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!

SURVEY: Patient Perspectives on Digital Health Adoption 2020

2020 has been a year of the unexpected, to say the least. Amidst all of the upheaval and tumult, perhaps one of the most unexpected but welcome changes has been the rapid acceleration of digital health adoption for both pharma and patients. The shift from analog to digital healthcare was important before, but the arrival of COVID-19 quickly thrust it forward to an imperative.

The COVID-19 crisis placed many chronically ill patients into an extremely vulnerable position. Meticulously planned out care routines were interrupted and access to the resources they can’t live without became an unknown. The world of healthcare needed to respond, and patients needed to be ready to embrace the world of telehealth, digital therapies, and data sharing with open arms.

With lives and the health of the global economy at stake, the healthcare community has answered the call for change. From webinars to telemedicine to free home delivery for prescriptions and new adherence technologies, more resources than ever are available to patients. But there’s still work to do.

According to our research, patients are ready to embrace it all, data sharing included. But at what price? Brands and other healthcare companies are also left to wonder which resources do patients find the most value in, and what’s the best way to encourage them to adopt new digital health resources?

Defining the Need

Nearly 3 in 4 Patient Leaders, the most activated patients in their condition communities, have asked their healthcare provider 2+ times about a new drug or treatment in the last year. More than 9 in 10 have asked at least once. This data is a strong indication of opportunity in the digital health space as patients are currently dissatisfied with what’s available to them and looking for new options and alternatives.

While the above question relates to both drugs and therapies currently available, another point reemphasizes patient vexation over digital health efforts specifically. When asked to rate pharma’s overall digital health efforts on a scale from 1 to 10, an average of 5.7 weighed out. How does that translate? It’s not terrible, but it’s certainly not great, especially considering we’re living in The Information Age. The world as we know it is characterized by an economy primarily based upon information technology. If now’s not the time to innovate, then when?

Providing Value

Adherence is a known headache for providers, and it clearly is for patients, too. Of the 125 Patient Leaders we surveyed, 40% state digital medication reminders and tools for management would provide the most value for them and their communities. We all have 100 things nagging for our attention at any given moment, so remembering our daily dose of medication or prescribed therapy sometimes falls to the back burner, and even off the cart some days.

From a digital perspective, the age of technology we live in could not be more ripe with opportunity to create new tools to assist with medication management and reminders. According to the latest Pew research, 81% of Americans own smartphones. The numbers are even higher when you look at the 18-29 and 30-49 age brackets (96% and 92%, respectively). Considering these statistics, the smartphone in nearly everyone’s pocket could be key to developing these highly-desired digital initiatives. Everything from mobile apps to occasional text reminders are possibilities with HIPPA compliance and patient opt-ins. Technologies such as RELAXaHEAD for migraine sufferers and a new app from Kaia Health for back pain are earning notoriety in the industry and a great source of inspiration.

Health data ownership has been a long, heated debate. The question looms whether patients would be willing to share personal health data to receive more relevant and personalized treatment information and resources, like that which they’d receive from the digital tools they seek.

Getting Personal

Speaking on behalf of both themselves and their condition communities, the Patient Leaders we surveyed overwhelmingly report that patients would be open to sharing personal health data. More than 9 in 10 patients would safely share their information so that they can best care for themselves and manage their condition. However, what they’re willing to share depends on what they will be receiving.

The Data Barter

When it comes to medication management, patients are least likely to share personal health information. Nearly 1 in 3 patients, however, would likely share information for personally relevant educational resources, and more than a quarter would share data for clinical research and disease management resources.

Effective Engagement

There are certainly brands that are more ahead of the game than others, and even companies that have created the technologies and now need to focus on patient uptake and engagement. According to our survey of Patient Leaders, 1 in 3 say the best strategy to effectively engage patients with new digital health options is to work directly with HCPs. Having physicians prescribe the technology directly will make patients aware of the innovation while also backing it with an informed voice that patients trust when it comes to medications and treatments.

