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Scrolling Through an Influencer Era

Updated: Dec 16, 2019


Words by Louise Rogers

Social media is an engulfing phenomenon and shows no signs of losing its appetite. With 2.9 billion people predicted to use a social network site by 2020, to question its importance in modern society would be to question the importance of song in making a musical. Wielding this technological phenomenon has become a necessity for succeeding in the business world, and this unquestionably applies to pharmaceuticals. But where the healthcare industry’s adoption of social media was once compared to that of a person easing themselves into a hot bath, is pharma prepared to take the plunge

into colder waters and surf this digital wave?


Digital opinion leaders (DOLs) are hurrying to join their traditional key opinion leader (KOL) counterparts in the front seat to drive influence. While KOLs are recognised for their offline metrics – qualifications, research papers published, and public engagements to name a few – DOLs are measured by their online presence, familiarity with the social currency, and their understanding of the value of their large base of followers and the impact of a ‘like’ or a ‘share’.


“The digital ecosystem is transforming into a new market of influence, with its own rules and regulations”, explains Haider Alleg, Global Head of Digital Marketing, Ferring. “And we need to ask: What does it mean to be a leader in this new market? Is it someone who is the most appreciated? Or someone who has the most influence? Because every time you say something you have the ability to shape your communication territory.” DOLs are very different, in practice and in nature, to KOLs, and so this poses the question as to whether pharma are prepared and have the right procedures in place to make DOL management an integral part of their strategy?


The digital ecosystem is transforming into a new market of influence

In 2017, Bayer realised there was a need to educate women of reproductive age on their contraceptive options. Worldwide statistics report that five in ten pregnancies are unintended and half of those end in abortion. On the discovery that women in emerging countries typically consult their friends, partner, or the internet before visiting a gynaecologist, Bayer saw a window of opportunity to be an online provider of credible scientific information. Therefore, the company took to the social-network service, Instagram, to identify the major influencers of the reproductive community and began to build their DOL relationships.


Pelin Icil, Regional Marketing Manager, South East Europe, Israel, Central Asia, and Turkey, Boston Scientific, (formerly of Bayer and leader of the initiative) explains: “When mapping DOLs, we use the three Rs: Reach, how many followers they have; Resonance, how many times their content is shared; and Relevance, how related their content is to the topic we want to increase awareness on.” Bayer identified the most influential sexual health HCPs, who had interactions with >3 million women per year, and worked with them to better educate them on the information needs of young women and on the science of controversial topics.


The rise of patient power means that they, too, are entering influential realms. In their recent dive into social media, Ferring approached influential fertility bloggers, hosting the first ever ‘Blogger Fertility Summit’ to educate women trying to conceive on their conditions and potential options. “We realised that if we wanted to involve the patient, we would have to include them from the get-go”, explains Alleg.


Where there is a large influencer presence, pharma must be sure to invest into building a bona fide relationship with their influencers. “We want DOLs to have their unique touch in how the content is communicated to their followers. When educating DOLs, it’s vital to provide them with the data but not the final content. If the content is not authentic, it is fake, and people will see that”, comments Icil.


Kim Kardashian’s infamous Instagram post of the morning sickness drug, Diclegis is a dramatic example of a one-off marketing transaction. Failing to communicate any risk information associated with the drug, the FDA issued the drug maker with a hefty fine. Before its removal, however, the post spiked online conversations around the drug by 500%, and while the overall value the reality star brings to society is debatable, the value her online presence brought to the drug’s awareness is undeniable, truly exemplifying the influential potential of DOLs. However, it also highlights the importance of a genuine influencer relationship; to even flirt with the idea of a one-off influencer interaction seems too much a risk to the authentic and transparent image pharma are striving to create.

But using a strategy of this nature should be instinctive for an industry that has had years of experience in using KOLs. An area that may not be quite so natural, and where industry should therefore invest their efforts, will be measuring the effect of the digital engagement and the tracking of related KPIs. These new, targeted KPIs “should be put in place from the very beginning of the initiative”, argues Icil.




“Whether it’s a patient finding out their potential options, or a doctor becoming more aware of treatment options, what we ultimately want to do is shift behaviour – so we need to track behaviour change”, says Alleg. Pharma has a number of ways to track changes in behaviour, such as an increase in awareness of correct knowledge, or a change of intention; for example, Bayer measured their targeted audience’s awareness levels and their intention to use reliable contraceptive methods using surveys and polls on Instagram.


Pharma can also have numerical KPIs such as the number of followers gained by the DOLs, and how many conversations there were surrounding the content. “These KPIs are also a great tool in motivating the DOLs, so make sure you are sharing the results with them regularly”, says Icil.


When educating DOLs, it’s vital to provide them with the data but not the final content. If the content is not authentic, it is fake, and people will see that

The irony is that in some situations there really is nothing more unsocial than social media, which Ferring discovered when researching their target audience of women with fertility issues. “There is this large paradox between two types of behaviour”, says Alleg. “There are the people who are provocative, who share, discuss, and support themselves, and then there are those who are silent, who watch what others are saying, and really feel the pain of not being helped.” The internet nourishing these two types of people further exemplifies why changing behaviour is a core KPI.


As the social media market matures, so must pharma’s strategies of interacting with their target audience, and efforts of scaling the capability will become new territory. “And social media is only a part of it, the building blocks if you like. It’s the people behind the screens that make it interesting”, reminds Alleg. Like a car alarm that is set off just before you fall asleep, the effect social media’s ‘noise’ has on our society cannot be ignored. Only the companies that truly harness the power of DOLs and work to understand their digital footprints will be able to capitalise on the media that never sleeps.