Do Normal People Follow Big Pharma On Twitter?

Do “normal” people – patients, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, life scientists, etc – follow Big Pharma on Twitter? I’ve long had a hunch that most of the followers (and by followers I mean people who are actually paying attention) of Pharma accounts are primarily consultants, marketers, PR pros, social media evangelists and others interested in Pharma’s use of the Web (including myself).

So I decided to gather the key words in the profiles of a select group of Pharma companies. I used the service TwitterSheep to generate tag clouds of these profiles. This isn’t a purely scientific approach, but it’s reasonable enough to provide some insight into whose following Pharma. My friends Silja Chouquet (@Whydotpharma) and Andrew Spong (@AndrewSpong) each provided great insight into Pharma and Twitter. You can read their posts here and here, respectively.

Based on the tag clouds, here are the top ten key words in the profiles of followers of selected Pharma companies:

  • Pharmaceutical
  • Medical
  • Healthcare
  • Time
  • Social
  • PR
  • Marketing
  • Research
  • Web
  • Health

“Normal” people don’t have words like Marketing or PR or Social or Pharmaceutical in their bios. Now, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Pharma’s adoption of Twitter is relatively recent. But I don’t think that Pharma’s providing the most value that it could with its primary audience being marketing professionals.

Here’s a slideshare of screenshots for each tag cloud of the eleven accounts I examined (if you can’t see the embed, check it out here):

Pharma’s core base – patients and physicians and pharmacists and health care organizations – are the most valuable followers. Pharma certainly can’t do things that non-regulated industries can do. Nonetheless, Twitter does have many diverse business values: dissemination of news, consumption of relevant content, engagement with followers who can spread positive sentiments within the community and many other practical uses.

Currently, it’s not clear what specific goals Pharma companies have with respect to Twitter. Each can have completely different goals – and most of these accounts are maintained by people whom I’ve met personally. But the concern here isn’t so much about how Pharma companies are using Twitter (that’s another discussion). For as much as Twitter is about the humanization of communications and the ability to converse, audience is still a critical thing to build.

I realize Twitter’s still a shiny new toy for some industries (it’s actually a staple of communications for many others), but Pharma needs focuses and purposes and goals as it matures from the unilateral broadcasting skills it honed in the last quarter of the 20th Century towards the pliant, two-way and multi-faceted characteristics of the kind of media which the Web is giving birth to every day. There’s no guarantee that all Pharma companies will learn these new skills and new ways of thinking. There will be winners. There will be losers. Hopefully, it’s the patients who win. (Which is a good thing for the industry.)

What audiences should Pharma focus its tweets on developing, cultivating and engaging? That’s an important question. I doubt the CEOs of Big Pharma companies are terribly interested in dazzling Social Medi Gurus and Marketers and PR Pros. πŸ™‚

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  1. Ellen,

    Yes, there many factors involved in the communications properties of a medium like Twitter: scale, directive, culture, style, process, etc.

    In my view, Twitter is simply a 21st Century equivalent of the telephone. It’s text messaging with the web in mind. In my experience with large enterprises, often too much thinking goes into simple matters.

    For heavily regulated enterprises, Twitter isn’t a sales tool. It’s just a way to share information and create a simple platform through which the public and others can approach an organization. Twitter’s a wonderful sales and marketing component for the local bakery. Why? Because local businesses have face-to-face social interactions with their followers and Twitter’s the perfect tool to extend those relationships. That just isn’t the case with a Merck or Pfizer, or any of the smaller venture companies.

    My sense is this: companies that struggle with how to use Twitter have deeper problems than social media (this isn’t a negative bash). It’s just the reality of the sociology and psychology of traditional Enterprise.

  2. Phil,
    Thanks for some new analysis and thinking…

    I think you’re right about questioning the goals Pharma companies have for their company twitter accounts…and the need for them to evolve and mature. It may be that ‘real’ people and patients more easily follow conditions or people talking about these conditions in an interesting and relevant way for them and not companies …just like so many of us follow people over companies…

    …So if Pharma wants to engage, its about education and information that is more meaningful and personal to its patients and support networks…which may not be the true goal of the company twitter account and takes time. But then maybe its time to be clear and honest that its not really to engage the normal people?…

    The other interesting point you raise is that you know so many of the people who are behind the pharma twitter accounts which definitely humanizes the company…but I often think how much of the company personality in twitterville is the tweeter vs the real company? How much comes down from the top vs driven by the tweeter? It seems to me that much of the great work is really done by one or two people who really care, have great passion for twitter and social media, and go well beyond any company input beyond the obvious regulatory/legal requirements….Pharma is still so very far from the type of company where the CEO encourages everyone to be on Twitter and talking to customers! πŸ™‚

  3. Hi Phil

    Thanks for sharing this. One of the issues that social media advocates within pharma have to confront is that the majority of the followers of their ‘main’ accounts are those who take a professional interest in working with them. No-one should be surprised by this.

    This reflects the fact that tradition corporate communications strategies do not work within social media. It does not indicate that the communities that pharma would actually like to be reaching don’t exist; it merely signifies the fact that they’re looking in the wrong places, or that they know where to look but won’t/’can’t’.

    Pharma should recommit itself to effective engagement, not just to the concept of engagement.

    They could do worse than beginning by meditating on the following observation from @mikearauz (via @skypen): “I tell my friends about your brand not because I like your brand, but because I like my friends.”

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