Social POV: Instagram for Patient Engagement

When it comes to brand engagement, Instagram outperforms every other social media platform. And yet, life sciences companies are hesitant to use the image-focused app. It turns out they may be missing an opportunity because Instagram is another way to build trust with consumers and improve brand recognition. Through the proper use of Instagram for patient engagement, pharma can realize many benefits.


What is Instagram Used For?

If you’re new to Instagram, you may only know it as the “app with pictures” which was initially launched in 2010. Instagram has undergone big changes over the years though. Most notably, in 2012, it was acquired by Facebook.


Visual content is the essence of Instagram

Think of Instagram as somewhere between Facebook and Twitter. Images are the core element, but captions can be any desired length. Users can interact with photos through likes and comments. They can also send private messages. A user can follow other users, as well as specific hashtags such as #digitalhealth, #chronicpain and #cardio. There’s also a robust search tool to find content.

Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Instagram is perfect for storytelling. As Internet entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk explains, the platform is less cluttered, which helps to hold users’ attention: “When you’re spending time on Instagram, you’re not paying attention to anything else. 100% engaged and looking at your Instagram screen, each photo of users you follow on Instagram passes one by one. IG is all about that attention.”

A relatively new feature is Instagram Stories which was rolled out to compete with platforms like Snapchat. Stories can be pictures or videos, and users can add text or stickers. It features tools for drawing, augmented reality, and polling. Comments aren’t allowed, but users can send a direct message to the creator.

Instagram Stories can be saved for later viewing, but they disappear by default after 24 hours. Instagram says more than 300 million accounts use the Stories feature daily. This offers companies fertile ground for testing new concepts or engagement strategies. Another option available on Instagram is live video.


Who Uses Instagram?

There are around 95 million photos and videos posted daily on Instagram, and these posts get more than four billion likes. That statistic alone speaks volumes about engagement on the platform. Instagram still has a way to go to catch up to Facebook and YouTube in terms of total users, but it has seen steady growth over the last several years – and there are no signs of it slowing down.

Instagram users are growing steadily. – source


Instagram recently achieved an important milestone: 1 billion monthly active users. But more important is engagement. The majority of Instagram users engage with the app daily – and often several times a day.

Most Instagrammers are quite active on the platform. – source


Demographically, Instagram users skew young, but the landscape continues to change. Nearly three-quarters of all 18-24 year olds use Instagram, and other age groups are starting to catch up as well.

Popularity of Instagram – source


Like Facebook, patient communities are thriving on Instagram. Patients engage with one another for support and advice. To understand the scope of activity, just browse hashtags for any given health condition: #crohns has over 18K results, #asthma over 300K, #ehlersdanlossyndrome nearly 200K, and so on. Even medication-specific hashtags have a lot of activity. #humira, for example, has over 25K results and #advil boasts nearly 60K. Without question, the patient experience is prevalent on Instagram. Patients are there, and they are engaged.


Advertising on Instagram

Something else that makes Instagram valuable to brands is users’ openness to advertising, especially compared to other social-sharing platforms. However, it must be authentic and engaging. Whether educational or entertaining, it should offer something of value. Ads on Instagram are displayed as part of a feed of images that a user chooses to see. Good creative will fit seamlessly into that stream and may inspire the same kind of engagement as the other user-generated images they see.

Ad content options include single images, image carousels, or videos. Companies can also use the story feature for ads. The same targeting options for Facebook advertising can be used on Instagram. This includes targeting by interests and behaviors, location and other demographics, or by creating custom or lookalike audiences. Additionally, Facebook’s Pixel can be used to track and measure Instagram ad engagement.


Instagram: Best Practices for Pharma Brands

Life sciences companies working to be patient-centric should extend that focus to Instagram as well. All content, including ads, should be patient-centered. Instagram offers a perfect opportunity to show authenticity and empathy. Stories, especially, are a good way to showcase a more “authentic” story. Authentic, engaging, and empathetic content will build patient trust.

Another way to add value on Instagram is to look for unmet patient needs and try to meet them. A few questions that come to mind are:

  • Can you use your Instagram account to educate?
  • Can you use it to highlight opportunities?
  • How can you invite patients to engage with you or with one another?


Some good practices to drive engagement are asking questions, using polls, and always remembering to respond to patients who engage with a company’s brand. To optimize the patient experience, it is vital to do research. Insights that help you to understand the nuances of the patient experience can also help you create the kind of content that encourages patient engagement.


Observing current activities

Start by seeing how patients might already be talking about your brand or company. Use Instagram’s search feature. You might be surprised to learn that in many patient communities, there is a subset of patients who use the same medication or therapy. Patients will often share selfies of them with their medications. Some patients even use the live video feature on Instagram Stories during infusions. Observing the way patients are including your brand or product in their Instagram feeds can offer insight and spark ideas.


