Every day, more pharmaceutical brands are hoping to see the same outsized business results that other industries have found in influencer marketing – but pharma faces challenges far different from any other industry. How can pharma brands share control with influencers to build patient trust and engagement? How does trust translate to ROI?
In our most recent Quarterly Landscape Report, WEGO Health analyzed responses after surveying 263 of our members across 86 conditions to uncover patient influencer perspectives on influencer trust, action, attitudes toward pharma promotion, and partnership preferences.
Influence of Lifestyle Influencers versus Patient Influencers
Lifestyle influencers invite their followers to get a glimpse into their picturesque lives, revealing many aspects of their personalities. They typically share multiple talents or passions, like fashion, home décor, travel, and family life with their followers. To earn the title of “influencer,” they typically have large followings on the macro (10K – 1M followers) or mega (1M+ followers) level. They are masters at their craft, churning out beautiful content on multiple platforms, with the most popular earning a comfortable living on paid partnership income. While lifestyle influencers numbers have been on the rise over the last decade, they did not focus much on health issues such as living with medical conditions and taking medications until much more recently.
Because personal health journeys are a newer addition to the parts of their lives influencers share with their followers, there is great skepticism on the receiving end. “I’ve been following you for years, so why am I only hearing about your debilitating migraines now?”
On the flip side, health issues and medical conditions are the predominant focus of a patient influencer. Sure, they sprinkle in lifestyle content occasionally, but looking at the feed of a patient influencer, you mainly see their journey of living with a medical condition(s), inspiration and support for others, and documented experiences with medications and therapies. In a way, managing their condition often is their lifestyle. The pictures aren’t always pretty and the content doesn’t share only the highlights, but it’s real, raw, and authentic.
While there are patient influencers out there with sizable followings, the vast majority tend to fall more within the nano (1K-10K) to micro (10K-100K) categories. Their content is tailored specifically to their audience of patients living with or caregiving for their condition(s) versus the general population, and the smaller and more niche their condition, typically the smaller the reach of the influencer. By and large, they are not living off of the income they make as an influencer, but hustling in many forms from consulting as a patient in addition to full-time jobs to earn a living — all while still devoting many hours to the communities they manage and inspire. But don’t underestimate their impact. Nano and micro-influencers have greater, more impactful engagement with their followers and a well-established foundation of authenticity and trust in their communities.
While the patient influencer is a relatively “new” phenomenon to be brought into the healthcare industry spotlight, these folks have existed for over a decade. It’s only in recent years that they’ve started to gain notoriety among marketers for the value that they can bring.
So the question is, when it comes to health information, who is trusted more, patient influencers or lifestyle influencers?
NOTE: For our research and analysis, WEGO Health surveyed our Patient Leader Network members who are both patients and, in many cases, patient influencers themselves to varying degrees. Within our network, we have advocates, activated patients, and influencers as members, and in digging into the data in this particular survey, we saw a 50/50 split between influencers and activated patients. Regardless of their personal “influencer” status, these people are patients first, and their perspectives on who they trust are more critical to analyze than perspectives of those in the general population. They represent the communities brands aim to reach and provide the best insight into the psychology of the patient mind.
According to our research, patient influencers handily win in the battle of trust. Exactly half of the respondents did not or only slightly trusted information shared by lifestyle influencers and only 14% felt that they could mostly or completely trust the information shared by lifestyle influencers in a sponsored ad or post. On the flip side, only 17% of respondents did not trust or only slightly trusted patient influencers. Over half (51%) mostly trusted to completely trust the information shared in a sponsored ad or post.
Qualitative insights survey data we collected in the fall of 2020 shows that authenticity plays a big role in this equation. While lifestyle influencers may very well be living with the chronic conditions they discuss, they don’t always have the same level of knowledge and expertise to discuss these conditions as that of a patient influencer who speaks on it daily. Combined with the fact that many macro and mega lifestyle influencers are living above the financial means of the average patient and therfore have access to different and better resources, many patients feel that they just can’t relate.
When it comes to the likelihood that an influencer drives patients to research medications, the QLS results have a similar inverse relationship as the trust factor. Half of the respondents were not at all likely to only slightly likely to research medication that was promoted by a lifestyle influencer, whereas over half were mostly likely to very likely to research a medication promoted by a patient influencer.
