In our line of work, there is another type to watch out for – the healthcare influencer. Physicians, patients, and caregivers are all tapping into the power of social media to communicate with one another and increase awareness about certain issues that are important to them. Among their followers, they are seen as trusted authorities and are helping to generate broader conversations about diseases, conditions, and general health and well-being.
There are numerous benefits for pharmaceutical companies in the healthcare influencer space. Working with these individuals not only yields pertinent insights about what they want and need. By listening to their conversations, pharmaceutical companies can leverage the patient perspective in the design, development, and promotion of their products and services, and build authentic one-to-one relationships. There’s just one challenge – healthcare influencers have different profiles compared to traditional Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs).
The healthcare industry needs to recognise this powerful breed of influencers. If they are able to identify the correct KOIs, they have an opportunity to develop and nurture mutually beneficial relationships, which benefit the KOIs, pharma brands, and commercial goals.
Pharma companies usually have a clear idea about how KOLs can support product and brand developments, and have established methods of developing necessary KOL engagements. But as you can see from our example above, online influencers exhibit quite different profiles. Here’s how they compare:
A recent WEGO Health survey in the US (which does allow direct-to-consumer advertising) showed that 14% of patients trust a lifestyle influencer. However, 51% trust healthcare patient influencers. Furthermore, 85% of patients trust a pharmaceutical brand or advert if promoted by a POI.
For their followers, patient influencers promote positive disease management information, encouraging and normalising positive healthcare behaviour. Patients can feel empowered by learning and engaging with these authoritative but empathetic patient leaders. The online health community allows patients to be up-skilled by influencers or expert patients, deepen knowledge about treatment options, and gain new perspectives. These spaces also play an important role in the emotional journey of patients and their mental well-being, gaining reassurance from hearing that what they are experiencing is normal and what to expect along their disease journey in the future.
There are varying types of patient influencers that can be categorised based on the size of their social media audience:
For example, patient influencers can be included on advisory boards to support the development of treatment solutions and patient support programmes by providing a highly patient-centric perspective. Physician influencers can be invited to lead a clinical trial, which can generate awareness of data among their online following. If the KOI often writes articles or blogs, then the pharma company can provide them with exclusive information or support the development of original content, which can be shared with their audience.
The key is developing a strategy for engagement. What that strategy looks like depends on specific marketing objectives set, and whether the pharma company can develop the correct relationship. This process can’t be rushed. The relationship must be mutually beneficial to both parties and slowly nurtured. There are a number of ways to do this. For example, pharma could begin by inviting them to be a speaker at a conference (including virtual events). The KOI could then share data and key messages before, during, and after the event (as well as generate social media buzz and discussion).
This step is critical, as it will determine the size of the patient and prescriber population that is influenced by social media channels (and hence justify the need for social media analysis).
Social media analysis uses big data analytics to identify the healthcare influencers with the largest number of followers who are generating a significant impact with the information they post and are influencing an interconnected network of peers (e.g. physicians, patients, and caregivers).
We can also utilise social media analysis to more deeply evaluate the types of conversations they are having, the nature of the information they are creating and sharing, and which topics are generating the greatest intention.
However, there are certain restrictions of big data analytics that should be mitigated. First of all, the limited shelf-life. Social media is highly dynamic, and influencers can be highly ephemeral – rising out of nowhere and then disappearing completely. In addition, the topics of interest can also change and evolve quickly. To overcome this, we suggest that every one to three months, pharma conducts validation projects to assess the relevance of identified influencers and to monitor the rising stars.
Lastly, we also recommend getting an understanding of the sphere of influence outside social media: what activities, if any, are these social media influencers doing offline? Do physicians who are not heavy users of social media recognise these influencers? To what extent are they KOLs? These answers will be key to understanding the most effective influencer omnichannel strategy (digital and traditional channels). These objectives can be met via traditional online questionnaires triangulated with social media analytics.
At Research Partnership, we have started to notice significant interest in influencer mapping research across a range of therapy areas and have developed an effective approach to provide pharma companies with essential recommendations on how best to involve influencers in their development plans. Influencer ID identifies, profiles, and maps the key online influencers in chosen therapy areas to reveal important metrics.
Paul Reed, director for Research Partnership
Paul Reed is a director at Research Partnership, focused on healthcare market research for the past 18 years. In response to the trend of online healthcare influencers, he has been helping pharmaceutical companies identify and understand offline and online influencers and supporting them in the development of engagement strategies. Reed has considerable experience with traditional KOL mapping, as well as integrating the more innovative big data social media analytics.
Basil Feilding, associate director for Research Partnership
Basil Feilding has extensive experience identifying and profiling different influencers for healthcare companies. In the early 2000s, he worked in the US developing a product aimed at helping pharmaceutical companies identify and work with KOLs at the regional level. Since the COVID pandemic, he has brought this experience to help pharmaceutical companies in their identification of and engagement with online influencers.
Research Partnership, an Inizio Advisory Company, is a world-leading custom and syndicated global insights partner for health and life science companies that optimises commercialisation success through evidence-based, story-told insights and recommendations. We provide custom market insights, syndicated real-world insights, and market access insights for the entire product lifecycle. Derived through rigorous research design and socialised outputs and delivered through an agile, collaborative approach by market research experts and thought leaders, our insights empower better decisions and create long-term value for patients.