The second, slightly more creative way to effectively engage patients is to enlist trusted Patient Leaders to provide “help desk” support. Patient Leaders possess the trust of their communities and followers. Recruiting them to learn the technology and provide assistance to other patients, brands effectively boosts perception and adoption among target communities. It’s important to note that you can’t purchase Patient Leader opinions or endorsements. They are fiercely protective of those they represent and only endorse treatments they believe in. Truly effective technologies designed with the patient in mind will succeed best with this strategy. Including patients from the idea’s inception through development and to market is a winning strategy to ensure digital health solutions prosper and thrive.

Smart Investing

TV ads or page 1 of Google won’t earn patient trust in products. With a tie for first at 27.5%, patients overwhelmingly feel that pharma companies should invest their money to build consumer trust through consumer health websites and patient advocacy organizations. TV advertising is ranked dead last, with only 3.6% of patients reporting it as a worthy investment.

The Time is Now

2020 has forced every industry to look at new and novel ways to digitize and engage. Pharma and healthcare are no exception. The data proves that patients are ready and willing to provide personal health data to facilitate further the rapid shift we’re all experiencing — as long as it’s done right.

Invest wisely, leverage trusted patient relationships, recruit patients as partners for insights and engagement, and prepare to prosper. There has never been a better nor more important, time to embrace the shift from analog to digital. Patient partnerships and insights are the keys to getting you there, and WEGO Health can help facilitate that. Let’s keep the conversation about creating patient-centric digital health options going.

Top Questions from Pharma Marketers for Patient Leaders 2020: The COVID-19 Edition

“Unprecedented times.” Without further explanation, the reference is clear.

2020 isn’t halfway through and already we’re living in a different world than that of 2019. Marketing plans haven’t just been disrupted, they’ve been overturned, just as all of our lives have. What patients and their communities were concerned about a mere five months ago has radically shifted, leaving many brands unsure of how to best support them while navigating the rough waters of a new world.

To help address this, the WEGO Health team held an invitation-only virtual lunch and learn in April for our valued pharmaceutical partners to help uncover tangible tips for companies to improve the patient experience amidst a global pandemic. A selection of submitted questions was answered by a panel of four patient opinion leaders representing a wide range of acute, chronic, and rare conditions.

The panel covered a range of topics from involving patients at every opportunity and speaking in patient-friendly terms, to the desire for patient support programs, patient fears of drug shortages, and lack of information about the pandemic’s effect on their condition. In just 60 minutes, we had only scratched the surface of the patient experience conversation, leaving many

lingering questions from our industry partners unanswered.

We knew there would be value in conducting a quantitative follow-up survey to our Patient Leader Network ensuring all questions were addressed. The survey was a massive undertaking, fielding over 300 responses across 100 health conditions. As we dug deeper into the industry questions, we uncovered both practical and tactical advice from Patient Leaders.

More than manufacturing: Patients find the most value in financial support and disease management resources

When asking Patient Leaders what types of information and support resources they find most valuable, nearly 2 in 3 patients (63%) count financial support among the top three. With unemployment rates at their highest since the Great Depression, patients need help paying for medications now more than ever — and they also need to be made aware when programs like this already exist.

Coming in second and third, more than half of patients find high value in medication and disease management. Living within the walls of this industry, we know that many of these resources already exist, but we see pharma struggle to communicate their availability to patients. What is the ROI tied to an adherence or support program? From patients’ perspectives, it is a worthy investment and one that can drive engagement for your brand, as well.

Ignorance is not bliss: Patients are largely unaware that financial support services are available to them

Companies spend countless hours and resources developing financial support programs that more than 6 in 10 patients are “not at all” to only “somewhat” aware exist. Patient Leaders on the cutting edge of their conditions report that only 39% of patients within their condition communities are “aware” to “extremely aware” of these programs. As one of the top three most valuable resources, there’s a huge information gap between treatment manufacturers and patients here. How can you bridge that gap? If your company or brand has a financial support program for patients, ensure you also have a plan to market it. If not, consider the benefits of providing this for your consumers and the rapport it can build between your brand and patient communities.

