The world is becoming more virtual and our interactions are increasingly digital. This trend is driven by two main forces: the increased availability of sophisticated tools for virtual engagement and the growing percentage of “digital native” Millennials in the workforce. Even industries not known for hopping onto the latest tech bandwagon, like the life science industry, can no longer ignore the importance of those who shape the discourse on social media.
For life science companies the two primary audiences on social media are patients and increasingly healthcare providers. In this blog, we will discuss why medical affairs groups in pharmaceutical companies ignore digital influencers at their own risk and how identifying, engaging and collaborating with digital influencers in the healthcare provider community has moved from being cutting-edge to being an essential part of every expert engagement strategy.
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There is little disagreement among medical affairs professionals that digital influencers are important. In a recent survey we conducted together with the Medical Science Liaison Society only 8% of the global respondents said that digital influencers are “not very“ or “not at all“ important to them. The rest was split almost evenly between those who think they are “very“ or “somewhat“ important.
Among Executive Management and VPs of Medical Affairs digital influencers fared even better: less than 4% thought they were not very important and zero percent considered them not at all important.
What do we need digital influencers for?
Now that we (almost) all agree that digital influencers are important, the question becomes what are they important for and how can medical affairs departments best utilize this new group of external experts? Here are five relevant use cases we have identified in discussions with experts and customers.
Listen and learn
The first step for many companies is to listen to the discussions happening online and mining that data to generate insights and identify trends. The direct personal scientific exchange that used to happen primarily at conferences and meetings has moved in part to the virtual world, a trend that has only been accelerated by recent restrictions imposed on face-to-face meetings. Following experts who share information and opinions on social media is an easy way for companies to stay on top of information relevant to their therapeutic areas, clinical trials, treatment options as well discussions about their and their competitors’ drugs.
Inform the discussion
While listening to social media can yield interesting insights it is critical to take the next step: active participation. Scientific exchange happens on social media whether you participate or not. Not participating, therefore, is no longer an option, it would mean ceding the field and leaving it to others to inform the discussion about topics that are important to the success of your products.
Companies can participate in the virtual dialogue by engaging healthcare professionals who tweet about relevant topics, such as therapeutic areas relevant to the company. One way to ensure these HCPs have access to the most up to date information is by co-creating content that is helpful and addresses the HCP’s pain points.
Not being aware of the digital conversation is especially dangerous in the virtual world due to the speed with which information can spread. Through a social media post a digital influencer can have instantaneous impact and outsized reach without any peer-review or board approval process.
Listening to the social exchange generates insights and the need to interact with digital influencer directly, e.g. to provide more information or comment on a statement made by the digital influencer. This scientific exchange, however, medical affairs professionals handle through traditional, offline channels, e.g. emails or a call with that expert. The value of social media lies in providing the insight, the ensuing exchange does not happen in a public forum due to compliance issues.
Access new networks
Digital influencers have managed to build virtual communities of followers and, as one pharma social media expert said in a recent interview, can “(…) do a better job of telling our stories than we do.”
These networks are built on trust and can create an entirely new sphere of influence that is different from and complementary to the traditional networks based on, e.g. co-authorship or membership on the same advisory boards. A recent in-house study at Monocl proved that point: for a customer we analyzed the network of an expert and found that he frequently retweets the posts of a colleague with whom he does not share any “real-world” collaborations. The virtual engagement shows trust and increases the size of the network and the sphere of influence of the expert being retweeted.
For medical affairs understanding these connections can be helpful in different ways, e.g. an MSL could broker an introduction between the two experts or share profile updates about the colleague the HCP retweets.
Here is another interesting example: we identified two researchers who jointly authored a review article. The senior author has all the hallmarks of an established expert with dozens of publications, grant funding, and meeting presentations but no presence on Twitter. The junior author just barely met the inclusion criteria for Monocl Professional but has more than 10,000 Twitter followers.
While this might be extreme examples, they prove a broader point: digital influence can be separate and distinct from “traditional” influence. One person can have both, with their “traditional” and virtual spheres of influence overlapping to various degrees. Other experts have influence primarily in one sphere.
Medical affairs teams need to be aware of these different types of experts and develop distinct and custom-tailored engagement and scientific exchange strategies.
Catch a Rising Star early
An interesting use case in this context is the very early identification of rising stars based on their social media footprint. This brings us back to the example of the junior author above: but for the large number of Twitter followers her profile would not stand out. However, based on that solid social footprint we tracked her more traditional metrics, specifically publications, and found her to have published prolifically over the last six months. Clearly, publishing in peer-reviewed journals is more time-consuming than tweeting, but active tweeting and a large follower base can be very early indicators of an emerging researcher whose traditional metrics of influence have not yet caught up with their virtual influence. Identifying and engaging these early rising stars with dual influence might prove critical in shaping the discussion and driving impactful scientific exchange in the future.
Engage hard to reach HCPs
Many HCPs do not have the time to attend scientific meetings, write or even read a lot of scientific publications or sit on editorial boards. Their focus is on treating patients. These healthcare professionals are hard to reach through traditional channels. However, digital influencers are able to get through to them with short, real-time messages, e.g. a quick update from a conference, a professional opinion or a relevant insight.
Importantly, social media networks are self-selected and highly flexible. People follow others if they trust them and find the information they share valuable. If that trust is lost or the information is no longer valuable, unfollowing is fast, free and without repercussions. Digital influencers, therefore, are more than just another way of reaching the same group of people, they represent an opportunity to reach groups of HCPs that are otherwise difficult to engage and to reach them through colleagues they trust and have elected to follow.
Social media adoption by the life science industry in general and medical affairs teams in particular has not been lightning fast, but our discussions show that a tipping point has been reached: the overwhelming majority of medical affairs professionals now consider social media information important. This goes hand in hand with an ever-growing volume of social media content driven by an HCP workforce that is increasingly dominated by Millennials who prefer virtual interaction.
How to best identify and prioritize this new type of experts and influencers will continue to evolve, as will use cases, engagement strategies and best practices around having a meaningful scientific exchange on fast moving social media channels. At Monocl we are excited to be part of that discussion and to work with medical affairs teams everywhere to facilitate impactful use of social media.
Monocl Professional now contains information about experts’ Twitter following and a direct link to their accounts as a standard feature. If you want to check it out for yourself, one of our team members is happy to give you an overview. To book a time please click here.
You can read the position paper by our VP of Global Medical Strategy here