The Road Ahead: 2020 Lessons and 2021 Predictions

We entered 2020 with our predictions and plans, never imagining that a global pandemic would change everything within a few short months. It led us down a road on an unexpected journey, challenging the healthcare system, the pharmaceutical industry, and humanity beyond measure.

After what the world experienced this past year, it feels bullish to make predictions while still in the path of the storm. It does, however, feel appropriate and, dare I say, even necessary, to reflect and take inventory of the lessons we have learned and how these lessons can help us predict what’s to come in the new year.

The Lesson: A Walk in Their Shoes

If I asked you to complete the phrase, “2020 has been….”, I undoubtedly would get mostly negative statements—some of them likely pretty crass. But despite all the negative, 2020 has been the year that the world took a humbling walk in the shoes of the chronic care patient. A year that deepened empathy and understanding toward the most vulnerable of us.

As an industry and individually, we navigated health uncertainty, feelings of isolation, and many common frustrations that chronic care patients regularly faced long before COVID-19 was a staple in our daily vocabulary.

Chronic care patients often share that there are two phases to their healthcare journey: “the before” and “the after” diagnosis. The frustration of longing for the before and the living in the after is a push and pull we all now recognize and empathize with having experienced a pandemic.

We now recognize the many things we took for granted in “the before” and understand how different those things may look in “the after.” We understand this experience will fundamentally change the way life looks moving forward.

We can also empathize with isolation. While many of us have lived our lives free from isolation, many chronic care patients have not been so fortunate and were quarantining and self-isolating out of necessity before it was “cool”.

And of course, living our lives with our mind constantly running risk analysis around our health is something we can draw parallels to. “Is going to the store really worth risking my health?” or “should I call the doctor or are these just symptoms of a common cold?” These once lightly made decisions take on a new meaning today.

The Prediction:

What this means for marketers is that we have a newfound sense of empathy and understanding of the patients we all serve. In 2021, we predict that empathetic messaging in healthcare marketing will accelerate and trend.

The Lesson: The Telehealth Tidal Wave

The telehealth train was coming long before the onset of COVID-19 and, as with many other facets of digital adoption, we saw the pandemic as the great accelerator.

In 2018, we surveyed the WEGO Health Patient Leader Network and about 1 in 5 (22%) of Patient Leaders had tried telehealth. Fast forward to 2020 and WEGO Health’s recent research in partnership with the Digital Health Coalition showed that 4 in 10 Patient Leaders utilized telehealth before the pandemic, and 9 in 10 have increased their telehealth utilization since the onset of COVID-19.

We are seeing pharma brands begin to leverage telehealth in a number of ways, from digitally providing educational information and patient-provider telehealth visits to full-on brand launches like that of Imvexxy with telehealth as the main prescription driver.

Digital technologies such as wearables have also increased exponentially, but patient desires in this area are still very practical in nature—the strongest for medication management and self-monitoring tools.

The Prediction:

The rapid adoption and development acceleration of digital technologies is just the beginning. We predict that 2021 will see an increase in strategic partnerships incorporating telehealth and digital technologies into the “patient experience,” with many more brands like Imvexxy partnering with Patient Influencers to spread the word. These partnerships and technologies provide the additional value patients are seeking and also help to strengthen adherence.

The Lesson: A New Day for the PSA

No, we’re not talking about prostate-specific-antigen levels (those are important too), but the good old fashioned public service announcement. While some conditions like HIV have been leveraging PSA’s for consumers for years, we haven’t seen them adopted by the industry in masse.

But 2020 brought a new style of PSA: the “Don’t Neglect Your Health” PSA. We saw television, digital, and social media marketing geared toward encouraging patients to continue to go to their doctors’ appointments and stay on their therapies.

From AstraZeneca “New Normal Same Cancer”

We have even seen industry thought leaders and scientists embracing hot new channels like Tik Tok as an opportunity to reach people to dispel misinformation and spread public safety awareness around the COVID-19 vaccine and science.

In my [humble] opinion, there has always been a lack of messaging as it relates to adherence coming from pharmaceutical manufacturers. With a staggering 50% of Americans not taking their medications as prescribed, “medication non-adherence” leads to preventable deaths and increased costs to the system.

In the patient community, we see a much higher emphasis on adherence messaging as Patient Influencers understand their power to drive patient behavior. Studies show that patients who receive peer-to-peer support services are more empowered and educated, and as a result, are able to make better healthcare choices and access resources that reduce the barriers to care.

The Prediction:

There is an opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry to partner with patients and HCP’s to continue to spread awareness and reinforce the value of keeping doctors’ appointments, staying on therapy, and managing mental health long after COVID-19 is in the rearview. This is a “hopeful” prediction of ours because, in this digital era, health ownership has never been more important.

The Lesson: A Brave New Virtual World

And we thought we were virtual before 2020! We have to look back and chuckle at our naive selves. HCP marketing, consumer marketing, product launches, and conferences and events all experienced rapid digital transformation.

Within a few short months, we’ve seen brands embracing new technology and partnerships that were years in the making, and the traditional rep-model has been flipped on its head.

Of course, many of these changes were a long time coming with COVID-19 again functioning as the great accelerator. But the question remains, “what ‘normal’ will we return to when this pandemic ends?”

