Pharma twittersphere – To be followed or to follow?

Written by Silja on 14 July 2009 in pharma twittersphere - 21 Comments

This first analysis on the state of the pharma twittersphere will compare how many people follow the pharmacos’ twitter accounts (followers), how many people pharmacos follow back (following) and the number of times the account is updated  (updates). This analysis is supposed to give us a first big picture view of the pharma twittersphere … and you will see that even this “plain vanilla“ exercise already raises many questions.

I chose to only track big pharma’s official corporate communication accounts in this analysis to keep things comparable (my apologies to Novo Nordisk and Sanofi – I will talk about your approach in an upcoming post). Included in this analysis, you will thus find the following accounts:

1. @Amgen

2. @AstraZenecaUS

3. @Boehringer

4. @genentechnews


6. @JNJComm

7. @Novartis

8. @Roche_com

Big pharma presence on twitter is very recent- all corporate accounts are less than a year old, most count only a few months of “twitter“ experience.


It is important to keep this in mind as, obviously, the time spent on twitter impacts the number of updates, followers and even following on twitter. This caveat is especially true for Amgen, Genentech and GSK who joined twitter less than two months ago.

So let’s get started by looking at the number of followers:  The graph below compares the pharmacos’ number of followers to the overall average of the group. Conclusion:  Novartis, JNJ and Boehringer track above average in terms of followers.


On average, a pharma twitter account is thus followed by about 1300 people!! Wow, I’m jealous, but is this a lot or little compared to other industries, media channels, or twitter as a whole. What is the benchmark?

Next, I expected that the number of followers would driven by the number of following and updates a pharmaco provides.  The more you participate, the more you get followed, right?

As you will see from the graph below, this holds true only for JNJ and Boehringer, who have above average following. It does not  necessarily work for the others, and especially not for Novartis.

untitled4So now we know that on average pharma companies only follow 30%  (392 following/ 1306 followers) of their followers – is that a “good ratio“?

What is most striking though is not the average but the variation! The differences between the companies are huge. There seems to be three approaches to pharmacos’ following on twitter:

1. Do not follow anyone – Amgen

2. Only follow selection of followers – AZ, Roche, Genentech, GSK, Novartis

3. Follow (almost) everyone who follows you – Boehringer and JNJ

I noticed that many pharamcos started using twitter not following anyone and then came around to following at least a few of us – if you don’t follow anyone, what is the point of being on twitter, no?

I am quiet intrigued though by the middle category where most companies operate right now.  I wonder: Do they have a list of selection criteria of who qualifies for “twitter following“? If so, what would these criteria be? Anyone willing to share?

I am also impressed by Boehringer and JNJ – how do they keep up with following so many people? KUDOS!

I believe that whether and how pharmacos use the following function on twitter largely will depend on the social media maturity of the organization – especially the legal department’s ;-) .

Next, let’s  look at the number of updates:  Surely, the number of followers will correlate to the amount of content provided!


Well, sort of. JNJ and Boehringer post above average updates on twitter, confirming this hypothesis. Also, Roche’s high activity might explain the large number of followers despite being selective about who they are following.  AstraZeneca is in line as well, tracking just below average on all three comparisons.

In the end, I combined my analysis in this matrix to illustrate my simplistic framework of following (y-axis), updates (x-axis) and followers (bubble size).


So what does this tell us? Boehringer and JNJ lead the pack in the pharma twittersphere across the three parameters. They seem to be able to follow who they want, update frequently and thus harvest many followers. Roche needs to work on the following and keep up the good work with the updates, while AstraZenca should work on both following and updates . The newcomers to the twittersphere still seem to study it, trying to figure out their update and following policies – learn quickly, guys!

Only Novartis remains a mystery to me – Number one company being followed, but following almost no one and updating less than average – hmm, I have to admit I am stuck on this one ^^

In conclusion, this first high level comparison of pharmaco twitter presences raises more questions than it answers: Is reaching a maximum amount of followers really an objective in and of itself? Shouldn’t interacting with your audience be another or maybe THE most important objective for pharmacos’s twitter efforts?

