The Rise of the Social Influencer in Healthcare

June 5, 2020


You cannot log into Instagram, scroll through TikTok, watch videos on YouTube, livestreams on Twitch or get updates from Twitter without running into an influencer. The ability to influence the masses through social media has become an extremely marketable skillset.

Why are influencers important? People engage with them. From follows to likes and comments, social influencers can put your brand in front of a captive audience. According to Twitter, if an ad comes from an influencer, the general public is 24% more likely to interact with the ad. While difficult to tangibly measure, a large percentage of that 24% lift is likely attributed to the inherited authenticity that influencer brings to the table. 

Influencers have been around forever. Simply think back to how you have been marketed to throughout your life. Do you recall 9/10 dentists recommending a specific toothpaste? Or when a famous NBA player endorsed Nike shoes and Gatorade? How about when Michael Jackson drank Pepsi over Coke? Influencers are often compensated for their endorsement. Either through a traditional monetary payment or through a revenue share of products sold. SocialPub predicts the social influencer industry will be between $5b to $10b by 2022.

We have more recently seen the rise of the micro-influencer thanks to social media. No longer limited to celebrities or bloggers with millions of followers, influencers with even only a few thousand followers have been making a business of promoting consumer goods like makeup and clothing. During the pandemic, the current state of this type of influencer is uncertain, as retail sales drop, and overall consumer behavior has changed. But there’s one industry where micro-influencers continue to hold sway and importance: health. Within the pharmaceutical space, influencers are thriving, though they often are discussed under different names. 

Patient Advocates as Influencers 

The term Patient Advocate is often utilized when speaking about social influencers who have a specific disease/ailment or are the primary caregiver. 

Patient advocates utilize social media as one of their primary tools to reach consumers, patients and caregivers. According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, over 40% of consumers are using social media to get information related to health. It presents patient advocates with a platform to truly support, engage and influence others with the same disease or ailment. Examples of this can be found across both larger disease state populations such as diabetes but also smaller patient populations such as MS and hemophilia. Companies such as WEGO Health, specialize in giving these advocates and influencers a platform and allow pharma to play a supporting role through advertising opportunities. 

You could consider working with micro-influencers as well – this may not be someone who identifies as a patient advocate, perhaps a mommy blogger or fashion blogger who also happens to have a medical condition or be a caretaker. A micro-influencer has a smaller following, usually specific to a very niche topic, condition or medical approach. These individuals are still highly influential but often with a specific audience. Their audiences are usually more engaged than celebrities with broader followings. Put simply, if celebrity endorsements help your brand gain credibility in pharma, micro-influencers can enhance your products sincerity, relativity and relatability. 

Ideal Use Case: View these as the truest representation of digital word of mouth marketing. Let your advocates do the work for you and help guide conversations and discussions about their journey and experience with your product. 

Healthcare Professionals as Influencers 

On the HCP side, the term Key Opinion Leader has transcended into social media marketing, but other terminology often used is ‘thought leader’ or ‘KOOL’ which stands for Key Online Opinion Leader. 

With the rise in COVID-19, we saw many HCPs take to social media. In fact, one of the most popular uses of social media during the onset of the outbreak sparked TikTok Docs, where doctors and nurses took to TikTok to provide insight on how to keep yourself safe and utilize social distancing. We also see many HCP social influencers leverage such platforms as Twitter, Snapchat and endemic social platforms such as Skipta, SERMO, Doximity and Figure1. 

Ideal Use Case: ‘KOOL’s can be viewed as an authoritative source for information and can give a fact-based opinion on proper usage and benefits around your drug which can help gain consumer confidence as well as inform HCP peers. 

Celebrities as Influencers (When it’s Genuine)

Celebrities are also still important influencers in health, especially when they have personal experience with a medical condition, whether themselves or a family member. 

An example of this in practice came from a recent CMI/Compas campaign involving a celebrity brand launch for a very well-known athlete whose mother had a medical condition. The personal connection to the disease was an important factor. The unbranded campaign’s goal focused on genetic testing in order to verify if our product was right for the consumer, which is a creative way to leverage a celebrity without direct association to your brand. Working hand in hand with the client, CMI/Compas built a robust media plan while working within the confines of the celebrity agreement. The media plan involved a cross channel approach that blended organic and paid optimizations in order to receive maximum impact and reach across social, paid search and media network partners. The strategy resulted in almost 7 million engagements cross platform and drove massive positive deltas across channels with some metrics receiving 100+% performance increases while driving down the average cost per engagement due to the increased interest around the celebrity proving the positive impact of having influencer marketing and the importance of pairing it with a robust paid media plan to gain maximum impact for your influencer efforts. 

Ideal Use Case: Celebrities can create mass awareness around your drug or indication and can help start conversations and influence patient hand raises around your brand.

In some cases, while often referred to as a celebrity spokesperson, pharma has changed the way brands leverage celebrities by infusing social media into the strategy. In the past, celebrities were used on TV, in print ads and on disease state education websites. Now, a celebrity’s social media presence is an extremely important factor. Being able to leverage an already existing audience created by the celebrity provides pharmaceutical companies and brands extensive reach opportunities. On a negative note, the effectiveness of influencer marketing is so prevalent that social platforms have banned paid support behind COVD-19 related claims on products but have less control over influencers who are posting native content. 

Moving forward in this newer era of digital word of mouth marketing, brands should plan and build a full marketing plan to cover all of these aspects from macro to micro-influencers and ensure all angles of their brand’s story are told. Lastly, make sure you have a comprehensive media plan to amplify your carefully curated influencer marketing campaign to ensure delivery of those stories to both the influencer’s network and your pharma specific audiences outside of their network because if you “gram” and no one “❤️” it… did it even happen?