Twitter use in pharma: valuable or time sinkhole?

Dr. Andree K Bates


Current estimates say that Twitter, the microblogging marvel, has a total user count of around 8 million. Every day, up to 10,000 new people join. It’s no wonder that the New York Times calls Twitter “one of the fastest growing phenomena on the Internet.” The most recent figures from March of 2009 indicate Twitter has again nearly doubled, with 8 million unique visitors. Twitter users are primarily adults, and are highly mobile, updating through their laptops, Blackberries, iPhones and other devices. Together, users have created over billions of Tweets to date.

Twitter combines components of blogging, Facebook, and other social media and condenses it down to a small but potent task. Members post updates (called Tweets) of up to 140 characters as often as they wish. Ostensibly, the updates are to answer one question: “What are you doing?” Like Facebook and other networks, people can follow each other and their Tweets. Like many social media options, participants can reply to tweets, and begin a whole new conversation. The result is a constant stream of communication.

What’s all the buzz about? Is Twitter here to stay? Does it really provide business opportunity? Many Twitter naysayers contend that the whole exercise is pointless. Isn’t it a bit narcissistic and boring to keep everyone apprised of your lunch menu and what’s happening at work?

“Is Twitter here to stay? Does it really provide business opportunity?”

But those who support the tool and use it extensively proclaim its great power in communication. When it comes to the world of buying and selling, some major players stand by Twitter, and advocate interesting uses:

Dell has created a number of Twitter profiles, each focused on providing followers new deals. DellOutlet, for example, posts recent refurbished Dell computer offers.

Starbucks posts new offers and also participates in threaded discussions with their Twitter followers.

JetBlue answers questions and provides customer service through their Twitter account.

Southwest Airlines transfers the irreverent tone of their blog to Twitter, running non-official, entertaining discussions with their customers.

Whole Foods Market asks what their clients like to read and watch, recommends food media and podcasts, and invites them to store events.

HRBlock runs ask-and-answer sessions with their customers.

Forrester Research posts updates of their site’s new reports and recent discussions.

Kodak Chief Blogger posts the company blog updates, and invites discussions with customers and followers.

Zappos uses Twitter to connect on a personal level with their employees and customers. They highlight new deals, interesting facts, and share funny stories: Activity is not a sales driver, but a brand builder, driving repeat customers and word of mouth.

Twitter in healthcare and pharma

What about physicians? Physicians are an active user group of Twitter, and they’re working to push the boundaries of what to Tweet. Earlier this year, an oncological surgery at Henry Ford Hospital was broadcast to the Twitterverse, giving short, real-time updates on the procedure as a learning exercise in removing a kidney tumour without taking out the entire kidney. Doctors, medical students, and the simply curious around the world tuned in. This type of sharing will undoubtedly increase over time, especially as the medical student population grows increasingly fond of social networking and Twitter.

The patients are also using it. Twitter users are finding conversations about drug side effects, clinical trials, approvals, and recommendations infinitely easier and more useful through Twitter than many static sites. Countless twitter conversations on these topics have been documented and recorded.

So, the physicians and the patients are using it. What about pharma?

Pharma companies have been hesitant, worried about the unknown. This is probably largely driven by lack of knowledge about it as well as legal and regulatory fears. Nonetheless, some intrepid pharma companies have ventured into the unknown waters.

At the beginning of this year, several key pharma companies dove in to Twitter, setting up corporate accounts with a variety of content:

• Boehringer Ingelheim (@Boehringer) uses a point person, John Pugh, Boehringer’s director for global corporate communications/external communications, to personalise and participate. He posts press releases, links to Internet-based information about disease areas, and posts articles he thinks followers might find interesting.

• Johnson and Johnson (@JNJComm) have set up an account focused on personalising the company and building reputation. A real company member tweets and interacts with the public on a variety of topics.

• AstraZeneca (@AstraZenecaUS) is focusing on injecting information into the conversation, sending tweets on access programs, healthcare reform and strategy.

• Novartis (@Novartis) tweets from their corporate communications centre in Switzerland, and focuses on sending out their existing press releases.

These beginning moves are slow starts, but are providing an example for other pharma companies to watch and learn.


Ultimately, evangelists and pundits alike agree that companies, especially pharma, can use Twitter as a way to research, interact, assist customers proactively, build relationships, brand, understand more about the market, and learn from others in the field. It’s a way to open up dialogue, knock down the growing perception that pharma companies don’t care what their customers and peers think, and start to build trust. With these potential uses in mind, and taking a composite picture of what pharma, businesses, professionals, and everyday people have done with Twitter, companies can easily come up with a list of activities to try.

