“The secret to successful patient influencer marketing? Authenticity”

A woman recording a video with her phone on a tripod

Published in pharmaphorum

By: Cheryl Lubbert, Co-Founder and CEO Reverba 

It may not be as straightforward as it is in the realms of fast fashion or tourism, but influencer marketing, especially on social media, is still an attractive avenue in the pharma world. Pharma companies strive to connect with patients, and what better way to do that than through the voices of other patients who have been where they have been in their shoes?

Unfortunately, the reality of influencer marketing is very different than the ideal, and savvy online consumers have learned to beware of influencers bearing products.

So, where does that leave pharma companies? Is the influencer market a channel best abandoned?

Cheryl Lubbert, CEO of patient engagement solutions company Reverba, says it’s not that simple. Influencer marketing can work, but only if it’s used to reach the right patients for the right purposes. And, most of all, it must be authentic.

Savvy consumers want authentic connections

Ironically, the original concept of influencers was to build relationships with their audience and only recommend products they truly believed in. But, these days, few influencers operate according to that social contract, and their would-be followers know it.

“If you look at some of the stats, the belief in influencers has gone down in the last couple of years because so much of it is sponsored,” Lubbert said. “According to a 2022 Oracle survey, only 37% of US consumers trust social media influencers more than brands, and only 28% discover new products through influencers.”

This coincides with a broader problem of misinformation online, especially around health. So, people have responded by relying more on one another. Online and offline, people tend to not only want to share information, but also to seek out information from their peers.

“My 85-year-old mother goes to the Internet first, then she calls her doctor, and then she goes back to the Internet after she’s talked to her doctor, and then she’ll talk to her friends, people who are just like her,” Lubbert says. “And, I tell you, the thing that is most influential is when she talks to people who have the same condition in a more personal way. And so, I think that influencers play a part in the strategy, but I think real people sharing their personal health journeys are the most effective.”

Lubbert points to the example of Shauna James Ahern, the “gluten-free girl” who started a successful blog to help people with coeliac disease way back in 2005.

“She was doing that because she wanted to share what she had learned and pay it forward,” Lubbert said. “The people who are doing that are the people who are the most effective. They authentically want to share information about the health conditions they are living with to help everybody else have a line of sight into how to navigate it.”

The right strategy for the right audience

Both data and personal experience have shown Lubbert that different kinds of customers respond differently to different channels, including influencer campaigns.

“The key to selecting the best influencer to work with is understanding who your audience is, what is important to them and where to best connect with them – the younger generation has moved beyond Instagram, for example.”

Going back to that statistic about only 37% of consumers trusting influencers over brands, the same study showed that Gen Z and Millennials were twice as likely as Boomers to trust influencers.

And it isn’t only generational considerations that pharma marketers should take into account.

“Diversity is also really important when you’re thinking about who your audience is and how they connect,” Lubbert added. “You might need to develop different strategies for different groups of people, taking into account all ethnic groups, how they engage, who they engage with, and what they believe.”

In addition to their audience, marketers also need to think about what their goals are. For example, celebrity campaigns differ in effectiveness not only based on audience, but also based on the strategy attached to them.

“When considering your audience, would a celebrity influencer reach them? I’ve done many celebrity campaigns in my career, and I think celebrity campaigns are excellent to raise awareness around a disease,” Lubbert says. “But when it comes to individual treatments or how you understand the specifics of the disease, or, put another way, how you improve your health literacy or self-efficacy, a celebrity campaign is often not as effective.”

Making meaningful connections

Lubbert encourages pharma marketers to think about engagement in a more complicated way than just how many clicks a post gets. Instead, she thinks about what effect an online interaction has on patients’ behaviour and their understanding of their condition. Because, when it comes to healthcare, the quality of interactions really matters.

“When you think about changing behaviour, nothing works better than building one-on-one trust and having authentic conversations, hearing it from somebody just like you,” Lubbert says. “Social algorithms by design can limit what people see and learn, making it essential that your consumer strategy brings in new voices and is engaging through multiple levels and on multiple channels.”

That leads toward strategies that are built around individual patients sharing their stories with each other.

Scaling these peer-to-peer interactions is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Reverba manages these high-touch interactions through virtual, social, and in-person events, connecting patients who want to share their stories with each other. Reverba is an innovator in creating this type of programme, launching the first pharma industry patient-to-patient mentor programme in 2007 and implementing a wide range of these programmes for global pharma companies.

Ultimately, “Should I use influencers to market my pharmaceutical product?” is the wrong question to ask. The right question? “Who is my customer, what do they need to know to guide their health journey, and where are they going for information?” Lubbert says.

“Authenticity is absolutely the key,” she explains. “But more important than that is understanding your customer deeply, and understanding what specific information they want and where they’re going to get that information, and then aligning the influencer to what that audience needs at that time.”

If companies keep their focus on authenticity and understanding, then they’ll have the tools to engage patients on a meaningful level, providing them with the information they need when they need it throughout their care journey. And that’s the kind of influencing everyone can get behind.