A recent FiercePharma article stated (and we agree), there is no going back. When it comes to in-person promotion, an August 2020 Accenture survey found that 87% of HCP’s want either all virtual or a mix of virtual and in-person meetings after the pandemic ends. As a former pharma rep, I can say from experience in the field that this particular shift was a long time coming.

And the rep model was not the only major change. With nearly all in-person events (both industry and patient-facing) brought to a halt in 2020, the pharmaceutical industry has had to pivot like never before as it relates to both internal and external events.

While we miss in-person events, we also recognize that there is one person that virtual events work really well for—the chronically ill patient. In the past, to attend an in-person summit we would see patients have to move mountains to travel and exhaust themselves in a weekend with a nonstop, action-packed agenda. With many events becoming virtual in 2020, it provided the opportunity for patients who ordinarily could not travel to attend.

And to that point, we also saw a rise in patient webinars in the industry. In a WEGO Health survey conducted in April 2020, when asked what virtual solutions patients’ were seeking from pharma companies, 41% of patients shared that educational webinars were important to them.

We have seen more brands successfully executing webinars, “live” events, and forums utilizing social media and other digital platforms that allow patients to connect with one another and the community seems to be enjoying this new normal.

The Prediction:

While we know there is value in in-person events that is difficult to replicate virtually, we also predict this trend will continue to grow stronger far beyond 2021. The savviest of brands will tap into patients to design, execute, and help promote their virtual events to truly incorporate the patient voice in every digital moment that they are engaging with their audience.

The Lesson: The Year of the Patient Influencer

In 2020, life as we knew it was put on pause. The world turned to social media for information, as a form of escape, and to stay connected. Healthcare queries topped all other searches, and with studio content creation brought to a halt, patient influencers took center stage.

In a recent quarterly landscape survey, WEGO Health learned that 85% of patients are receptive to branded patient influencer marketing. Patients shared that the top considerations in branded campaigns were not the patient influencer’s reach, but their authenticity and transparency.

In the same survey, we found that patients had a greater trust in patient influencers over lifestyle influencers and that patient influencers have a greater influence in medication research over lifestyle influencers.

The Prediction:

While we don’t anticipate celebrity influencers or endorsers going away, we do anticipate more of a mix of influencers across the board in healthcare—including physicians!

With more receptive patients, we’re also seeing more pharma brands dip their toes into the influencer marketing waters. In a recent webinar produced by our team, over 50% of pharma marketers and agencies polled said they were either already testing influencer marketing or planning to do so in 2021. Of those same participants, 2 in 3 said they intended to partner with a mix of patient influencers (nano to mega) in 2021.

We predict this adoption will accelerate, and if done with an emphasis on authenticity, we also anticipate a rise in patient trust as a welcome secondary result.

The Lesson: All Eyes on Inequality & Health Disparities

Not that long ago, health inequality and disparities were the elephants in the room, taking an uncomfortable place under the rug in the healthcare conversation.

But with black and brown communities falling victim to COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates coupled with horrific events of systemic racism like the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the industry began to open its eyes to the problems we face.

While telehealth adoption rates skyrocket, how will this impact an already daunting digital divide? In a world with “no child left behind,” what about the patient? Patients are being forced to become more accountable for their outcomes, and while some are swimming, others are sinking.

The good news is that, as an industry, we are starting to have these difficult conversations. We are seeing a rapid rise in senior-level Diversity & Inclusion roles within pharmaceutical companies and agencies. We are also seeing a rise in pharma and agency advertising and promotion of D&I to the public.

With movements like Insulin For All and organizations like BLKHLTH finally gaining momentum and a place in the spotlight after years of tireless work, 2020 saw the industry step up in bigger ways than ever before.

The Prediction:

While strides are being made, there is still much work to be done. and we predict that the industry will continue this important work in 2021 and beyond.

The Lesson: Spotlight on Science

Having spent the better part of my career in this industry, I have always known the amazing things that this industry is capable of. This year, the rest of the world got to see.

We watched as pharma companies developed, studied, and gained approval for two COVID-19 vaccines in an unprecedented timeframe with unprecedented efficacy. We watched as scientists and healthcare professionals worked around the clock, their faces scarred with bruising from the masks they wore all in an effort to save lives. We watched as our loved ones suffered, were isolated, and some were buried, as a result of a healthcare pandemic that we as a society never saw coming.

COVID-19 put a spotlight on science and the healthcare industry like never before, and the world got to see the vital work that pharmaceutical companies do.

There has been conflicting research in 2020 to assess how COVID-19 has affected patient trust with Harris Poll research looking optimistic and recent Takeda research skewing more negative. While research is never apples to apples, it does help us to identify trends that are important for the industry.

While WEGO Health research showed that patient trust was relatively split, we did learn one important factor: patients who partner with pharma companies have a greater tendency to hold higher opinions and more trust in the companies with which they work. Gaining a glimpse behind industry walls helps patients to see that we’re all patients and people, with common goals and emotions.

The Prediction:

We predict that we will continue to see a rise in patient trust in the pharma industry in 2021 and beyond. Starting with influencers as an early barometer, trickling down to the patient population as a whole.

