8 ways for pharma to improve the way it uses Twitter

The tech giant's health team works with clients that include Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Aetna, and Cigna. Photo credit: Uncalno Tekno/Creative Commons

When it comes to incorporating digital and social media in their marketing strategies, drugmakers' efforts are still overshadowed by fear.

That's according to Mary Ann Belliveau, Twitter's national health and wellness director. There's a misperception that drugmakers can't use the platform because of regulatory limitations but in fact many firms are doing it and doing it well, she noted.

The tech giant's health team works with clients that include Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Aetna, Cigna, and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. While the team's  primary health focus is on pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and health insurance companies, wellness companies like fitness centers are also going to Twitter for strategy advice, added Katie Collins, lead healthcare strategist at Twitter.

See also: Pharma companies turn to LinkedIn to engage

“The most growth we've seen has been from pharmaceutical companies — both on the pharma side and the consumer product side — and also from hospitals,” said Belliveau.

Overall, the company reported its slowest revenue growth since it went public in 2013. But one reason Twitter may be seeing growth among healthcare companies is that it can help them reach active patient communities, said Belliveau. Because Twitter is an open platform, patients are quickly able to connect with each other using hashtags, share stories, and seek out information about their conditions.

Twitter's demographic profile is broader than some might think, with 23% of U.S. users aged 45 years old and older, and an almost equal ratio of men (49%) and women (51%) represented. Likewise, patient groups on the platform range from those with rare disease to more common diseases like diabetes, noted Collins.

“Pharmaceutical companies and hospitals have realized that these conversations and this social care is the area they would like to communicate with, and advertise to,” said Belliveau.

“Where the conversations are happening has started to shift from traditional places to social media like Twitter,” added Collins. “So they're trying to figure out how to be a part of that.”

Here are eight tips for drugmakers and other healthcare companies to better utilize Twitter:


Plan around healthcare events and awareness days. Photo credit: Jenn Vargas/Creative Commons

Develop a content calendar focused on healthcare conferences and events as well as disease awareness days so there's time to develop quality content in advance, while also allowing flexibility for relevant in-the-moment content.

Having a content calendar is particularly helpful for companies that require a long approval process.

“The best companies have good processes in place,” said Collins. “For social, because it's real-time, they have processes in place to get things approved more quickly.”


Successful brands deliver an authentic voice. Photo credit: Amber Case/Creative Commons

In other words, don't sound cold and sterile. Create a voice that humanizes your brand. Belliveau points to branded and unbranded handles such as @GilenyagoUSOnly, @Eloctate, @CosentyxUSOnly@ActuallySheCan, and @WhySoAwake that are doing it well.

There's “an example of Gilenya replying directly to someone: ‘So glad you made it out. Thanks for coming,'” said Collins. “It's very casual conversational language. It's not clinical or scientific.”

Handle  Branded vs. Unbranded  Company 
 @GilenyagoUSOnly  Branded  Novartis
 @Eloctate  Branded  Biogen
 @CosentyxUSOnly  Branded  Novartis
 @ActuallySheCan  Unbranded  Allergan
 @WhySoAwake  Unbranded  Merck

“I think what makes [these handles] successful is that they're authentic,” said Belliveau. “When they're branded, they talk a lot about their brand and about health but not about the disease state. When they have video that has important safety information, then they do talk about the disease state and have patient testimonials.”

The executives recommend developing some pre-approved responses that are genuine, authentic, and ready to use when followers expect a reply.


Mayo Clinic is using Periscope to live-stream procedures.

Video is the fastest growing creative component being used on Twitter, and such content tends to be driven by patient testimonials rather than by using a TV commercial format, said the executives.

“It's just more engaging, with sight, sound, and motion,” said Collins. “The brands that have done it well have excelled at creating relatable content and using good patient testimonials.”

When it comes to health, people are also apt to watch videos that last up to seven minutes, said Belliveau. She added that it's likely because they want to learn as much as they can about their condition or disease. Using video is a digestible way for people to consume information and for pharma to get around important safety information often seen at the end of a TV commercial, without a 140-character limit.

