Finding subgroups in social media: How targeted therapies are changing pharma communication

Social media offers pharma an opportunity because it fits the trend towards personalised medicine, which is increasingly creating subgroups of patients who congregate online. Companies should target social media communications as much as they target their drug therapies.

For pharma marketers, two attributes of social media make the platform incredibly relevant and attractive: first, the increasing number of worldwide users who are seeking healthcare information from peers online; second, its ability to precisely identify and reach patients, healthcare professionals and carers.

Enabling drugs to target specific molecules needed for tumour growth has been a focus for researchers in cancer drug development. In the past few years, progress achieved in targeted therapies has made us rethink the way we approach cancer and rare disorders. This evolution not only affects medical research – it also has far-reaching effects on pharma marketing in the age of social media.

“Subgroups are often difficult to identify because of their informal structures”

An emerging but important trend is taking place in some established patient online communities – the rise of ‘subgroups’, small groups of patients who not only have the same type of cancer but also carry the same genetic make-up and use the same treatment. As targeted therapies become the standard of care for more types of cancer, these patient groups will likely grow rapidly, and pharma marketers should take note.

How to find subgroups

Unlike well-established patient online communities such as DASM (diabetes advocacy social media) and #BCSM (breast cancer social media), subgroups are often difficult to identify because of their informal structures. For example, a small group of HER2-positive breast cancer patients may form a small blog network to share treatment anecdotes. Dozens of newly diagnosed non-small cell lung cancer patients who carry the ALK mutation may start a conversation thread on a forum used by other lung cancer patients. A group of young patients with advanced melanoma who are taking a BRAF inhibitor may use a weekly tweet chat to share treatment experience.

To find these less-obvious communities, marketers have to be equipped with two capabilities: first, the skill to gather data through tweets, Facebook posts, forum posts and YouTube videos to understand where the relevant conversations are taking place; second, a strong grasp of user behaviours in digital and social media to pinpoint the most relevant groups and influencers to target.

“Meaningful and appropriate direct engagement with consumers by pharma companies can be well received”

Data have shown that meaningful and appropriate direct engagement with consumers by pharma companies can be well received, and that patients actually want information from pharma in social media.

Medical Marketing & Media reports that a recent survey from the consulting firm Accenture found 38 per cent of patients would want social media interactions with pharma, and the percentage is higher than “what they want from physicians [and] pharmacists”. An even more encouraging finding from the survey shows 64 per cent of polled patients were willing to trade personal information to get free, relevant content.

On the contrary, many medical, legal and regulatory review sessions at pharma companies still largely focus on how to avoid real engagement with patients.

Engagement with subgroups can be a win-win for both patients and brands. For patients, they have unique needs and are passionate about medicines that can potentially extend their lives. For example, patients in the past have directed tweets to pharma by tagging a company’s Twitter handle or by actively participating in pharma-sponsored blogger summits. For brands, targeting subgroups enables them to demonstrate the downstream value to a targeted audience. To capitalise on the opportunity, pharma companies need to continue investing in social media.

Subgroups present opportunities for competitive advantage

According to a report by the American Society of Clinical Oncology analysing cancer care in the US, nine of the 18 cancer drugs and biologicals approved by the FDA in 2013 were targeted therapies.

For cancer patients, being able to switch among targeted therapies is important. More options often mean prolonged survival. For pharma marketers, the increasingly competitive landscape presents two strategic challenges: how to position a brand as a first-line therapy, and how to demonstrate value and convince patients and physicians to stay on a therapy for as long as possible before switching.

Given that progression is often inevitable for most patients on a targeted therapy, the competitive advantage of a brand may lie outside of the product. An article in the Harvard Business Review reports that the centre of gravity for many brands has tilted downstream as the evolution of markets are often driven by customers’ shifting purchase criteria rather than improvements in products.

“Engagement with subgroups should be orientated around demonstrating respect, goodwill and commitment instead of selling drugs”

A key takeaway point here is that a targeted therapy will likely rise as a leader in its class because of its downstream competitive advantage, from its capability to interact with prescribers, its emotional ties with patients and its creative positioning against competitors – all can be achieved through meaningful engagement with highly-targeted subgroups. The key is to identify appropriate timing, relevant topics and most important, a respectful tone to engage. And brand teams must act quickly as the marketplace is getting crowded.

The effort also needs collaboration among multiple internal stakeholders – such as marketing, communications, legal and patient advocacy – which emphasises that engagement with subgroups should be orientated around demonstrating respect, goodwill and commitment instead of selling drugs.

Ultimately, what drives the downstream value for a brand is the true connection with patients, and building connections is what social media engagement is really about – something pharma marketers should always keep in mind.



About the author:

Steven is a digital media strategist with New York City-based Chamberlain Healthcare Communications. He helps clients in the pharmaceutical industry to develop and implement digital and social media strategies for prescription brands. He is also pursuing a master’s degree in public health in healthcare management at Columbia University. He tweets from @stevenshie and blogs at

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