The industry has an opportunity to harness this momentum, and we predict that they will through making progress in diversity and inclusion, collaboration with patients, and empathetic messaging.

“Change is inevitable. Evolution, however, is optional.” – Tony Robbins

We look forward to what 2021 will bring for our industry!

6 Best Practices for Working with Patients on Creating Content

If you’re not creating content for your brand that features real patients, you need to be. Beyond the well-documented need for authentic content, marketing materials featuring patients are proven to resonate more with target audiences than materials featuring traditional stock photography. Many pharmaceutical companies are starting to grasp this idea, if only on a small scale. For example, GlaxoSmithKline’s ViiV recently launched a partnership with Shutterstock featuring free-to-download images of real HIV patients living their best lives in order to help dispel the use of stereotypes in marketing for the condition.

As more brands begin to adopt these trust-building marketing practices, it’s important to note that there are a few rules of the road when working with patients to create content and ensure a positive experience for both brand and patient. Here are six of WEGO Health’s tips to help brands start these initiatives off right.

1. Ensure your recruitment criteria for patients are rock-solid.

Once you know the type of patient you’d like to work with for your initiative (e.g., age, gender, diagnosis), you and your teams can focus on the right patient for the job.

2. Clarity is key.

You want to eliminate any confusion the patient you are working with may have. Your goal is to make sure the patient you’re working with to create custom content fully understands your program and its goals. It will build brand rapport with the patient and also build trust, resulting in even stronger content.

3. Authentic content only.

Keep the content’s style in-line with what the influencer usually publishes; otherwise, you risk the content being poorly received by the influencer’s audience. If it feels out of place from what users organically see, it sticks out like a sore thumb, and it may have the opposite of the intended, trust-building effect. For example, if you force a patient who is not an actor to read a script in order to appease MLR, it’s going to be clumsy, awkward and stale. There’s prolific value in UG-style content where patients speak as if conversing with a friend over coffee—not struggling in front of a teleprompter.

4. Do your research.

Or be prepared to start from scratch. Take the time to learn about the audience you hope to reach. Invest in truly understanding their wants and needs from pharmaceutical companies. This means having conversations directly with patients, not assuming what their challenges may be. Is it support resources? Is it real patient videos? What messaging resonates most with them? If you are taking the time, effort, and resources to create content featuring patients, take additional time to ensure the content you’re creating is what your audience needs. If you’re unsure where to start, WEGO Health offers patient insights programs to help get you connected and informed.

5. Be flexible with timelines.

I know, not an ideal tip, but when working with patients (especially if those who have a complicated diagnosis), you need to be flexible. For instance, a symptom of lupus is severe fatigue. A lupus patient may be a day late returning content due to a flare, and you should be prepared by factoring in extra days to your timeline to be conservative. This is not always the case, but something to keep in mind.

6. Compensate patients for their time.

This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised that some companies are unable to do so and others don’t consider it a factor when building a project budget. Exposure for patients is not payment. To ensure patients take your program seriously and produce their best work, they need to know they are being treated fairly by being compensated for their time, insights and expertise. Be sure to set aside some budget for patient compensation.

Pharmaceutical companies still battle significant distrust from patients and patient communities, but brand teams work hard to break through. Building trust through meaningful relationships and engagements with real patients is a step in the right direction. By including custom content featuring patients in your marketing campaigns and a campaign narrative written in collaboration with real patients, you’ve already taken that first step, and maybe a few more. It’s a best practice to take the time to understand your target audience, hearing their wants and needs directly rather than assuming you are on track to developing valuable content without them. Pair that with having a patient (or caregiver) who has personal experiences and tips to share with a broader audience, and you’re well on your way to a successful patient campaign.

If you’re ready to kick-off a patient-centric campaign but still don’t know where to start, contact the WEGO Health team and let us help build a custom program for your brand.

Pharma Influencer Marketing: Making the Case

Every day, more pharmaceutical brands are hoping to see the same outsized business results that other industries have found in influencer marketing – but pharma faces challenges far different from any other industry. How can pharma brands share control with influencers to build patient trust and engagement? How does trust translate to ROI?

In our most recent Quarterly Landscape Report, WEGO Health analyzed responses after surveying 263 of our members across 86 conditions to uncover patient influencer perspectives on influencer trust, action, attitudes toward pharma promotion, and partnership preferences.

Influence of Lifestyle Influencers versus Patient Influencers

Lifestyle influencers invite their followers to get a glimpse into their picturesque lives, revealing many aspects of their personalities. They typically share multiple talents or passions, like fashion, home décor, travel, and family life with their followers. To earn the title of “influencer,” they typically have large followings on the macro (10K – 1M followers) or mega (1M+ followers) level. They are masters at their craft, churning out beautiful content on multiple platforms, with the most popular earning a comfortable living on paid partnership income. While lifestyle influencers numbers have been on the rise over the last decade, they did not focus much on health issues such as living with medical conditions and taking medications until much more recently.

Because personal health journeys are a newer addition to the parts of their lives influencers share with their followers, there is great skepticism on the receiving end. “I’ve been following you for years, so why am I only hearing about your debilitating migraines now?”

