For pharma companies, social media has become an essential tool for supporting both patients and healthcare professionals. From connecting people living with chronic conditions to sharing vital information and research – social media channels can enable companies to drive awareness and build on existing relationships.

It’s no longer enough to simply maintain a presence on social media, however, as pharma companies strive to use social media more effectively to drive deeper levels of engagement.

Yet, despite increased investment in social, “there’s so much more that can be done,” Rebecca Carter, Head of Social Media at Ogilvy Health UK, recently told Econsultancy.

Ogilvy Health’s Social Check-up 2023 report delves into the social media maturity of 10 big pharma companies, scoring them across six categories: social corporate identity, social content strategy, social experience and design, paid social, influence, and social community.

Though the industry has embraced social media, there are clearly areas that show room for improvement in the report.

“I think a really key take out was that even though Bristol-Myers Squibb took first place, followed by Boehringer Ingelheim and then Roche, actually there wasn’t a clear leader across the board when it came to the individual category scores,” said Carter.

“So, although they did take first place for the total score, actually, there was still room for improvement for BMS as well.”

ogilvy health social checkup scores
Overall scores from across categories in Ogilvy Health’s latest Social Checkup report. Image: Ogilvy Health Social Checkup 2023 report


Social content must have a goal, or risk being “content pollution”

“Social content strategy was the lowest scoring category overall. So, there’s so much room for growth when it comes to social content,” said Carter.

The ‘Social Check-Up’ report found Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) to be the pharma company with the most effective social content strategy, with BMS effectively using content to demonstrate authenticity and build trust. BMS uses content including stories from patient advocacy groups, relevant podcasts, and credible research to add value and keep audiences engaged.

An effective social content strategy is largely about relevancy and execution. Whether it be sharing content at opportune moments (such as to raise awareness on certain days), patient-generated content for storytelling, or sharing content from third-party sources – content should be able to support various objectives. It must have a goal, opines Carter, or risk being “content pollution”.

“Why put out content without it having a clear objective or without understanding what your audience actually wants and needs?”

“For congress activation, for example, why announce that you’re at a congress without actually giving the reader something more for them to take? Do people really care if you’re going to be attending a congress without giving them something else that they might be interested in? So really,” said Carter, “our advice for pharma companies is to think about their audience first and actually what they want to hear.”

The report praises Boehringer Ingelheim for creating content with platform functionality in mind, sharing mobile-optimised content that takes advantage of different formats and styles to help engage users. The company regularly uses subtitles on Instagram video content, for instance, helping to reach audiences who want to engage with video without audio.

Using paid social as a test bed

While social advertising budgets have suffered amid wider economic challenges and iOS privacy updates, Carter says that paid social is still a valuable tool for pharma companies – as long as it is part of a long-term and strategic approach (rather than a one-off activation).

“An advantage of using paid is that you don’t just have to make the assumption that patients like your content…,” she explained. “You can actually test different variants, such as different images or messaging or calls-to-action, so that you can see what works best for those audience groups. And yes, that does cost money, but I think that is a really great way to test and learn as well. Then you can use that insight to inform your organic content as well.”

Ogilvy Health cites Pfizer as best-in-class for paid social, with the company executing both an always-on and peak campaign approach, as well as targeting different audiences with different visuals in its paid campaigns. Roche was also picked out for its paid media strategy, which involves clear A/B testing across channels including Facebook and Instagram.

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Missed opportunities to build trust with social communities

Ogilvy’s community scoring examines how pharma companies interact with their followers, frequency of posting, and their speed of response. Roche was found to be the fastest in its response time, typically replying to users on Facebook and Instagram in under 24 hours, while others took up to three days to reply.

The agency found that some pharma companies choose not to respond to any comments on social, which is something that Carter says is a missed opportunity. In contrast, companies that do respond (and in a timely fashion) can reap the benefits.

“A company like Roche, which is monitoring comments on their own channels and having that opportunity to respond… it really does allow them to build up trust with those people who are commenting on their posts.”

Boehringer Ingelheim was also cited in the report as a company that excels at consumer-facing social comms. “Wherever they respond, we noticed that they always include that person’s name and then also often sign off with their own [community manager’s] name as well, and just adding those personal touches really helps to show that there is a person behind that response,” said Carter.

Carter cites social listening as an effective tool for understanding different audience groups online, while in-person market research can enable pharma to connect with healthcare professionals. “We’ve been doing a lot of advisory boards,” she said. “So, actually getting cardiologists and other experts together – virtually or in a room – to talk to the pharma companies about how they are consuming social, and then what they believe they need from that pharma company, and then using that information to inform the social media strategy moving forward.”

It’s also valuable for pharma companies to monitor existing communities on social platforms like TikTok, to gain insight into how patients are talking about specific subjects.

“On TikTok, there are millions of conversations happening every single day from patients with all different types of diseases, who are talking about those diseases on that channel,” says Carter. “All that information can be used to inform content strategy as well.”

While the majority of pharma companies have a presence on social media, it’s clear that pharma still lags behind other industries in terms of the impact and outcome of social activity, in part due to the nature of regulation. However, with users increasingly willing to engage with topics related to health and wellness on social platforms, there is a big opportunity for those pharma companies that invest in using it more effectively.

Hear from Ogilvy Health’s Rebecca Carter at Econsultancy Live, 27th April, London. Tickets £299, Econsultancy members go for free.

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