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It may have taken longer than it did elsewhere, but pharma has finally achieved some not-insignificant degree of comfort and confidence in the realm of social media. Medical loss ratio-fueled worries notwithstanding, brand teams have marketed their products on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to great effect, achieving results that make deeper incursions in and around those platforms likely.

And then there’s the industry’s use of social-blog mainstay Tumblr, which might fairly be characterized as almost nonexistent. Klick Health, which tracks pharma work on various social media channels in conjunction with the Digital Health Coalition, has identified a mere five Tumblr-centric programs: AbbVie’s Through Thick and Thin (cystic fibrosis), Gilead Sciences’ Healthysexual (HIV prevention), J&J Vision’s Eyeful (eye health/Lasik), Pfizer’s Pfizer 365 (corporate), and the Pfizer-Germany and Handelsblatt joint effort Countering Cancer. If there are others, they’re sufficiently under the radar as to avoid detection by Klick, the DHC, and MM&M.

It’s understandable why pharma hasn’t embraced Tumblr more enthusiastically. The channel’s reach is comparatively limited: Klick’s Brad Einarsen, senior director of social media, says Tumblr reaches between 18% and 22% of the U.S. population across all demographics. “It’s not Facebook,” he adds.

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On the other hand, Tumblr’s penetration among younger audiences is estimated to be around 40%. That likely explains J&J Vision’s investment in Eyeful, described by the company as “an eyes-wide-open dialogue about glasses, contacts, and Lasik.” Given the titles of some recent posts, notably “Little ways you’re wasting money that you could be saving for Lasik” and “4 U.S. cities that are the worst for travel when you have glasses,” Eyeful seeks to steer young, on-the-go individuals toward Lasik.

It’s a smart pairing of product and audience, and one Einarsen believes highlights Tumblr’s potential appeal to pharma marketers. “Tumblr users have their own internal culture, so the [programs] that work are the ones where there’s a match between that culture and the brand,” he says. “Tumblr may not be your first choice if you have an oncology product for an older demographic, unless maybe you’re talking to their kids. But overall, there’s lots of potential.”

There’s also a lot of space. Its layouts afford ample room for customization.

“Visually, it’s a cross between Instagram and Facebook,” Einarsen continues. “Functionally, each post on Tumblr is like a mini web page. You can have imagery, headlines, and links. You can change up the formatting. And you can make the MLR group happy, because there’s lots of room for the important safety information.”


Given the small number of Tumblr-based programs, pharma and agency execs generally don’t have a lot to say about the platform and its uses to date. Indeed, the typical response when queried about Tumblr was something along the lines of “Yes, Tumblr is definitely a thing I have heard things about.”

That said, of the five Tumblr programs, Gilead Sciences’ Healthysexual has generated the most enthusiasm among industry marketers. The drugmaker markets Truvada for pre-exposure prophylaxis, also called PrEP. The drug is currently the only therapy approved by the FDA to prevent HIV infections.

Read the news story: Gilead slowly rolls out ads for Truvada for PrEP — 4 years after approval

But while Gilead first received the FDA thumbs up for this indication in 2012, it wasn’t until last year that the company began to market Truvada for PrEP. Enter Tumblr, a central part of a campaign developed by Digitas Health that also taps Snapchat, YouTube, and gay dating apps such as Grindr, Jack’d, and Hornet.

Healthysexual posts are frank and forthright: “From HIV testing to threads, coordinate with your partner. Being on the same page means you’re in position, for any position.” It’s a smart attitudinal approach, given the campaign is aimed at young black and Latino men, transgender women, and serodiscordant couples in which one partner is HIV positive — all of whom are at high risk for HIV, according to Gilead spokesperson Ryan McKeel.

“The campaign is designed to engage sexually active, at-risk people with sex-positive public health messages,” he wrote in an email.

The Healthysexual effort is just as notable for its arrival date of late 2016. It is, after all, rare for drugmakers to postpone promotion of branded drugs to the degree Gilead did with Truvada.

While most pharmaceutical companies wait six months before launching branded DTC ads — this is designed to quell concerns that patients might learn about a drug before their physicians do — it took four years for Gilead to launch the first branded ad for PrEP.

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“In any other kind of FDA approval, there would have been beautiful ads, lots of TV, and lots of press touting the fact this was the new thing to keep people protected from HIV. Gilead chose not to do that,” the San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s Ernest Hopkins told The New Yorker in 2013.

Gilead, which has long marketed HIV therapies, was in this instance “very ambivalent to be seen as promoting” Truvada for PrEP, says Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, a nonprofit that advocates for PrEP usage and doesn’t accept funding from drugmakers. Warren credits local organizations and nonprofits for creating awareness about PrEP during the absence of an industry marketing push. However, he notes Gilead’s resources would be useful in creating additional awareness.

“They have the biggest reach and have bigger pockets than other organizations,” Warren says. “That’s just a reality.”


Gilead has faced its share of challenges along the way. Despite Truvada’s clinical promise, there have been several obstacles to adoption. The influential AIDS Healthcare Foundation has been critical of the drug, arguing that if people stop using condoms it may lead to an increase in other types of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The term “Truvada whore,” which refers to people who see PrEP as a means to stop using condoms and engage in risky sexual behavior, emerged several years ago, creating a debate within the gay community.

To that point, Gilead only began to incorporate sites such as Tumblr into its PrEP marketing strategy in late 2016, as part of an effort to raise awareness among patient populations that traditionally don’t engage with the health system.

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“We’ll be using social media and dating sites and Tumblr and Snapchat and things such as that, because they are much more likely to reach this type of population,” James Meyers, EVP of commercial operations at Gilead, said during an investor call in February.

Will the industry’s positive reaction to Healthysexual prompt more brand teams to give Tumblr a try? Einarsen expects more of a slow-burn embrace than a sudden boom in interest.

“There’s often not a ‘eureka’ kind of moment for any social platform because pharma lags on social,” he explains. “But Tumblr is a good platform for marketers who are already socially savvy. Its audience and influence are growing slowly, and brands will notice.”