On the flip side, health issues and medical conditions are the predominant focus of a patient influencer. Sure, they sprinkle in lifestyle content occasionally, but looking at the feed of a patient influencer, you mainly see their journey of living with a medical condition(s), inspiration and support for others, and documented experiences with medications and therapies. In a way, managing their condition often is their lifestyle. The pictures aren’t always pretty and the content doesn’t share only the highlights, but it’s real, raw, and authentic.

While there are patient influencers out there with sizable followings, the vast majority tend to fall more within the nano (1K-10K) to micro (10K-100K) categories. Their content is tailored specifically to their audience of patients living with or caregiving for their condition(s) versus the general population, and the smaller and more niche their condition, typically the smaller the reach of the influencer. By and large, they are not living off of the income they make as an influencer, but hustling in many forms from consulting as a patient in addition to full-time jobs to earn a living — all while still devoting many hours to the communities they manage and inspire. But don’t underestimate their impact. Nano and micro-influencers have greater, more impactful engagement with their followers and a well-established foundation of authenticity and trust in their communities.

While the patient influencer is a relatively “new” phenomenon to be brought into the healthcare industry spotlight, these folks have existed for over a decade. It’s only in recent years that they’ve started to gain notoriety among marketers for the value that they can bring.

So the question is, when it comes to health information, who is trusted more, patient influencers or lifestyle influencers?

NOTE: For our research and analysis, WEGO Health surveyed our Patient Leader Network members who are both patients and, in many cases, patient influencers themselves to varying degrees. Within our network, we have advocates, activated patients, and influencers as members, and in digging into the data in this particular survey, we saw a 50/50 split between influencers and activated patients. Regardless of their personal “influencer” status, these people are patients first, and their perspectives on who they trust are more critical to analyze than perspectives of those in the general population. They represent the communities brands aim to reach and provide the best insight into the psychology of the patient mind.

According to our research, patient influencers handily win in the battle of trust. Exactly half of the respondents did not or only slightly trusted information shared by lifestyle influencers and only 14% felt that they could mostly or completely trust the information shared by lifestyle influencers in a sponsored ad or post. On the flip side, only 17% of respondents did not trust or only slightly trusted patient influencers. Over half (51%) mostly trusted to completely trust the information shared in a sponsored ad or post.

Lifestyle Influencer versus Patient Influencer Trust Factor Graph

Qualitative insights survey data we collected in the fall of 2020 shows that authenticity plays a big role in this equation. While lifestyle influencers may very well be living with the chronic conditions they discuss, they don’t always have the same level of knowledge and expertise to discuss these conditions as that of a patient influencer who speaks on it daily. Combined with the fact that many macro and mega lifestyle influencers are living above the financial means of the average patient and therfore have access to different and better resources, many patients feel that they just can’t relate.

When it comes to the likelihood that an influencer drives patients to research medications, the QLS results have a similar inverse relationship as the trust factor. Half of the respondents were not at all likely to only slightly likely to research medication that was promoted by a lifestyle influencer, whereas over half were mostly likely to very likely to research a medication promoted by a patient influencer.

Lifestyle Influencer versus Patient Influencer Trust Factor

An interesting curveball in this survey was patient community influence. When asked how likely patients were to research or ask their doctors about health information heard through or promoted by others in their communities, the results were overwhelmingly positive with 64% mostly and very likely. While this organic approach is the most coveted by pharma marketers, it is certainly the most difficult to scale, which is why many brands find the happy medium to be the patient influencer as a larger disseminator of information to their communities.

Influence to action lifestyle influencer versus patient influencer

Receptiveness to Branded Influencer Marketing

So, let’s talk about the approach. We know patients are receptive to health information and medication information shared by patient influencers, but what about the straight-up “brand mention”? How receptive are patients to fully branded ads and marketing messaging?

This was one of the most eye-opening findings from our survey because as it turns out, they are more receptive than many would think. Over half of patients are somewhat receptive and another 29% say they are very receptive to fully branded marketing.

Perhaps the more surprising statistic is found when we look at receptiveness to pharmaceutical partnerships. When asked how receptive they, as patients and influencers, would be to partnering with pharma on marketing and advertising initiatives, the large majority (86%) is somewhat to very receptive.

The most important word to focus on here is the word “partnership”. WEGO Health CEO, Jack Barrette, pointed out in our most recent webinar that patients are receptive to partnerships, but only if those partnerships are a true collaboration. This means honoring the expertise and autonomy of the patient influencer. The trust of their communities and their pride in their authenticity are not factors patient influencers are willing to sacrifice. For example, being told what to post, when, and how to say it might not ring as true to these patients as would a collaborative process of uncovering pain points within their community and communicating their perspective (in their own words) on a medication’s ability to solve those problems.

WEGO Health solicited open-ended answers on this topic because we really want to understand what patients feel makes a good branded partnership. Here is what a few respondents had to say.

Patient Influencer Pharma Partnership

For those on the fence or against these types of partnerships, many responses went back to their fears of medication being a deeply personal decision, one that belongs to the patient and their care team.

