilly and Novartis are all adopting advanced social media strategies, while walking a regulatory tightrope that requires they balance disclosure of risk and benefit information in individual, character-limited posts. And in cases where an “accurate and balanced presentation of both risks and benefits of a specific product is not possible within the constraints of the platform," the FDA advises companies to avoid promoting the drug on the platform altogether.
Even as pharma companies navigate these rules and make headway in their social media strategy, many may still be missing key opportunities to meet patients where they are on these platforms, especially on condition-specific support group pages, says Sara Hayes, vice president of community development at Health Union.
Founded around the idea of “social health,” Health Union manages over 38 online communities, all connected to social platforms, dedicated to helping foster understanding and connections for people with chronic and challenging health conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis, endometriosis and cystic fibrosis.
“That's what people are looking for when they're experiencing a new symptom after a diagnosis. They're always wondering, ‘Should I be feeling this? Is this normal?’” says Hayes.
These social media havens are also a source of untapped potential for pharma marketers, she says. By answering patient questions and providing educational resources about symptoms, treatment options and clinical trial developments to these and similar online communities, Hayes believes pharma companies can create greater brand awareness while providing invaluable help to patients when they need it most.
“If your marketing helps someone know that your company has a new drug option in a late phase clinical trial that could be coming to market soon that may be beneficial to them or someone they know, I think that's amazing,” she says.
Here, Hayes shares insights she’s learned from Health Union’s communities on how life science companies can leverage patient outreach groups in their social media marketing strategies.
Pharma Voice: What does “social health” mean and where did the term come from?
Sara Hayes: We've been in the social health space for 10 years, and it might not have been called social health by anyone before. We really feel that social health is all about connections. It's more than just social media and more than just socializing. It's really about those connections you form online when you're looking for information, connection and validation.
Some people do like to have those connections via social media. You see people connecting on TikTok or Facebook or Instagram, but we also know that they like to connect on platforms like ours. I would consider social media a tool to help people connect. It's not the main form of connection. It's just one of the tools that gets them there.
Health Union conducted a survey to study social health interactions. What did you discover about patient behavior?
We found that these connections are happening at really pivotal times and meaningful moments. People are looking to connect with others when they’re finding out about a new treatment option, or may be switching a treatment, or are experiencing new or different symptoms. They really want to connect with others to ask questions like ‘Has this happened to you?’ and ‘What do you think about this?’
We also found that 80% of people are actually using what they've learned through social health and talking about it with their doctor. These conversations are having a meaningful impact.
Did you find any demographic differences between audiences on social media platforms from data on the communities you curate?
We do notice that the Instagram audience tends to be a little bit younger and a little bit more diverse. We see more males on Instagram, as well. Facebook tends to be a little bit older and a little bit more female. That's why we think it’s super important to use all of the platforms that we have available to us to reach everyone at the moment that they may be using the internet.
TikTok is something we're also exploring now. We've seen so much activity on TikTok. People are really finding connections and finding relatable content. There’s that validation when you see someone in a video talking about something that has happened to you. Even without conversing with them, you feel that immediate validation, like it's not only just me, which is great.
But we know it's not going to be a platform for all of our different conditions because some skew a little bit older. For example, we are not seeing our [chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder or] COPD community on TikTok as much as others, like our MS community or endometriosis community.
What role do patient influencers, or pharma influencers, play in fostering online interactions?
People sharing their stories and sharing their experiences is really what sparks a lot of the connections in social health.
We’ve created a network of over 100,000 patient leaders. We call them health leaders because it's more than just patients — it's caregivers, it’s loved ones, it's healthcare professionals. These health leaders are also sometimes considered digital opinion leaders. They are online sharing their perspective, and a lot of times they're sparking that conversation around something that people might not have had the opportunity to connect around earlier.
How can pharma companies leverage social health for marketing purposes given strict federal regulations?
Our social health survey found that 95% of people are using online resources for their health. Pharma companies can provide those resources — whether it's clinical trial information or information about what's next in treatment options, what's happening in their clinical trial world, but also things like their patient assistance programs. A lot of people think some treatments may be out of reach for them based on cost or insurance status, but there are a lot of resources out there and not every person online knows that those are available.
It’s really about authenticity, as well. We know that pharma companies have regulations and people don't necessarily want to feel the same connection with a pharma company that they feel with other patients in their community. But it's really about the right message at the right time.
So, pharma companies sharing the information that they have and the resources that they have with those communities is really important.
What are the best ways for pharma companies to connect with people and meet them where they are on these platforms?
I think the big piece is for them to understand and listen to the conversations that are happening in social health. There's so much we learn on a daily basis about things that are not in published literature or things that are not documented in medical school teachings. We just learn those nuances of what it's like to live with those conditions.
I think pharma can learn a lot from what is happening in social health. I think that to the level they can, participating by sharing resources that they have, but also sharing those opportunities for assistance programs or possibilities for access — things like new clinical trials.
Given that, what are a few things companies should focus on when trying to engage with patients on these platforms?
I think that the No. 1 thing is that people engage with social health at these critical time points in their life, and so that is the key time when people are looking for information. This is where pharma and biopharma can meet people where they are by having easily accessible information that is written using health literacy best practices that makes the information accessible to patients and easily understood.
It's making sure that you have the information ready and available when people are searching, [and that] people are aware of what options they have.
It's a little bit different than it used to be where physicians were the knowledge holders on all of this. Now, it's really more of an active partnership with patients and their healthcare team to talk about what's best for them. So, knowing what is out there in terms of treatment is important.