An interesting curveball in this survey was patient community influence. When asked how likely patients were to research or ask their doctors about health information heard through or promoted by others in their communities, the results were overwhelmingly positive with 64% mostly and very likely. While this organic approach is the most coveted by pharma marketers, it is certainly the most difficult to scale, which is why many brands find the happy medium to be the patient influencer as a larger disseminator of information to their communities.
Receptiveness to Branded Influencer Marketing
So, let’s talk about the approach. We know patients are receptive to health information and medication information shared by patient influencers, but what about the straight-up “brand mention”? How receptive are patients to fully branded ads and marketing messaging?
This was one of the most eye-opening findings from our survey because as it turns out, they are more receptive than many would think. Over half of patients are somewhat receptive and another 29% say they are very receptive to fully branded marketing.
Perhaps the more surprising statistic is found when we look at receptiveness to pharmaceutical partnerships. When asked how receptive they, as patients and influencers, would be to partnering with pharma on marketing and advertising initiatives, the large majority (86%) is somewhat to very receptive.
The most important word to focus on here is the word “partnership”. WEGO Health CEO, Jack Barrette, pointed out in our most recent webinar that patients are receptive to partnerships, but only if those partnerships are a true collaboration. This means honoring the expertise and autonomy of the patient influencer. The trust of their communities and their pride in their authenticity are not factors patient influencers are willing to sacrifice. For example, being told what to post, when, and how to say it might not ring as true to these patients as would a collaborative process of uncovering pain points within their community and communicating their perspective (in their own words) on a medication’s ability to solve those problems.
WEGO Health solicited open-ended answers on this topic because we really want to understand what patients feel makes a good branded partnership. Here is what a few respondents had to say.
For those on the fence or against these types of partnerships, many responses went back to their fears of medication being a deeply personal decision, one that belongs to the patient and their care team.
At WEGO Health, we understand this is not a simple feat. Having partnered on branded campaigns with pharma, we know the intricacies of the MLR process and the sensitivities of the patient community. Standing in the middle with outstretched arms, we strive to strike the balance so that both sides see the value and reap the benefits.
Execution with Patient Influencers
When a brand is considering a partnership and they have a patient influencer on board, what are the top considerations for the brand to get it right?
Breaking these components down, there was an interesting theme that authenticity and transparency trump engagement and influence. In the world of mega influencers, many marketers look at reach as the number one criteria of hiring an influencer for their campaigns. But in the pharmaceutical and healthcare space, this is a very different landscape. Patients find it most critical that the person sharing the information is genuine and real, living with the condition, as opposed to holding stock in their number of followers.
Patient Influencer Partnership Preferences
Because many pharma brands are accustomed to their celebrity endorsers being exclusive to their brand, they often struggle to understand why patient influencers are reluctant to exclusivity.
To dig in on this topic, we asked our respondents to weigh in. Our research confirms that patient influencers are reluctant to exclusivity, with 1 in 3 respondents answering they would “never” consider exclusivity. Over half, however, are okay with exclusivity, but only for a finite amount of time.
But why? Patients want to remain unbiased. As their conditions change, so often do the therapies that they take. They do not want to be held to agreements that do not allow them to mention, explore or share new medications and therapies that someday they may ultimately end up needing and succeeding with. Patients also like to be able to speak freely, and promoting flat tummy tea doesn’t hold the same weight as a potentially life-changing medication. While they are happy to share their positive experiences with their community, they understand the value in remaining open. Every person has a different body chemistry and each medication or therapy, therefore, is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Lastly, when looking into the future and what 2021 may bring, it wasn’t surprising that the majority of patients are not ready to travel. This survey was conducted in October 2020 when COVID-19 numbers were lower but even then, 3 in 4 respondents said they would not travel until cases decrease or there are proven treatments or a vaccine. But this doesn’t mean that partnerships need to be put on the back burner. Patient influencers are highly skilled at creating authentic content from within the walls of their own homes, as well as working virtually with pharma brands and companies like WEGO Health.
Overall, the takeaways from our landscape research indicate that patients as influencers for brands will help build trust more so than lifestyle influencers, are more likely to increase target patient audience action, and that patients are receptive to branded marketing and ready to partner with pharma to make it happen. If you’d like to explore the power of a patient influencer campaign for your brand, we invite you to reach out to our team and explore the possibilities!