Pharma companies turn to LinkedIn to engage

While the three granddaddy social networks, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have spent a decade publicly duking it out for share of human attention-span and commercial usefulness, LinkedIn has quietly and efficiently evolved to become an essential pillar of corporate practice, for individuals and organizations alike.

In fact, it's almost impossible to imagine that its founders could have wholly foreseen or planned for the true magnitude of its impact on business today.

LinkedIn was unleashed way back in 2003—two years ahead of YouTube, it should be noted—and attracted just 4,500 members during its first month of operation. By the time Twitter came into being and Facebook had thrown open its doors to anyone/everyone, both in 2006, LinkedIn had already launched its “public profiles” and had amassed close to five million users. These days, the network is available in 24 languages and boasts more than 9,200 full-time employees with offices in 30 cities around the world. Membership currently stands at more than 400 million people worldwide, 122 million of whom are in the US.

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LinkedIn has been something of an enigma and part of the reason has been the difficulty of pinpointing its core purpose. For a long time, it was seen as a professional advancement network, crudely dubbed “Facebook for jobs.” But while career advancement and recruitment is still a major function, over time LinkedIn has evolved into an effective publishing platform for professional content, which has had profound implications for corporate communications and marketing activities. Indeed, marketing solutions now represent 18% of LinkedIn revenues.

A big part of LinkedIn's appeal lies in the high level of engagement of its members and the potential for precise targeting of content and talent searches. In the healthcare space, membership encompasses all stakeholder groups: pharma companies, patients, healthcare professionals, marketing agencies, hospitals, investors and, of course, employees (read: the talent pool).

Of the largest pharma companies, AstraZeneca currently has around 455,000 LinkedIn followers, versus approximately 27,600 on Facebook. Similarly, Novartis has 794,000 LinkedIn followers versus 121,000 on Facebook), Johnson & Johnson has one million (versus 695,000) and Pfizer 1.1 million (versus 195,000). Each of these companies posts content regularly on LinkedIn. Conversely, Gilead Sciences publishes only job listings and counts just 106,000 LinkedIn followers, which illustrates the importance of posting useful content beyond career opportunities.

Consider also the personal posts of individual pharmaceutical executives. Pfizer CEO Ian Read currently has 108,000 followers. His three most recent posts deal with topics as diverse as career tips for young professionals, treating diseases in developing countries and clarifying Pfizer's tax position regarding the Allergen merger. The “tips” post garnered almost 60,000 views and generated more than 200 comments.

The number of US healthcare professionals using LinkedIn is currently estimated at more than four million. A 2015 survey by CMI/Compas Media Vitals of 2,152 physicians across all specialties showed that 33% used LinkedIn for professional purposes (versus just 8% for Facebook). The numbers vary between specialties, with 44% of dentists and 40% of dermatologists using LinkedIn professionally.

The evolution of LinkedIn from a career network to a publishing platform has had a profound effect on social-media responsibilities within pharma organizations. Likely to initially have been placed in the hands of human resources and talent recruitment executives, LinkedIn is now a fully fledged communications vehicle. It goes without saying that a unified corporate message projected across all posted content is crucial.

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Takeda Pharmaceuticals is one organization undergoing such a transition. Caroline Onagan, associate director of Takeda's global talent acquisition operations, is the company's LinkedIn veteran, having clocked about six years of regular use for recruiting purposes. “For talent acquisition, we use LinkedIn end-to-end for all stages of the candidate lifecycle,” she explained. “We create awareness for those that don't know us, we engage those that do have familiarity and have shown some level of interest, and we convert the people we want to hire into employees.”

A major part of this mission is branding the company as a career destination. “We regularly push out updates to show all of the different things that are happening at the company, whether it's news about acquisitions, information about some of the initiatives that we have or the partnerships we have,” she said. “But we also try to engage employees to push out what it means to work at the company. It's authentic content, and that's a big focus for us as we move forward on LinkedIn.”

Onagan notes that she is also increasingly interviewing candidates via video and experimenting with reaching out to potential employees with video content about Takeda. If you're thinking this sounds more like corporate communications than recruitment, well, you'd be right. Onagan now has an entire communications team working with her.

Leading the charge is Rob Scott, Takeda's digital transformation leader in global communications. Scott describes his position as a “uniting role” for social media and digital monitoring across the global organization. He focuses on four pillars: education, empowerment (governance/good guidance), growth and innovation.

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Takeda's LinkedIn strategy has three foundations: consolidation, engagement and growth. “The first thing we're trying to do is understand how we can service the needs of a global organization in a local approach,” said Scott. “Next, it's about using the data from that global audience to understand how we can create content that the audience wants, so that we can educate them about our therapeutic areas and our business in a way that they want to hear. The third piece is about how we can grow LinkedIn into a key channel for us.”

For Takeda, LinkedIn is very much a work in progress, particularly when it comes to melding together the corporate content and recruitment objectives. “We're taking a very data-led approach to building an understanding of the different ways that we can deliver content,” Scott continued, emphasizing the importance of social listening and monitoring.

Regulatory considerations are obviously paramount with any pharma-generated social-media activity, and Scott leads a cross-function digital governance group with the objective of building “very, very simple guidelines, protocols and processes to ensure that we follow the regulatory requirements,” he said.

Scott has plenty of advice for other companies looking to build out their LinkedIn activities. “The first golden rule is to engage a cross-functional group of people,” he said. “The second is to take a strong approach to understanding and listening to what your audience wants to hear and not necessarily just what you to say. The third is to test things and then learn from them.”