At WEGO Health, we understand this is not a simple feat. Having partnered on branded campaigns with pharma, we know the intricacies of the MLR process and the sensitivities of the patient community. Standing in the middle with outstretched arms, we strive to strike the balance so that both sides see the value and reap the benefits.

Execution with Patient Influencers

When a brand is considering a partnership and they have a patient influencer on board, what are the top considerations for the brand to get it right?

Considerations for Branded Patient Influencer Marketing

Breaking these components down, there was an interesting theme that authenticity and transparency trump engagement and influence. In the world of mega influencers, many marketers look at reach as the number one criteria of hiring an influencer for their campaigns. But in the pharmaceutical and healthcare space, this is a very different landscape. Patients find it most critical that the person sharing the information is genuine and real, living with the condition, as opposed to holding stock in their number of followers.

Branded Partnerships Patient Influencers and Pharmaceutical Companies

Patient Influencer Partnership Preferences

Because many pharma brands are accustomed to their celebrity endorsers being exclusive to their brand, they often struggle to understand why patient influencers are reluctant to exclusivity.

To dig in on this topic, we asked our respondents to weigh in. Our research confirms that patient influencers are reluctant to exclusivity, with 1 in 3 respondents answering they would “never” consider exclusivity. Over half, however, are okay with exclusivity, but only for a finite amount of time.

But why? Patients want to remain unbiased. As their conditions change, so often do the therapies that they take. They do not want to be held to agreements that do not allow them to mention, explore or share new medications and therapies that someday they may ultimately end up needing and succeeding with. Patients also like to be able to speak freely, and promoting flat tummy tea doesn’t hold the same weight as a potentially life-changing medication. While they are happy to share their positive experiences with their community, they understand the value in remaining open. Every person has a different body chemistry and each medication or therapy, therefore, is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Patient Influencer Branded Partnerships with Pharma Companies

Lastly, when looking into the future and what 2021 may bring, it wasn’t surprising that the majority of patients are not ready to travel. This survey was conducted in October 2020 when COVID-19 numbers were lower but even then, 3 in 4 respondents said they would not travel until cases decrease or there are proven treatments or a vaccine. But this doesn’t mean that partnerships need to be put on the back burner. Patient influencers are highly skilled at creating authentic content from within the walls of their own homes, as well as working virtually with pharma brands and companies like WEGO Health.

Patient Influencer Example High Engagement

Overall, the takeaways from our landscape research indicate that patients as influencers for brands will help build trust more so than lifestyle influencers, are more likely to increase target patient audience action, and that patients are receptive to branded marketing and ready to partner with pharma to make it happen. If you’d like to explore the power of a patient influencer campaign for your brand, we invite you to reach out to our team and explore the possibilities!

Patient Leader + Thought Leader Conversations, Part 1: The State of Patient Advocacy

MarlaJan Wexler is a leader among Patient Leaders, sharing her very real and often hilariously profane survivor story as Luck Fupus. In her words, Luck Fupus is about “the girl, the nurse, the patient, the part-time superhero… tales of life with lupus, congenital heart disease, fake boobs, and an out-of-order baby maker.” We can’t imagine anyone better to kick off WEGO Health’s series of Thought Leader interviews – where top Patient Leaders will interview industry experts.

MarlaJan’s inaugural Thought Leader interview is with WEGO Health’s founder and CEO, Jack Barrette, weighing in on the effect of the pandemic on Patient Leaders and the evolution of patient advocacy.

If you’re a Patient Leader with an idea for a Thought Leader interview or a Thought Leader ready to be heard, let us know here.

MarlaJan: How has the pandemic affected the process of patient centricity and engagement?

Jack: In some ways, the pandemic shut down of HCP offices to rep visits has helped to focus industry attention back on patients in general. At WEGO Health, we’re seeing innovative companies thinking hard about how to help patients transition to virtual care, for example, which means more collaboration with patient community leaders to understand what that journey looks like. Pandemic nightmares like “it’s dangerous to go to your doctor” have caused patients, HCPs, and payors to get creative—together.

MarlaJan: How has it affected patient advocacy, in either communication with companies or in access to providers/medications/devices?

Jack: Slamming the door on in-person events has really hurt; some advocacy organizations rely on their annual conference or fundraiser, and opportunities for patients to spend quality time with companies and providers is invaluable. But the silver lining has been the democratizing of so many events that were limited to who could physically travel or who could afford it – now everyone is on the same work-from-home playing field, and for most patient advocates, that’s home-field advantage.
At the risk of cheerleading a global disaster, WEGO Health’s been seeing a really positive surge in companies and providers using web meetings to have more frequent, more collaborative conversations with patient influencers and advocates. Hosting five Patient Influencers in person for a day takes months of planning; hosting the same five on Zoom for an hour can happen six times during those months at a fraction of the cost.

MarlaJan: What has happened over the past few years to advance patient advocacy efforts?

Jack: There has been a movement—and I’m proud to say WEGO Health has been a part of it—to line up patient advocates as peers with HCPs and industry. More than ever before, we’re putting patient advocates at the table as accountable contributors and partners – recognizing their expertise and compensating them for real work. And healthcare companies are seeing the real impact of working side-by-side with patient advocates: better-designed trials getting completed more quickly, patient access issues getting tackled, even marketing becoming more authentic and effective with the help of Patient Influencers. That means patients-as-peers isn’t a fad; it’s the new way.

