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Conversations about health are increasingly taking place on social media platforms.

A 2022 report by Hall & Partners finds that 33% of Generation Z and 26% of millennials are using social media to discuss illness (study based on 10,500 respondents from the US, Germany, the UK, China, and Japan).

This trend is also being fuelled by a new generation of healthcare influencers, who use social platforms to offer help and advice on both chronic conditions and general health.

TikTok, a platform with high user engagement thanks to its algorithmically populated ‘For you’ page, is home to health-related topics with hashtags like #healthtips and #healthadvice. These hashtags rack up huge viewing numbers, with #healthexpert generating over 8.4 million views alone.

Not all ‘health experts’ are healthcare professionals (HCPs), of course, and with pharma companies bound by strict regulation, TikTok is a tough space to navigate. However, Dimitri Cologne, Strategy Director at Ogilvy Social.Lab, told Econsultancy that TikTok is potentially “a gold mine for any company who can get in there and do it well.”

So, how can pharma companies approach the opportunities afforded by TikTok?

TikTok monitoring informs wider content strategy

Ogilvy Health’s ‘Ever Heard of HealthTok’ report summarises the appeal of TikTok, describing it as an “infinite loop” that’s “fuelled by the desire to constantly learn and discover something new.” Indeed, the platform doesn’t bill itself as typical social media, preferring to be known as an entertainment platform, with screen time to match.

This engagement empowers brands to create more meaningful relationships that are built on loyalty and trust. However, pharma has typically shied away from TikTok due to the highly regulated nature of the industry, as companies are prohibited from sharing content that promotes prescription-only medicines, as well as other medical devices and products (though regulations vary by regional markets). This reluctance has stemmed in part from unclear and out-of-date regulations, which have lagged behind the evolution of new digital or social platforms.

Cologne says that existing audiences on TikTok still present an opportunity – even if companies don’t want to engage them.

“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,” he said. “Just by having a deep understanding of what those people are talking about – so potentially doing some social monitoring or monitoring of a hashtag to understand how they’re talking, and what their needs are – all that information can be used to inform content strategy.”

Ogilvy Health’s report also suggests searching TikTok to discover what content is resonating, describing “an inexhaustible stream of native user-generated content, varying from asthma-proof travelling tips to HCPs illustrating how to use an inhaler: very DIY and very relatable.”

This type of activity can enable pharma companies to gain an understanding of a specific patient community and what kind of content might resonate.

New PMCPA guidance offers clear benchmark for social media policies

For those that have a TikTok presence, there is guidance, new this year, laid out by the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (the PMCPA) – the independent body that administers the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) code – on how pharma companies should be using social platforms. This guidance covers topics such as working with influencers, clinical trial recruitment, as well as both the companies’ and employees’ use of social media channels.

Cologne says that this guidance is being welcomed by global pharma companies. “It’s specific to the UK market, but we know that the UK market is a bit stricter than others, like the US. So, what we’re seeing is that even companies outside of the UK market are looking at this guidance just to give them some sort of benchmark for what they should be doing,” he explained.

This guidance could also help pharma companies navigate the tricky area of employee influencers. HCPs have been stepping into this territory in recent years – particularly since Covid – by sharing medical knowledge or advice on social.

The PMCPA states that “pharmaceutical companies may be held responsible for engagement with, or dissemination of, information by company employees who do so via their personal social media channels,” which may result in pharma companies implementing clearer policies. In turn, we may also see more formal employee advocacy programs come to the forefront, where employee content is specifically created in partnership with the company.

TikTok offers opportunity to push creative boundaries

What kind of pharma content is appropriate for TikTok? Cologne says that “disease awareness-style content works really well… but there’s definitely more that can be done when it comes to the platform.”

Indeed, disease awareness or prevention content can enable pharma companies to become discoverable on the platform. Ogilvy’s HealthTok report issues a word of warning, however, stating that “pharma companies can’t simply buy their way into conversations around health topics.” Co-creation – partnering with influencers – can be an effective route in, particularly, as Ogilvy says, if the influencer has “a voice credible enough to move their viewers into action.”

Cologne adds that pharma companies should be thinking about how they can push creative boundaries, too. “From a kind of content perspective, [it’s about] asking what the latest trend is when it comes to content creation and video.”

Above all, despite its reputation for throwaway content, it’s clear that TikTok could have an impact on pharma engagement – especially considering the industry has not fully explored its potential. For companies that have the time and resources to create strategic content that, crucially, is compliant – the platform presents an opportunity to reach target audiences.

Report: Pharma’s social media use is maturing, but opportunities abound