Social Influencers & Pharma

By Maria Perrin
May. 3, 2019

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Selling Pharmaceuticals Through Social Media

In 2015 Kim Kardashian caused quite a stir when she touted a morning sickness drug called Diclegis to her millions of Instagram followers. While she later tagged the content as a promotion with the hashtag #ad, the FDA took a dim view of the post, and sent warning letters to the manufacturer. The post was removed, but in the time it was live, conversations about Diclegis increased 500%, and 29% of conversations about the drug included Kardashian’s name. Maybe that explains why she reposted another ad for the drug in 2017, while not pregnant, this time with all of the disclosures required by the FDA in a TV or print ad.

One of the major draws of influencer marketing is the “authentic” relationship between poster and audience. That artifice was harder to maintain when in order to be compliant with FDA rules Kardashian was required to use phrases such as “Diclegis can pass into your breast milk & may harm your baby.” Hardly something you’d read on your cousin’s feed

Clearly, selling pharmaceuticals via social media is not the same proposition as selling sneakers online.

The Rise of Influencers in the Pharma Industry

A double-edged sword for manufacturers using high-profile influencers is uncontrolled usage of promoted hashtags. Vox reports that medical device manufacturer Dexcom used Instagram sponsored posts on Instagram to promote their glucose monitoring device using the tag #DexcomWarrior.

While the content from the personalities directly involved, such as Derek Theler (nearly 681k followers) and Jay T. Maryniak (654k followers) was presumably vetted by Dexcom’s legal and compliance teams—though neither listed the device’s known risks—the more than 9,000 additional uses of the tag were likely not. Although these follow-on mentions didn’t violate FDA or FTC rules, as long as they were unpaid, it’s easy to imagine that some of them included unfounded claims or promoted off-label usage. When contacted by Vox, Dexcom, their PR agency, and the two influencers all declined to comment.

The problem for both regulatory agencies is one of scale. It’s simply impossible for them to police the avalanche of posts made every day on the major social platforms.

Making Influencer Marketing Personal

Another issue for advertisers is that of paid followers and bots. Many unscrupulous influencers use services to artificially boost their numbers of followers, which is the metric most advertisers use to select influencers and determine pay rates. It’s enough of a problem that the CMO of Unilever (the world’s second largest advertiser), Keith Weed, announced last year that his company was launching a major effort to identify and discontinue working with any influencers who use such tactics.

In response to these concerns, many manufacturers are moving away from high-profile sponsors and towards “micro influencers” and “patient advocates.”  These micro influencers are often patients with a few hundred to a several thousand (usually less than 100,000) followers, and have social feeds or are involved in forums where they discuss their disease with other sufferers. The drug companies like these advocates because as real patients, their content is based upon actual experiences, giving it a personal quality and fostering greater trust from their audience. Smaller numbers of followers mean fakes and bots are less risk, and it’s easier to gauge genuine engagement.

Social media consumers are becoming as immune to celebrity influencer marketing as they have to traditional banner ads, another reason for this shift.

The practice of using patient advocates is mainstream enough that an industry is growing up around it. Wego Health is an agency that connects companies with advocates, and they have over 100,000 on the roster. Voz Advisors is a similar company that holds an annual conference connecting companies with advocates.

Expect to see this use of smaller-scale advocates continue to mature and grow. It’s going to be an interesting evolution and in the long run will likely eclipse the use of high-profile influencers. They also cost a whole lot less than Kim Kardashian.

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