Before diving in, just as with any other new tactic, companies first need to think about strategy. Why do you want to use Twitter? What specifically are you looking to accomplish? Thinking about all the potential benefits and uses of Twitter, especially those listed above, what do you want to focus on? By far the most successful Twitter ventures are those that keep the role and needs of the customer in mind. People on Twitter, just like other social networks, don’t want to be sold or marketed to. Your goals should revolve around building relationships and providing value for customers.

“People on Twitter, just like other social networks, don’t want to be sold or marketed to.”

Another consideration is determining your corporate persona. Companies can opt to stick with the brand name, taking on a company personality that stays constant. Companies can also take it a step further, using and identifying specific employees. These individuals evangelise the brand, but also engage in personal interests and communication.

No matter how you decide to create a presence on Twitter, the necessary next step, and on ongoing step, is to listen. Follow the ebb and flow of conversation, and you can get a great feel for what content users like, what is important to users, and how you can fit in. Conduct searches on key topics, like your brand or your condition area, and you can get a highly concentrated and natural discussion from those on the ground.

With this planning as a foundation, how can you and your company use Twitter to build brands and boost sales?

Test new ideas: Want immediate feedback from the real world? Businesses are using Twitter as a place for thought balloons all the time, and receiving information that can help mould new products and services.

Publish news and info: One of the best parts of Twitter is its instantaneous reach. Take advantage of an interconnected network to blast your up-to-the-minute news on approvals, or send out missives on legislative acts under review.

Distribute promotions: Some of the biggest business presences on Twitter are revered for their sharing of coupons, deals, and other goodies with customers.

Create brand personality: Extend your social media and blogging strategy with Twitter, and you can more fully create the brand personality you’re striving to impart.

Engage in customer service: Offer your presence as a way for participants to get questions answered, get thoughts on specific products, and troubleshoot.

Keep them guessing: Include a wide variety of information in your Twitter stream, mixing information posts, links to other people’s posts, replies to questions, alerts, and more.

Remember that Twitter should be another way to add value for your followers and customers. Tweet when you find opportunities to do just that, rather than simply promoting your company and brands, and you can find great marketing benefit.

What to Tweet

To effectively create brand personality, engage followers and prospects, and build something unique, your presence should be constant and ever changing. Wondering what specifically to tweet about?

• Instead of answering the question, “What are you doing?”, answer the question, “What has your attention?”

• Ask questions. Twitter is great for getting opinions.

• Tweet about other people’s ideas, products and services. Great for developing networks and conversations.

• Give advice when you do mention your products.

• Share the human side of your company with pictures and personal posts.

• Mention events, both your own and others your audience might find interesting.

• Start contests: “The first three people who answer this trivia question get….”

• Reply to others (using @ and their twittername). The more personal the reply, the higher the impact.

• Point to your new blog posts, and promote other people’s blog posts that are of interest

• OH’s (overheard). These can be highly funny and personalising, along with fun Internet games and sites.

To really create value with your tweets, and to ensure content that’s continually engaging and attractive, keep consistency. Produce at least 10 tweets a week to maintain an active, current presence that people will trust. Also keep conversations to a group level. For private conversations stick to Direct Messages. This keeps clutter out of the main communication, but also prevents too much information being revealed. Always remember that Tweets are “on the record.” Everything you tweet is searchable on the Internet, aiding keyword searches, but also creating a public record of any missteps.

Follow those that follow you. Being connected in this way allows you to send direct messages when needed. This practice can also help prevent discomfort in the Twittersphere, if you proactively follow others without their initial interest, you run the risk of appearing like a spammer.

“Above all, prevent Twitter addiction. Twitter can easily turn into a time sink.”

Above all, prevent Twitter addiction. Twitter can easily turn into a time sink. Beginners especially can feel the need to read every single tweet, eating up hours of time that should be devoted elsewhere. To prevent addiction, many experienced participants invest preplanned blocks of time to catch up and converse. Filtering your Twitter traffic can also help, TweetDeck allows you set up groups and filter conversations for specific topics and specific people.

Twitter can be highly entertaining and highly effective way to build a brand, if you keep perspective. Twitter can resemble a cocktail party conversation in many ways, and stay limited to small talk and meaningless chit chat. But if you take it to the next level, with appropriate content and follow up, you can make it meaningful.

About the author:

For more information on this topic, please contact the author, Dr Andree Bates, at Eularis (