I know it is tempting, but I believe, we have to avoid getting stuck on the numbers, especially the followers. In this podcast with John Mack, Boehringer’s twitter master mind John Pugh says that their objective was to target and interact with journalists and physicians via twitter. My next post will thus focus on comparing the “quality“ of the twitter audiences of Novartis, Boehringer and JNJ.

The third piece of my pharma twittersphere analysis will then go into the quality of the pharmaco twitter conversation.

Finally, I will wrap up my analysis with some suggestions on the way forward (if you want to help me – please answer this poll.)

In the meantime,  I hope you enjoyed my analysis, please add to my thinking through your comments,  – and stay tuned for the next posts ;-)

21 Comments on "Pharma twittersphere – To be followed or to follow?"

  1. Carmen 15 July 2009 at 10 h 10 min ·

    I Think only a few pharma industries must learnt to listen and participate in the conversation in twitter.
    Great post!!!

  2. Sarah Morgan 15 July 2009 at 14 h 18 min ·

    This is a great look – combining not only stats but also analysis and thought-provoking questions. Very useful – thanks for sharing it!

  3. Brad at Pharma 15 July 2009 at 14 h 30 min ·

    FULL TRANSPARENCY : While #iwork@novartis, any opinions or statements made here represent only my opinion. I DO NOT do Social Media as my day job… yet…

    Point of clarification. There was an unofficial @novartis account running from ~may/june 2008 before a handover to the now official account.

    Thanks for another important point in this discussion. One of the struggles that all these accounts may be running up against is the lack of clarification from the FDA. I think this is why you’re seeing official accounts behaving more like corporations and less like the traditional Twitter users… with the exception of @boehringer. I’ve talked with a few people at other pharmas, and we all seem to be bumping up against the same thing. I’m hearing that legal departments are working hard to protect Big Pharma from doing something that may get it fined, or sued, or worse… I’ve not been subjected to the tear-sheet pad of “NO”, but I’ve heard anecdotes of legal representatives showing up to meetings and crossing their arms and wondering out loud what they’re doing there, because nobody can do any of this stuff anyway…

    I’m one of many people who understand Social Media, working hard inside Big Pharma to start turning the big ship… although some days I feel like one of a group of protesters in a little Kodiak next to the big ship… and we’re making progress.

    Is it frustrating? Depends on the day.

    Is it productive? Yeah. Very.

    Will I be able to do all the cool stuff that Coke and Nike do? Probably not… and with good reason, let’s be frank… but I will be able to help customer, patients, and payors in the spaces that they use in ways that WON’T put me or my company at odd with regulations or laws.

    Again, thanks for the discussion kicker.

  4. Meg Hasten 15 July 2009 at 15 h 51 min ·

    Your graphs are really great–very easy to see all the info visually. Love it. I’m really interested to see your analysis of the content of their tweets, especially Novartis, since they seem to be such a conundrum. Maybe the mystery will be solved in their in-depth content? Can’t wait for more.

  5. John Pugh 16 July 2009 at 10 h 27 min ·

    Great work Silja.

    I’ve done a similar analysis for my presentation on 22nd and I draw some very similar conclusions. I also spoke to some of the pharma companies- JNJ, Roche, Astra Zeneca about what they’re trying achieve. Hopefully, you’ll find it interesting.

    I want to briefly respond to a point you made. You may cover this later in your analysis but you are not accurate in saying that we (Boehringer) follow everyone who follows us. In fact, 1198 people follow Boehringer that we don’t follow back. 772 people that we follow, don’t follow us.

    My criteria for following people is based upon what they tweet or how they describe themselves. I scour directories, such as twitgroups and conduct keword searches. I mainly look for journalists, but also look out for medical people or patient groups. If I see an interesting tweet, I’ll probably follow them. I also run personal profile, where I follow a different set of users.

    Thanks for sharing your hard work.

  6. extrovertic1 16 July 2009 at 12 h 22 min ·

    Great post. I am definitely following you on Twitter.