MarlaJan: Which companies are doing a good job of interacting with patient organizations, and how?

Jack: WEGO Health works a lot with life sciences companies – pharma companies – and there’s tremendous variability. There are a LOT of great things happening, so here are just two examples.

At GSK, their lupus team is deeply committed to that patient community; they work with Patient Influencers to support the whole life of a lupus patient, not just their relationship with a medication. The GSK team spends time talking with Patient Influencers and designs programs with them – a recent standout example is the #WhyITattoo campaign to raise lupus awareness.
Alnylam is a standout in the rare disease space; as a biotech, they’ve built a remarkable patient-centric culture and helped to grow advocacy around porphyria, for example, a condition where patients are just beginning to find each other. A top Alnylam exec was on a panel with me recently, and he told the story of their sales reps delivering medication to patients who could not leave their homes during the pandemic – that job is nowhere in their compensation plan. Still, as a company, they think of the patient first.

MarlaJan: What needs to be done to improve patient advocacy efforts, either on the organization side or the healthcare company side?

Jack: I frequently counsel advocates to share their stories – and the value of working with them. How can your credentials of fighting chronic illness and leading a community of patients help solve real problems for your partners? Don’t be so damned humble!
One consistent piece of advice for companies we hear from WEGO Health Patient Leaders is to avoid the wham-bam-thank-you-advocate approach. If you ask a group of Patient Influencers how to best educate their communities, don’t just get your answers and never call back! The companies that follow up and say “we did this with what your group said” or even “we couldn’t do that because of legal, but we heard you” – those companies are building real trust.

MarlaJan: Describe some of the best moments you have experienced with moving the needle forward in advocacy.

Jack: I have the best job in the world because I get to be inspired by patient advocates daily. There are some life-changers, like our live WEGO Health Awards presentations to 16 of the top Patient Leaders as chosen by their peers and industry judges – I love seeing the patients-are-why-we’re-here needle not just flicker, but get buried like a sound meter at a Guns n’ Roses concert when top healthcare industry presenters can’t hold back tears of gratitude and admiration as they hug the winners. “This is why I do this, why I am in healthcare,” they say.

But right now—this moment—is a best moment for me, too, because MarlaJan Wexler, a powerhouse patient advocate, is leading this very interview, and you’re scheduled to lead an industry panel on this topic. Ten years ago, a patient even attending an industry conference would have been “inappropriate;” 5 years ago, I might have fought to get MarlaJan onto a panel; today, you’re the moderator, you’re the leader, and goddammit that makes my year.

The Patient Perspective: Patient Influencers and The Impact of Authenticity

As any patient will tell you, there’s nothing like out of touch, unsolicited medical advice from companies to get them to slam the door in your face. When you’re sick and you’re trying to decide how to manage it — there’s simply nothing more infuriating than a tone-deaf portrayal of your illness in a commercial or print ad to make you feel alone, misunderstood and unseen.

Just as we demanded that women stop smiling and frolicking in fields during tampon commercials, so too do we demand a realistic representation of patients telling us how to live and cope with different diseases.

Real people, not actors has become a tagline for authenticity in healthcare. As patient consumers, we’ve become conscious of how gratifying it feels to see our stories represented as they are truly experienced. As we become veterans of our diseases, it becomes our duty to light the way for others as they have lit the way for us.

So who do patients want to get their advice from outside the exam room?

Becoming An Advocate of Influence

Like many others, I became an accidental influencer when I started sharing my story through my blog. I was writing about my highs and lows, my hospitalizations, and helplessness as I fumbled my way through a new diagnosis. I talked about the mental olympics it takes to go from being told “this is how you’re going to treat your disease” to taking an active role in planning your treatment with your doctor. I talked about leaving a place of shame and self-consciousness and asserting my voice in the exam room.

I found myself blogging about how if the patient-doctor relationship was a two-way street, we might actually end up where we wanted to go.

Across the internet, my journey was mirrored by cancer patients, autoimmune patients, chronic pain patients–and so many others. It wasn’t long after I started my blog that I was nominated for a WEGO Health Award. A company that celebrated patient leaders and their contributions to awareness, advocacy, and innovation. I found an entire network of patients like me who were utilizing their social platforms to usher in a new era of support for each other.

We were different from the influencers hawking diet supplements and fashion accessories. We were setting the bar for humanizing healthcare and by sharing our reviews, tips, and honest revelations we were creating a new breed of trendsetters: the proactive patient.

In Sickness and in Social Media

When it comes to patient influencers, it’s not the images of airbrushed and toned models showcasing glittery packaging that comes to mind. Patients who follow other patients that they respect and admire are still thinking, I want what it is that they have. It’s just not always as obvious as new kicks or flashy gadgets. How do you showcase quality of life in a 30-second video or a 120 character status?

Often it’s a patient who’s able to say, “I did find support from my doctor when I came to them with my unmanageable symptoms” or “I found the right tools to help me explain to my family and friends how my disease is making life more complicated right now.” Or simply, “I’m not coping well right now, but I’m not ashamed.”

