In June, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette’s Emily Maynard Johnson made a post about her experience taking Duchesnay USA’s morning sickness pill Diclegis — including safety information.

It may look like a normal Instagram post, but there is a deeper story behind it.

“Y’all, I’m finally enjoying my pregnancy! So grateful to my readers who told me about #Diclegis (doxylamine succinate/pyridoxine hydrochloride)!”

That dispatch was posted in June 2016 by Emily Maynard Johnson, formerly of ABC’s The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, on her Instagram page. Two photos accompanied it: one of Johnson with her family and the other of her clasping two Diclegis morning sickness pills. In the post, she describes her personal experience with morning sickness and how Diclegis helped ease it. Oh, and there’s safety information.

Launched last year, the program with Johnson marks Duchesnay USA’s second attempt at leveraging a celebrity’s Instagram following to reach expectant mothers. In July 2015, the drugmaker infamously partnered with Kim Kardashian West to promote Diclegis on her Instagram page — and, for its efforts, received a warning letter from the FDA’s Office of Prescription Drug Promotion demanding the company “immediately cease misbranding.” In the letter, the agency claimed Kardashian West’s Instagram post failed to include important risk information.

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“We misinterpreted the way we were expected to do one certain piece of the post, so we acknowledged it and retracted it,” explains Dean Hopkins, general manager at Duchesnay USA. “With Emily, we made no mistakes. We were able to take what we learned with Kim and transfer it over to our other initiatives.”

Duchesnay isn’t alone on the learning curve. Now that healthcare and pharma companies have finally become more comfortable with platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, they are starting to explore other social media channels. The one in which they see the most potential? Instagram.

There are about 500 million people using Instagram every month, and 300 million each day, notes Facebook health industry manager Danielle Salowski. She says Instagram has a total of about 500,000 active advertisers, but Salowski declined to share the proportion of those in and around healthcare.

“Over the past few months, we’ve started to see brands experimenting on Instagram,” she explains. With brands starting to wrap their heads around Facebook, if the platform has its way, this may be a bigger focus in 2017.

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Drugmakers have claimed their Instagram turf by launching corporate pages first, then moving to unbranded and branded ones. Medtronic and Novartis are actively engaging on the platform through their corporate handles, each with more than 14,000 followers. Then there are companies such as Sanofi that have created a handle, but not yet activated it with posts, says Intouch Solutions EVP Wendy Blackburn.

Salowski isn’t surprised. “We saw a similar trend on Facebook, where the corporate page was a way for companies to start experimenting and get them internally more comfortable with the platform,” she notes.

UCB global multichannel engagement solutions lead Greg Cohen agrees. “I’ve noticed pharma companies have grabbed the Instagram names for their products, but there are no posts yet,” he continues. “They’re probably getting them set up and holding them in case they decide to move into it.”


What makes Instagram so potentially valuable to pharma and healthcare marketers is its visual story-telling capability. As Salowski notes, it is “incredibly sticky” when it comes to engagement. The average Instagram user spends 21 minutes per day in the app, and users upload more than 95 million photos per day, which garner more than 3.5 billion likes.  

Thus, Instagram allows companies to not just break down complicated medical issues, but also “distill them into bite-sized components, which patients can consume more easily,” Cohen explains. “Users can either learn and teach themselves or share them with their networks, because the highly visual nature makes it easy for them to share their stories.”

See also: 10 things for pharma marketers to know about Facebook and Instagram

For their part, drugmakers can more cohesively tell patient stories across multiple posts, using images and videos to hook their followers. Salowski identifies Tylenol and Flonase as two brands that have excelled on the platform, noting how the imagery their minders have posted is exceedingly eye-catching.

“What I love about Tylenol is the beautiful seasonal content they’ll tie into different moments that are happening throughout the year,” she says.

Blackburn adds the goal for any series of Instagram images “is to have them feel more natural and organically produced. You don’t want it to feel like a Getty Images stream.”

Given its reach, Salowski believes Instagram can prove useful for marketers in almost any therapeutic category. However, other execs see the platform as more effective for targeting certain demographics and disease states. A 2015 Pew Research study of U.S. residents found about 55% of people between 18 and 29 years old use Instagram, compared to 28% of people between 30 and 49 years old, and 15% of people 50 and older. In addition, females (31%) were more likely to be users than males (24%), and Instagram was more popular among black (47%) and Hispanic (38%) populations than white ones (21%).

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“Instagram makes more sense for disease categories for younger people,” Blackburn explains. “Diabetes is where I see the biggest opportunity and activity, because it has always been a social disease category.”

Hopkins agrees, to a certain extent. “It does appear Instagram is the preferred method of communicating in this particular age group [of pregnant women].”

Along those lines, Blackburn recommends interested marketers should listen in on Instagram conversations before taking the leap. “It’s not right for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s right now,” she adds.


As with their presence on other social media platforms, drugmakers on Instagram face the challenge of regulatory compliance. This is no small hurdle, given how the FDA continues to fine-tune guidelines about safety information within limited-character formats. Instagram has a character limit of 2,200, which affords more flexibility than Twitter’s 140 characters, but still may not be enough.

If nothing else, Duchesnay’s experience with Kardashian West reinforced the importance of hewing to the prescribed rules.

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“What you don’t do is go outside the guidelines,” Hopkins notes. “You only have a certain number of characters. If you can’t do what you need to do in those characters, you just don’t do it.”

Salowski recommends addressing important safety information (ISI) the same way she does for Facebook: Either by including the information in an image or video or by using the platform’s scrolling ISI capability, which allows advertisers to marry a static or video ad with a scrolling video of the ISI text.

“This is where we have to experiment and work closely with our clients and their legal teams in order to figure out what they’re all comfortable with from a regulatory perspective,” she explains.

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Another concern drugmakers may have is how to deal with negative comments and online trolls. While companies can disable comments altogether, they’re wary of limiting the back and forth with patients, physicians, and caregivers. That’s why Blackburn singles out Pfizer’s corporate Instagram page, thought to be one of the most skilled in moderating, deflecting, and otherwise dealing with negative comments.

“Pfizer can delete the comments, but they don’t,” she notes. “There are always going to be trolls and haters. Deleting them sends the wrong message, because you’re there to engage. At the same time, you can’t play into the game of responding to every troll. Ignore the ones that came on to bait you.”