When it comes to virtual solutions, get connected

The world has slowly but surely been shifting to a more virtual model, and COVID-19 has no doubt accelerated that shift. In light of the pandemic, there are a number of virtual solutions pharma can provide that patients are eager to embrace.

Nearly 3 in 4 patients would like to see pharma companies get involved in telehealth adoption. WEGO Health has seen big pharma companies forging partnerships with telehealth over the past several years, and COVID-19 is simply the accelerator that patients needed to inspire adoption.

Well over half of patients would like to see more detailed information around COVID-19 on pharmaceutical company websites. These are not the obligatory COVID-19 messages that patients are getting from retail brands and restaurants ad infinitum, but rather high-science and educational information surrounding the impact that the disease may have on their conditions and their medications. We know that science takes time, and information like this may not exist or may require in-depth, long-term research to ensure validity. But, even a simple message that it’s being addressed can make all the difference in the world.

It can be done, and in some cases, it has been done — and quite well at that. We’ve seen this type of unbiased, non-brand related content living on corporate websites and being shared on LinkedIn amongst industry colleagues, but there is a missed opportunity to share this information with the patients that can benefit from it the most. Information needs to be shared at scale, not suppressed within the organic news-feeds of our industry walls.

The other virtual solution we’ve seen taking shape prior to, and now accelerated by, COVID-19 is consumer educational webinars. Patient Leaders would like to participate in these events, not just for the knowledge it can bring them, but also for the knowledge they can, therefore, share with their communities. We know from patient behavioral intent research that when a healthcare influencer shares information about a condition or therapy, 9 out of 10 patients who follow them will ask an HCP about the information.

Half a glass

While digital spend is increasing in the pharmaceutical industry, how likely are patients to visit treatment websites on their own?

The answer could be either encouraging or discouraging, depending on whether you are a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of person. We prefer the glass-half-full approach, where just over half (52%) of Patient Leaders say they would be extremely likely or somewhat likely to visit a treatment website.

This provides a great opportunity for pharma to deliver an engaging and informative customer experience on-site and is a strong indicator that consumer digital marketing has never been more important. The opportunity for pharma to capture the other 48% exists in awareness and discovery platforms like social media, influencer marketing, search, and display.

The pharmaceutical report card

Our industry partners wanted to know — real talk — what grade Patient Leaders would give their companies on their efforts to be patient-centric.

Another “glass-half-full” or “glass-half-empty” answer in that 38% gave them a C – a passing grade, and while we are making progress, there’s plenty of opportunity for growth.

Only 7% of patients would give pharma an A grade. It’s a discouraging number that we all can agree we’d like to, and arguably need to, improve. When asked the open-ended question on what pharma could do to earn an A grade, Patient Leaders replied with a few resounding themes:

• Include patients at every opportunity (from research to marketing planning)
• Include ‘real’ patients across the board – patients want to hear from other patients. Authenticity goes a long way.
• Support for families and caregivers
• Communication of support programs
• Speak our language

Partner with patients as the experts they are

Lastly, our industry partners wanted to know how Patient Leaders would most prefer to partner with them. While answers varied, patients gravitated toward the opportunity to join an advisory board, be a part of the brand messaging/campaigns, and share information online via influencer marketing opportunities — all things that are achievable in the here and now.

The pharmaceutical industry has a unique opportunity in 2020 to earn the trust of patients by providing expert information, quality resources and support, and aligning with patients in a true partnership to advance beyond the status quo pre-COVID-19.

We encourage you to access the full report here and to speak to our team to learn more about how WEGO Health connects Patient Leaders with our pharmaceutical partners, providing patient insights, content creation, and digital marketing solutions to activate patients.