The Evolving Role of Patient Influencers in Pharma Marketing

If the last year is any indication, the buzz surrounding influencer marketing is only going to grow in 2019. According to a report by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), 65% of global brands are planning to increase their spending on influencer marketing in the coming year, with two key goals top of mind: boosting brand awareness (86%) and improving brand advocacy (69%).

Pick any consumer-driven industry and you’ll find marketers scouring the web for brand champions who appear to be bona fide micro-influencers. More and more brands are forgoing high-priced and high-maintenance celebrity influencers for people with fewer followers but a higher degree of trust.

From clothes to cars, when it comes to things we buy, the power of micro-influencers is real. A study by Collective Bias found that 60% of consumers said their purchasing decisions were influenced by a social media or blog post written by a trusted peer.

The emphasis on influencer marketing makes sense. When well-executed, these campaigns can have a big impact on ROI and brand awareness. In “The State of Influencer Marketing” report by Linqia, nine out of ten marketers who used influencer marketing said they found it effective.


It’s the trust factor, stupid

With trust as the fulcrum upon which influencer marketing campaigns succeed, it should be of little surprise that marketers in the pharmaceutical industry want in.

In survey after survey, consumers place pharma just a notch above big oil and big tobacco on their list of least-trusted industries. And that’s after the industry spends nearly $6 billion dollars annually to get people to, as they say, “talk to your doctor about whether this drug is right for you.” Even then, only nine percent of consumers believe pharma companies “put patients over profits.”

This is a stubborn PR problem for pharma – one that makes marketing of new drugs a bigger challenge. It also undermines other important initiatives whose success hinges on trusted engagement, such as clinical trial recruitment or adoption of new tools designed to bolster medication adherence.

These challenges keep pharma executives up at night – and their marketing teams scrambling. Low levels of trust translate into low levels of patient engagement.

Patient influencers are allies who can help. They are trusted intermediaries that other patients look to for information, guidance, and support.

In fact, trust is the glue that binds influencers to their followers. Our research reveals that when health information is shared by a trusted patient influencer, nine out of ten of their followers are likely to ask their physician about the information.

For some industry observers, that degree of influence among patients is a double-edged sword. In their eyes, it raises thorny questions about whether influencer marketing in healthcare could have unintended consequences.


Taking a closer look

In an article on, Sasha Mortimer wrote that skeptics of influencer marketing include doctors and researchers who see an inherent conflict of interest if patient influencers are paid by drug companies. “It is possible,” Mortimer writes, “that some of these social media influencers could end up blindly advertising products just so that they can be paid, without thinking about the kinds of damage that they could cause to the people who end up listening to them.”

The article highlighted WEGO Health’s work with patient influencers and noted the growing number of pharmaceutical companies that hire us to execute these campaigns. And it raised questions as to whether the use of patient influencers should be of concern not just to other patients, but to the industry as a whole.

We think scrutiny of these programs is healthy. Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant, and questions about the implications of influencer marketing are fair game in an industry that can affect a person’s health and wellbeing.

That said, we also think it’s important to share what we’ve learned, based on our experience facilitating collaboration between hundreds of patient influencers and many of the world’s largest pharma companies. There are misconceptions out there, especially in relation to the role patient influencers play in the life sciences industry.


Questions of safety and safeguards

Some brief context may be helpful here.

Long before influencer marketing became a thing, pharma companies began working with patients as brand ambassadors. The reason was simple. As patients got more informed, more engaged, and more connected through social media, brand marketers and their agency partners saw that many were openly sharing their stories with their peers. These were patients who talked about all aspects of their health journey – challenges getting a proper diagnosis, discovering new treatment options, which medications they liked, and more.

Because these patients were open about their experience and passionate about helping others, it stood to reason that some would make outstanding brand ambassadors. Pharma marketers rightly discovered new opportunities to learn from these patient leaders. Some enlisted their help connecting with the broader patient community.

Today, patient ambassadors are a staple of pharma companies looking to improve engagement with consumers. It’s widely understood – both inside and outside the industry – that ambassadors are authentic brand advocates who are genuinely grateful for medications or therapies that have changed, or in some cases saved, their lives.