Additionally, some healthcare organizations are using Twitter's live video-streaming app Periscope. Periscope is being used at conferences, hospital systems such as the Mayo Clinic are using it to live-stream procedures, and insurance companies like Humana are using it to promote events they sponsor.


Hashtags have the ability to collect online conversations and house those conversations in a searchable way. Understanding the intentional use of a hashtag is key, and the executives say to use existing hashtags to be part of a larger conversation or create a new hashtag to initiate a brand's own conversation.

“Some companies want to be involved in hashtags that are already trending, like #DiabetesDay,” said Collins. “But then other companies want to start their own hashtag to be known for their own consistent message that they incorporate throughout all of their marketing.”

If you decide to create your own hashtag, incorporate it in your TV and print advertising as well, said Belliveau.

For example, Flonase's #BeGreater is used in different parts of the media strategy. GlaxoSmithKline makes the allergy medication.

“They did a trend on Twitter in spring that was “#BeGreater than your allergies,” where they asked users to submit photos of themselves being greater than than allergies, so they had all these submissions of people in a garden,” said Belliveau. “And then they followed it up in the fall with one around pets; hence, people sent in submissions of them with their pets.”


Place community guidelines in pinned tweets so users can understand what the expectations are from the get-go.

The team at Gilenya, Novartis's multiple-sclerosis drug, for example, pins these kinds of tweets to make clear that patients understand the company operates in a regulated industry and won't be able to respond to every tweet.

Drugmakers and other healthcare companies can also set expectations for response times. If the handle is monitored Monday through Friday, companies can use a pinned tweet to address delayed responses for weekend tweets to prevent frustrated customers.

“If I were to tweet at you on Saturday night at 11 pm, I have an understanding of what the timing is, the expectations,” said Collins.


“When people tweet at you, they don't care if you're American Airlines, Spotify, or Novartis; they expect an answer,” explained Belliveau. “When you don't respond to to your patients, it's like having an empty call center.”

Being proactive, even when comments are negative, helps build brand confidence, Belliveau and Collins say.

They both recommend responding to negative comments publicly with a short message of acknowledgement and then resolving the issue privately.

“You'll see something like, ‘I'm sorry to hear that' or ‘We're disappointed you had a bad experience. Why don't you give us a call and we'll talk about it?'” said Belliveau.

That allows other followers of the handle to see the dialogue publicly and feel that the company cares about them.

At the end of the day, people want to be heard and the perception of negative comments is usually far worse than the reality, said Collins. “I've never had any companies stop the promotion of their handle because they say, ‘Oh my god. We're getting all this negative feedback and we didn't anticipate it.'”


Digital, TV, and print should all be part of a cohesive marketing strategy. Photo credit: Eigenberg Fotografie/Creative Commons

Companies and brands should have a cohesive approach to marketing that includes digital. TV and print is often siloed from digital, but it should be one strategy, said Belliveau.

“You're sometimes watching TV or reading a magazine, and you're often on your computer and phone, too,” said Belliveau. “It should all be integrated.”

“It's just another extension of the marketing mix that should be a part of everything,” added Collins.


At this year's ePharma conference, Belliveau discussed how the pharma industry can navigate Twitter with attendees .

Even though the FDA lacks clear guidelines for how drugmakers can use digital platforms like Twitter or Facebook, there are ways to make it work, insisted the Twitter executives.

“Sharing best practices of what other companies are doing, being at conferences to meet people, and share what we're seeing really opens a lot of eyes, because there's so much internal confusion and lack of understanding of what's happening out there,” said Collins.

Twitter, Facebook, and Google have been involved in conversations with the FDA to better understand how the companies and brands regulated by the agency can best use social platforms, said Belliveau.

“We think that digital in general has really improved the way patients understand the side effects of their medication, because it's in a much more digestible fashion than when you open a box at a pharmacy, and the print is this small,” said Belliveau.

“Right or wrong, it's a much more informed and influenced consumer,” said Collins.