  7. Twittersfera farmacéutica by Marisa 16 July 2009 at 16 h 51 min ·

    … Se sabe que desde hace un poco más de un año, la industria utiliza Twitter y otras redes sociales para difundir información, como medio de marketing. Sin embargo, hay dos formas de hacerlo. Una es utilizando usuarios en cuyos dominios de correo está incluido el nombre del laboratorio (uno sabe a qué atenerse) Ver post . Otra forma de marketing es utilizando casillas de correo comunes… y esto es lo peligroso, porque se trata de publicidad encubierta.

  8. Sabine 16 July 2009 at 17 h 38 min ·

    I work at Roche and am involved in our Twitter activities, and hope my (personal) thoughts on the “following everyone” question can add some light.

    We monitor twitter search for certain topics and keywords. This gives an overview of what is percolating and can highlight issues in conversations by people who most often are NOT our followers.

    It also brings up people that tweet about topics that are relevant to us (e.g. pharma, biotech, diseases, social media…). If their bio and tweets seem interesting I start following them – and by the way: about 1/3 of them do not follow back…

    This is an evolving process, and the number will certainly grow with time, but we want to be sure that we do not lose the “listening factor”. Obviously, with the help of tools you can manage 10000 friends with filters etc. – but honestly how can you possible digest all? And if you start filtering, don’t you exclude people and stop listening as well? So, for the moment we want to take our time and grow with what we can reasonably manage and process.

    Apart from that, it appears that @roche_com has a lot of followers who have few to no posts, no profile – or even locked accounts. So if they don’t talk or introduce themselves, do they actually expect us to follow them right back? My guess is that they just want to listen (or try out twitter) – and will reach out if they want to talk with us.

    After all, this is the beauty of Twitter: If anyone wants to engage with us they can send a note to @roche_com and we will react and follow back. Just to auto-follow everyone, to my understanding does not necessarily enhance the conversation.

    Thank you for sharing this huge work and your insights. I really look forward to your next updates!

  9. VANDERSCHELDEN 16 July 2009 at 18 h 29 min ·

    Many thanks for this article…If you are abble to discover this new media…You will become one of the “biggest info manager in your company…” usefull for strategy, business, technologies, process, regulatory…must be coupled with “social NW”…

  10. Sally Church 16 July 2009 at 22 h 01 min ·

    Interesting post, Silja.

    You may like to know that @Bayer is also tweeting, albeit in German. I have no idea if it is an official account or not though.

  11. Arthur Alston 17 July 2009 at 4 h 24 min ·

    Hello Silja

    I am delighted that you took the next step after we discussed this idea (via Twitter) a couple of weeks ago. You analysis is excellent and useful – and as one of the previous posters mentioned, a great discussion kicker.

    Like Sabine I also work at Roche, but not at the head office in Basel. I literally work on the other side of the planet, in Sydney,

    I am one of the few (if not the only) active users of Twitter (and many other social media tools) here in this (as we call it in the Roche world) affiliate.

    My conundrum is that I cannot represent Roche on Twitter (and am also very careful about doing this). However, at the same time, I am aware that there may be people out there who would be interested in hearing my perspective because I work at Roche (a bit like Brad from Novartis.) So therefore I try and steer clear of the very topic that people may find interesting…ironic isn’t it.

    So my small contribution to this discussion is the following: it’s all good and well to have one central spokesperson for Twitter at a head office level, but we all know that our customers and patients live across the whole planet and therefore may want localised information. What do we do about that? Or do we follow the model of non-pharma industries who have multiple Twitter accounts?

    So I am thinking about the next step, the current debate still rages about pharma companies having a single Twitter presence (and of course how they use that account). I can see that very soon we are going to have to starting thinking about localising those Twitter voices.

    Happy to hear some feedback.


  12. Silja 17 July 2009 at 7 h 01 min ·

    Hi Arthur, thank you so much for your comment. I asked the question about multiple twitter accounts in this poll: Right now 56% of people seem against a proliferation of twitter accounts, but obviously I asked the question with respect to topics and not geography or language ;-)

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