Few suggest that it’s wrong for patient ambassadors to share their positive experiences with others. But some argue that a line gets crossed when they are paid to do so. “There’s a myriad of ethical issues around this,” said Lisa Gualtieri, an assistant professor at Tufts’ School of Medicine, in a piece written by Kate Sheridan for STAT. “What’s the responsibility of various stakeholders to educate people that this is potentially dangerous and harmful?”


“I would rather be honest with my readers and share both the good and the bad than to be swayed by compensation. I am upfront with brands and tell them I will write my honest opinion as well as disclose any payment or free products.”
– Erin Smith, Celiac Patient Influencer


In our experience, patient influencers take this responsibility seriously. Erin Smith, a leading patient influencer in the celiac community, wrote on Facebook, “I would rather be honest with my readers and share both the good and the bad than to be swayed by compensation. I am upfront with brands and tell them I will write my honest opinion as well as disclose any payment or free products.”

This sentiment was echoed by Kat Leena, a patient influencer in the gastroparesis community. “I have never accepted anything that doesn’t align with my values and have built my reputation on that. The patients trust me…so I don’t compromise on it.”

Other safeguards exist to ensure transparency. The Federal Trade Commission requires that influencers disclose when they are being paid for their endorsement. Similarly, if an influencer endorses an FDA-approved drug, they are required to provide a link to information about the approved indications and the risks.


“I have never accepted anything that doesn’t align with my values and have built my reputation on that. The patients trust me…so I don’t compromise on it.”

– Kat Leena, Gastroparesis Patient Influencer


The ultimate safeguard, of course, is the doctor. Unlike virtually every other consumer product, the patient is not at liberty to simply purchase on a whim any new drug or device they may have just learned about through a peer.

There are limits to what even the most persuasive patient influencer can possibly do in an industry as highly regulated as healthcare. If one of their followers believes they could benefit from a new therapy or treatment option, they have only one choice: Consult a doctor.


Sharing over selling

As a practical matter, most life sciences companies we’ve worked with do not hire patient influencers solely to promote a specific drug. Influencers are often enlisted to help with disease awareness campaigns and to educate others about steps they can take to better manage a complex or chronic disease.

For example, one major pharmaceutical company we worked with in 2018 asked patient influencers with a rare disease to encourage their peers to download a resource kit designed to help them better track and manage their symptoms.

The 90-day campaign targeted women in under-served, minority communities who can be difficult to reach through traditional channels. The company hired patient influencers to create educational videos that could be shared on Facebook and Instagram. The campaign drove 1.6 million impressions and more than 240,000 views of patient videos. In the end, from an engagement perspective, the company reported results that were three times better than other channels it had previously used to connect with this patient population.

Forward-thinking brand marketers recognize that asking patients to help them pitch drugs is counter-productive. Instead, they collaborate with influencers to help them reach patients through a voice that is both empathetic and authentic. Patient leaders use their stories and real-world experience to help their peers both understand and cope with their condition. That, in turn, builds brand trust.

Is it reasonable to ask patient influencers to support these pharma initiatives without compensation? In our view the answer is simple: Absolutely not!

Like their counterparts in other industries, patient influencers are right to both request and expect reasonable compensation for the time and effort they put into these initiatives. It typically amounts to somewhere between $300 to $500 per campaign. That amounts to a modest but welcome source of extra income for patients who bear disproportionately high out-of-pocket costs for healthcare.

All of this is not to imply the influencer marketing industry does not need policing. As with any industry, this one requires a high degree of scrutiny to ensure that unethical and risky practices are identified and mitigated. As 2019 unfolds, we’ll continue to educate ourselves and our clients about the influencer ecosystem, with a continued commitment to transparency and accountability.

We will also continue to advocate, as we always have, for the right of patient leaders to request that they be paid for their time, effort, and expertise. That has been the cornerstone of WEGO Health since the company was founded in 2007 and will remain a bedrock commitment going forward.

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