Pharma companies have long been hesitant to jump on the influencer marketing gravy train, and with good reason. Unlike other industries, which transitioned traditional marketing techniques with ease, pharmaceutical marketing has proven to be a much more complex proposition.
Compare Selena Gomez’s Coca-Cola endorsement from 2016—formerly the most-liked Instagram post ever, with Kim Kardashian’s endorsement of morning sickness pill Diclegis, which violated FDA rules in 2015. She had to issue a correction and rewrite the post after they gave the company a warning. Pharma brands were scared off and have avoided the conventional approach of poaching a superstar for an ad, while for other industries, it’s business as usual.
It has often been a big challenge for pharmaceuticals to navigate FDA regulations for their advertisements—mandating that they list the side effects and risks of the product along with the advert. The industry has historically had to jump through regulatory hoops to market their products and has only been advertising through broadcast media since 1997.
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In addition to FDA regulations, pharma companies must abide by FTC guidelines for influencer marketing ads, or else risk sanctions. A Mediakix study last year showed that 93% of top social media endorsements violate the guidelines. No wonder then, that big pharma might be concerned, particularly when consequences are grave if your product gets on the wrong side of the FDA.
Furthermore, pharmaceuticals have a fundamental issue with influencer marketing. The market is there—according to a Pew Research study, 90% of people aged 18-24 trust medical information on social media, while a third of the adult US population go online to ‘figure out’ a medical condition.
However, the appeal of influencer marketing relies heavily on the authenticity of the ad and the influencer. Pharma and influencers are well aware that FDA regulations are detrimental in an industry where realism is key, and this is likely one of the primary reasons Kim Kardashian was reluctant to toe the line in the first place.
How then, do pharmaceutical companies approach marketing in this difficult, regulated influencer landscape? Pharma companies have been strategically maturing on social media over the past few years and have sought a very different approach to the typical relationship between influencer and brand.
The pharmaceutical relationship to influencer marketing is very different. There is a larger emphasis on long-term relationships and quality over quantity, and it’s common for influencers to have a far smaller reach than a typical influencer. This is because pharmaceutical marketing casts smaller nets across a niche audience.
Pharma companies have pursued key opinion leaders to form longer-term partnerships with figures who can organically promote interest in the brand and retain the authenticity which is so crucial to online influencer marketing. These can include doctors, fitness experts, dieticians and other respected voices in the community, in contrast to A-list celebrities. In fact, patients themselves are often valuable in getting access to patient communities.
As a result, the process of vetting and recruiting new pharmaceutical influencers often takes a long time and many resources, with the benefit being that a well-chosen influencer can generate positive return.
It should then come as little surprise that the rewards reaped by the pharmaceutical industry have been high, with the average earned media value (EMV) of pharma campaigns in 2016 higher than that of any other industry.
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Excited to announce I am teaming up with @Amcal_Pharmacy, documenting #MyDiabetesJourney to #Bathurst1000 and #GC600 for #DiabetesAwareness. Follow my stories over the coming weeks where I’ll be giving you a behind-the-scene look into how Amcal helps me manage my #diabetes, so that I am in peak health for the biggest races of the year. #JustAskAmcal #spon #PharmacistAlwaysAvailable
Jack Perkins is a supercar driver with 21,000 followers. In an attempt to educate followers on diabetes, he introduces his personal journey and how Amcal Pharmacy helps him manage his disease. In this way, he refrains from promoting a specific product and focused his message on a pharmaceutical service. His sponsored post generated 1,397 likes, 33 comments, and an engagement rate of 7.2%. He used the tags #DiabetesAwareness, #spon, #JustAskAmcal, and #PharmacistAlwaysAvailable.
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#ad I’ve been fortunate in life to be able to merge my passion for climbing and adventure into a career and lifestyle, but not without a lot of dedication, training and sacrifice. As I evolve as a person and an athlete, so do my goals and objectives. Some are specific to climbing while others are more personal. I hope to not only continue to live a fulfilling and passionate life, but also someday to be able to share my adventures with a family. Family planning and birth control has played a major part in how I have organized my life and will remain important as I enter the next phases of life. I believe in educating yourself on your options and open communication when it comes to planning and priorities, which is why I’m teaming up with Merck on the @herlifeheradventures campaign to encourage other women to discuss birth control options with their doctor – check the link in my profile for more and follow along on Instagram #HerLifeHerAdventures // @tarakerzhner photo of me climbing the legendary ‘Panic in Detroit,’ at my home cliff in Donner Summit, CA
Professional rock climber Emily Harrington has 160,000 followers and shares climbing photos with her fans. As opposed to promoting a particular birth control product in her sponsored post, Harrington instead calls attention to Merck’s educational campaign and encourages women to discuss options with their doctors. She used the tags #ad and #herlifeheradventures to promote Merck’s birth control campaign with her own story. The post earned 7,468 likes and 46 comments for an engagement rate of 4.7%.
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Nothing sends me into a tailspin faster than those #SickJustGotReal moments that all of us moms know so well. Today #ontheblog I’m sharing a few tips, in collaboration with @pfizerinc, to show how we treat those less than stellar sick days. . . . . #sponsored #sickday #motherhood #momlife #family #parenting #mother #parenthood #mommylife #childhoodunplugged #childhood #motherhoodthroughinstagram
Ashley Paige is a former motherhood blogger with a background in who shares pictures of her family to 13,600 followers. In a sponsored post description, she informs followers that a more extensive write-up in partnership with Pfizer Consumer Healthcare can be found on her blog, which advises how to deal with children’s cold symptoms by using over-the-counter treatments. It should be noted that non-prescription drugs are primarily regulated by the FTC, not the FDA.
The Instagram post nor blog post list common side effects associated with the drugs, but Paige goes on to list their benefits. Perhaps her background in medicine gives her more clout, but her post on common sickness only produced 89 likes and a handful of comments. Using the tags #sponsored and @pfizerinc, she achieved a 0.8% engagement rate.
British blogger and TV host Louise Roe has a whopping 696,000 Instagram followers. In a brief sponsored post, she informs her followers that an inside look at her treatment and management plan can be found in the link in her bio. In her blog post and video, she provides another link to the actual drug’s website that hosts FDA compliant information.
Without mentioning the product on Instagram, Louise hints that Celgene is responsible for helping her fight the autoimmune disease. She uses the campaign’s hashtag #InsidePerspective along with FTC compliant tag #Ad. Her post earned 3,969 likes and 23 comments for a 0.6% engagement rate. Perhaps due to its sponsored nature, the post vastly underperformed compared to her other organic posts.
It is clear that pharmaceutical marketing is wary of using influencers to directly promote particular products. With high scrutiny and influencers who are careful of the image they present to their followers, both parties tread the line carefully.
Even in cases where a singular product isn’t promoted, audiences are sensitive to overt company sponsorships. For example, Paige’s product advertisement and Roe’s simple treatment promotion did not perform well from an engagement perspective. Alternatively, Perkins’ and Harrington’s ads both featured personal stories that resonated with their audiences strongly—their success mirrored in the engagement rates they achieved.
This is indicative of the wider approach to pharmaceutical influencer marketing, moving away from the typical celeb A-listers like Kim Kardashian and aiming instead to cultivate longer relationships with influencers who can promote their brand in a more authentic way while sticking to the FTC and FDA regulations. As pharmaceuticals become more confident in the world of influencer marketing, expect the industry to stretch its legs and move further away from traditional product advertising.