As it turns out, social media really can be the prescriber in how to live realistically with our disease — outside the scope of what our doctors can suggest for us. And I’m not talking about recommendations of literal supplements or diets, but an example of how real diseases progress in the real world. How they touch on our school, work, relationships, sex lives — how they influence our emotions and choices.

There is a bigger story being told in the captions of our fellow patient’s feeds than we have ever seen in the tagline of a magazine ad for our meds.

Social media can give us a matrix of examples for the difficult choices ahead. These stories can help us to understand our symptoms, explore treatment options, and find our footing in a new world of unanticipated personal responsibility.

Yes, we need our medical experts, and we need support, but we also need these influencers as pivotal allies in our journey.

For years they’ve been establishing their presence across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, transcending the role of support group leaders and becoming influencers for their condition.

And now? They’re ready to open their eyes and @’s to collaborations with pharma.

More than Money, Patient Influencers Make Change

It has not been an easy transition for pharma who is often handcuffed by the restraints of highly-regulated industry advertising standards to partner with patients across social media.

Unlike conventional influencers, patient influencers aren’t going to receive coupon codes for their audiences or free samples of medications to try.

The most valuable “get” from their work with pharma?

“A seat at the table,” says WEGO Health Patient Leader Network VP, Julie Croner. “Patient influencers are trying to make the hardships that patients deal with a little easier. If they work side-by-side with pharma, they have the opportunity for their voices, concerns, and ideas to be heard — and to be paid for it.”

Patients who are chosen for influencer opportunities are often paid not only for their social posts, but for their participation in insight groups, one-on-one conversations with pharmaceutical marketing firms, and survey participation.

They bring key concerns from their disease communities to a forum where pharmaceutical companies can make real change.

In return, influencers open their feeds to conversations about new treatment options.

The goal is to give patients the information they need to become advocates for their treatment plans. Influencer campaigns will aim to inspire patient-doctor conversations that have both parties coming to the table with ideas on how to improve quality of life.

This back and forth can spark a proactive patient towards successful treatment and stops them from being prescribed a one-for-all treatment plan.

When asked what action they would take when someone they consider influential shares information from a pharmaceutical company about a specific medication, 87% of consumers said they would ask a healthcare professional about the medication.

Contrary to popular belief, most patient influencers don’t have an ax to grind with pharmaceutical companies. By the time they become the ones to look to, they understand that disease management involves a need for partnerships with prescribers and prescriptions. Medication keeps patients alive and functional, and while no one is a fan of unwanted side-effects or unsuccessful treatment plans — rarely do we fall into the right solution without flexing the muscles of personal medical experimentation.

The Bridge Between Patients and Pharma

So how do patients go from sharing their stories on social to collaborating with pharma goliaths? How do they retain authenticity in their messaging while expanding their personal brands and social audience?

If they were searching for the bridge between the world of patient advocacy and pharmaceutical might, they wouldn’t need to look much further than the community of WEGO Health, a vast network of patient experts, opinion leaders, influencers, and advocates who are given opportunities to collaborate on a professional level with healthcare.

Patients paid attention when the company started recognizing advocates for their contributions through their annual WEGO Health Awards a decade ago. Now the company has grown to support patient leaders in their careers as social influencers by offering free online education, databases of engaged patient leaders to connect and collaborate with, and a gig marketplace where patients can find relevant paid opportunities related to their disease communities.

The company has been a strong proponent for patients getting paid for their contributions to healthcare marketing and will only broker partnerships between patients and pharma companies if the patient makes a profit from their experience and time.

Now, WEGO Health has launched Pharmaceutical Grade Influencer Marketing: a chance for patient leaders to take the next step in helping their dedicated social audiences make smart treatment choices.

The WEGO Health Pharmaceutical Grade Influencer Marketing product offers services that include influencer marketing, social media management, branding, and photo and video production. The company seeks out the top patient influencers across all disease communities and gives them the expert training they need to kick off a successful partnership, including training on adverse events, comment moderation, and content pre-screened by both parties before posting.

With sponsored posts being boosted by WEGO Health’s proprietary algorithm, patients receive a significant boost in views and follows to their social networks — a benefit that will help them reach new audiences and expand their professional careers as influencers.

The Patient Journey Will Always be Real

While other types of social influencers may grapple with the loss of authenticity as they build their personal brands, this is unlikely to be the case for patient leaders. For these social stars, health concerns are chronic and unlikely to be resolved by a high follower count.

We are all brought back to our vulnerabilities when dressed in a hospital gown, when at the mercy of a pre-operative countdown, when staring down two treatment options and looking outside ourselves for support and guidance.

All we have is the roadmaps of patients who have been there before us, and in particular, those who have been brave enough to post to their feeds about how finding their voice brought them closer to the quality of life we all strive for.

WEGO Health Launches Pharmaceutical Grade Influencer Marketing

Trust versus results. Why should brands have to choose?

At WEGO Health, we’re no stranger to partnering with patient influencers. Over the last 13 years, we’ve built the world’s largest network of Patient Leaders.

Patient Leaders are patients or caregivers who are also influencers, advocates, and activists that are transforming healthcare by providing education, empowerment, and support to the communities they lead.