Use of hashtags is beneficial

Pay attention to the hashtags that patients use. Consider leveraging existing hashtags or other sharing activities that patients are already using. Or, start a new hashtag and encourage patients to use it. Featuring user-generated content (UGC) like this is often very effective. Of course, if you haven’t already begun to nurture relationships with patients and followers, they might not be receptive to this approach. As you build trust, users will be more willing to share.

Think about your purpose and try to share a diverse mix of content. Your Instagram feed can build general awareness of your brand or of a particular product, but that’s just scratching the surface. Instagram isn’t the place for a sales pitch. Rather, it’s a place for community, dialogue, and engagement.


Incorporating the human element

Consider featuring your employees to bring the human element to your brand. If you participate in charitable causes or volunteer activities, utilize Instagram to highlight those endeavors. You might want to give a behind-the-scenes look at the drug development process. Or, you can just share something fun and lighthearted.

For many pharma companies, Instagram is a good place to show patients that you recognize their illness presents a myriad of challenges. Try to consider the whole picture of the patient experience, not just your potential role in treating the illness. Let your empathy shine through.


Novartis leverages Instagram

Novartis was an early adopter of Instagram and is a leader when it comes to engagement on the platform. They share varied types of content with their large and growing audience. Notably, Novartis avoids using Instagram to promote any of their medications. Instead, they share content such as:

Novartis sees a good amount of engagement on their posts, including likes and comments.

However, comments can also present a potential challenge for any brand, and certainly for pharma. Trolls and negative comments have the potential to hurt your reputation. Fortunately, Instagram’s Comment Moderation Tool can help companies get ahead of this issue by flagging certain words to filter out offensive or inflammatory comments.


What to Avoid

Life sciences companies have unique challenges on social media because of FDA regulations. Since most pharmaceutical companies are successfully navigating these challenges on other social media platforms, it should be no different on Instagram. It’s important that all employees involved with Instagram activities be properly trained on what they can and cannot do. This also goes for any patient influencers you work with, as Diclegis once learned the hard way while working with super-influencer Kim Kardashian.

Beyond the obvious concerns about adhering to governmental regulations, here are some things to avoid:

  • Low-quality content. Don’t phone it in. Everything that you post should be high-quality. Patients will welcome you into their feeds if your creative is good, but you will quickly lose standing among patients if your quality is low.
  • Posting too often or not frequently enough. There is a sweet spot on Instagram. It helps to post consistently, but you also don’t want to go overboard.
  • A lack of thoughtfulness. Make sure you are always respectful when interacting with patients. Be especially careful about responding to negative comments or criticisms. Defensive language isn’t likely to win you any new fans. It’s smart to moderate your comments wisely so you don’t get into this situation in the first place.
  • Being tone deaf. Make sure you’re reading the virtual room. Pay attention to what is going on in the culture. Pay attention to politics. There are always divisive issues that people take personally and feel passionately about. Pay attention to current events. There will be times when posting a certain picture just isn’t a very good idea. And, always be extremely cautious about evergreen concerns like race, gender, sexuality, and religion. Your Instagram account shouldn’t be a one-person operation. When you have several people paying attention, you are more likely to prevent a tone-deaf post. Just like with Facebook and Twitter, tone deafness is met with swift judgment, and this is something you do not want. A tone-deaf post might make you go viral for all the wrong reasons and could significantly mitigate any gains you’ve made in terms of patient trust and overall brand perception.
  • Using fake spokespeople. Authenticity is a big part of why brands do, or do not, experience success on Instagram. This is perhaps especially true in healthcare. Using fake spokespeople in your campaigns is a big turn-off to patients. This shows a lack of authenticity, and to some patients it may even feel disrespectful. Fake spokespeople won’t earn you trust. Using real patients, on the other hand, will earn you quite a bit of trust. Patients trust other patients and some of this will rub off on you. Those with the “lived” experience of an illness and of being a patient will also likely give you vital insights you might have otherwise missed. This will ultimately lead to creative that is more engaging. Using celebrities as spokespeople can be a good thing, but it’s likely to be more effective when the celebrity has an actual connection to the illness.


Are You Instagram Ready?

Are you prepared to begin the journey of leveraging Instagram to drive patient engagement? Here are some key questions to consider:

  • Do you know what you want to measure?
  • Do you know the hashtags your patients are using on Instagram?
  • Do you have authentic relationships with patients who will share their real photos with you?

WEGO Health is uniquely positioned to help you with every part of this process. With our network of 100K+ Patient Leaders, we are eager to collaborate with you, culminating in creative that leads to results. We can help you avoid mistakes and get the results you are seeking.

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