Over the past decade, WEGO Health has been connecting members of our Patient Leader Network with global pharmaceutical companies to provide insight, to co-create genuine content, and to power authentic social media marketing campaigns.

The Influencer Marketing Opportunity – and Pharma’s Challenges

Influencer marketing focuses on collaborating with key leaders to drive brand messages to the larger market. Different from marketing directly to a large group of consumers, influencer marketing engages influencers to get out the word for the brand. Because social proof is an important way for people to trust a brand, companies rely on influencer marketing to increase customer participation and target a new audience.

The State of Influencer Marketing report by Linqia shows that 40% of all marketers ran six or more influencer campaigns in 2019, and 57% say they’re increasing their budgets in 2020. That same study also shows that 43% of marketers plan to spend 11-25% of their marketing budget on influencer marketing.

And in its 2019 Influencer Marketing Survey, MediaKix shows why influencer marketing is growing so fast:

• 80% of marketers find influencer marketing effective.
• 71% of marketers rate the quality of customers and traffic from influencer marketing as better than other marketing sources.
• 89% of marketers say influencer marketing ROI is as good or better than other marketing channels.

But as they have ramped up their understanding of social media marketing, WEGO Health has seen pharmaceutical companies struggle to take their influencer marketing beyond TV-ad celebrities or one-off relationships with only PR value.

That’s why we’ve been testing and fine-tuning what we’re calling Pharmaceutical Grade Influencer MarketingSM – a new business offering for our pharma partners seeking to cultivate strong patient community relationships and drive measurable DTC-scale business results.

We’ve designed our offering to tackle four very real challenges that are holding pharma back.

1. Will influencers work with pharma? The well-documented trust gap between patients and pharma is a chasm to cross when recruiting patient influencers. That gap translates to a lot of time spent cultivating new relationships and setting out terms of engagement that assure influencers of their independence and objectivity. Even the best agencies hired to help need to start from scratch.

2. Is there any hope of getting this through MLR? The second, very much related issue is legal and regulatory – a pharma constant that throws up walls to influencer marketing must-haves like authentic content and real-time interaction between influencers and their followers.

3. Can influencer marketing scale to be a foundational DTC initiative? Trust and regulatory gauntlets have made even the best pharma influencer marketing programs one-offs, with nominal reach. And reams of research shows that nano- and micro-influencers – those with the smallest followings – are many times more likely to generate real engagement with their followers than macro- and celebrity influencers.

4. What can marketers expect for real business results? Make no mistake, trusting relationships with influencers and their communities are invaluable – and core to WEGO Health’s mission. But influencer marketing won’t flourish without a clear connection between investment and business results – results that can be assessed alongside other investments, like visitors to a brand web site or patients who engaged with key content.

“Influencer marketing for pharmaceuticals and serious diseases is completely different. Patient influencers are not for sale at any price, and it’s been a long process for pharma to build trust one influencer at a time,” says Richelle Horn, Sr. Director of Marketing, WEGO Health. “This trust barrier has pigeon-holed influencer marketing as a feel-good initiative – not a scalable, accountable digital marketing program.”

Pharmaceutical Grade Influencer Marketing

At WEGO Health, we’ve committed to evolve influencer marketing by offering scalable, authentic influencer marketing to our pharmaceutical partners as our core social media program. We believe that no pharma marketer nor agency should have to choose between building trust among patient communities and producing results – influencer marketing can achieve both when executed correctly.

“We start with our member network of over 100,000 patient influencers to quickly find the right group of collaborators. We’ll co-create content crafted to meet the authentic needs of the patient community as well as pharma business and regulatory requirements,” says WEGO Health Chief Client Officer, Kristen Hartman. “But the real excitement is in how we can scale reach using our proprietary audiences – how we can engage the most impactful micro-influencers and still touch millions. The combination allows us to deliver DTC-scale influencer marketing in a performance model with solid guarantees.”

We know from behavioral intent research that patients listen to other patients. When specific medication information is shared by an influencer on behalf of a pharmaceutical company, 87% of patients are likely to ask their healthcare professional about the information.

And with something as personal as healthcare, that trust and engagement is critical.

Fueling the Mission

We’re excited about the additional opportunities that this will bring to our vast network of members who are dedicated to transforming the healthcare industry.

Our 13 years of experience have taught us that Patient Leaders want a seat at the table with companies that are trying to reach them. In recent research conducted by WEGO Health, we found that not only did Patient Leaders want to partner with the pharmaceutical industry, but influencer marketing was one of the top three desired partnership opportunities.

In fact, another recent survey with WEGO Health & the Digital Health Coalition showed that Patient Leaders actually recommended that pharmaceutical marketers spend more on patient influencer marketing over more traditional forms of advertising such as display and search.

“Patient Leaders don’t just want to hear from pharma companies, they want to be a part of the message. Influencer marketing allows them to make pharma’s communication more authentic, while it amplifies their voice and fuels their mission,” says Julie Croner, VP of Patient Leader Network.

The value a Patient Leader brings to their community has never been greater in this era of uncertainty. WEGO Health aims to leverage that value to address the needs of the pharma industry and to encourage and facilitate a patient-centric future where pharma can rebuild the trust of the patients they serve.