Pharma on twitter: Neither lagging nor leading

Written by Silja on 7 November 2011 in #hcsmeu, pharma twittersphere - 12 Comments

Twitter’s explosive growth continues in 2011, reaching 250 million tweets a day and over 100 million active users. This year, twitter has also become the leading social media platform during major global events and crisis: the Arab revolts, Ben Laden’s capture or the Tsunami in Japan, to just name a few. In light of this impressive growth and growing influence, many questions arise as to how to now integrate twitter into our portfolio of available media channels. It appears that twitter within just a few years has matured from  a shiny new tool everyone experimented with to a new mass media outlet. An outlet with its own rules, dynamics and influencers. Most pharma companies have joined twitter by now, looking to profit from its fantastic immediacy and reach.

Despite this presence though, the long-standing perception that pharma’s adoption of social media is lagging behind has become a staple item in every debate on the topic. Somehow the social media adoption of the pharma industry just feels excruciatingly slow. Yet, we have no data to prove this gut feeling nor any clear definition on what constitutes a lag: Is pharma lagging behind twitter statistics in general or in comparison to other industries in particular? Is the lag in terms of joining and establishing a presence on twitter? Or is pharma rather lagging to reap the results of its efforts online in terms of attracting followers or receiving retweets and mentions? Or yet again is it a lag in the ability to interact and engage with stakeholders via twitter?

The aim of this post  is to set the stage for the extensive benchmark we undertook of pharma twitter accounts and its followers (please see below). With a couple of quick “back of the envelope” analyses, we hope to establish some basis for comparison. For the purpose of the following analysis, “lagging” is defined as either having less followers or joining twitter later than the average user on twitter as well as companies in other industry sectors.

Let us start off with some basic comparisons versus the overall twitter population. On average, the 15 companies benchmarked in this report had 7,704 followers. According to a 2010 twitter study by Sysomos,  this puts them into the top 2% of accounts on twitter with more than 1,000 followers. The top three pharma accounts: Pfizer, Novartis and Roche even had more than 10,000 followers,  something only 0.16% of accounts on twitter achieve.  Also all 15 pharma accounts joined twitter before the end of 2009. Seven out of the 15 pharma profiles were even already created in the course of 2008. In comparison, only 5% of the current twitter population was on twitter before January 2009, whilst 44% of users on twitter only created an account in the course of 2010.

So as accounts amongst others on twitter, pharma accounts neither lag in terms of joining twitter nor in attracting followers.

Granted, this comparison across the entire twitter population is too general. Of course we would expect the corporate presence of a top multinational pharmaceutical company to attract more followers that your average account on twitter. Another basis for comparison is thus the Fortune 50 list of companies and their corporate twitter accounts.  The hypothesis is that companies with higher revenues should be better known and thus attract more followers. Logically, if a company’s rank based on its twitter followers is better than its rank based on revenues, it is “more popular” than another company on the list.

Pharma companies Pfizer and JNJ, part of this Fortune 50 list, actually both ranked almost two times better in terms of followers than revenues. So whilst these two companies did not outperform the others in terms of total number of followers, there is no evidence to conclude that they were lagging behind the other Fortune 50 companies either.

As revenues and followers did not correlate as well as expected, Fortune 50 companies were then clustered and compared by industry sector. Consumer facing industries such as Telecommunications,  Automobile, Retail, Computers and Food clearly attracted more followers per company than other sectors. The pharma sector placed itself right in the middle: The average of pharma followers per company was 2-3 less than for consumer facing sectors which included companies like Target, Pepsi or Apple, for example.  Yet, pharma had also 2-3 times more followers than sectors such as Finance, Insurance and Healthcare. Again, there is no clear evidence of a lag here, but rather a larger question of comparability:  Not all industries are created equal. What constitutes a fair comparison? Which industry sectors have, for example, regulatory restrictions that are comparable to pharma or battle similar reputation issues?

Finally, we compared the top 15 twitter accounts of Fortune 50 companies to the 15 pharma twitter accounts as to when they joined twitter.  According to this time line, Pharma did not join twitter later than companies in other industries.  In fact, most companies set up their accounts somewhere in the course of 2009.  A good number of pharma companies was even already present in 2008.

Comparison of 15 pharma twitter accounts vs. 15 leading twitter accounts of Fortune 50 companies

This small comparison is just a snapshot in time and not extensive enough to overturn our deeply rooted intuition that pharma is lagging in its adoption of social media.  There are many important dimensions, that were ignored, such as the fact that the overall twitter population consists largely of private accounts from individuals, which grossly dilutes averages. Or that consumer facing companies usually have a much larger product specific presence on twitter, while we only compared corporate communication presences. Or that pharma still largely limits its uses of social media to communicate traditional content, foregoing, for the most part, direct interactions, promoting products or providing customer support.

Nevertheless, we have to caution each other against across-the-board, discouraging affirmations of our industry’s current state of social media adoption or the lack thereof. Instead we have to open our minds to the possibilities:

Yes, pharma’s regulatory environment is admittedly more difficult than other industries’. This will not change in the foreseeable future, yet as twitter continues to grow and establish itself as a new mass media outlet not using it because of hazy regulations is not a viable option anymore. Also, as the pharma companies benchmarked in this report have demonstrated, successful and safe engagement on twitter is possible even within this strict regulatory environment.

Yes, pharma won’t ever compete with Target or Apple, but even offline, pharma just does not have the constant engagement with its customers around best deals like Target or a devoted fan club like Apple. Again, given pharma’s reputation challenge,  we have to define what realistic, successful and compliant engagement looks like on pharma’s own terms.

As twitter has established itself as a media platform to be reckoned with, we now need careful analysis and meaningful comparisons to ensure that it can be thoughtfully integrated into our overall communication and marketing strategies. If we do this correctly, constantly and consistently, we will be able to fully reap the benefits of the newly emerged pharma twittersphere. Hopefully, this first quick ‘n dirty analysis  made the case that twitter has outgrown its infancy stages and that pharma has now embraced it as a communications tool. Neither lagging nor leading, compared to other industries, but on its own term.

Image of interactive map of 50k+ pharma followers of 15 pharma twitter accounts

In the next chapters, we will explore what is likely the most pertinent benchmark for pharma on twitter: comparing pharma with respect to its own followers. This analysis will inform us how much the pharma specific audience differs from the over twitter population. It will also give us an idea of how much engagement we can expect from pharma followers and start to think about how this compares to traditional mass media channels. We will also explore in great detail how pharma compares in terms of followers, following, tweets and even RTs and mentions within the sample over 50K pharma twitter followers we analyzed.

And we will not stop there: We segmented followers by stakeholder type (Media, HCP, Advocacy, etc.) and measured the reach and the quality of twitter followers for each pharma company on twitter. We also analyzed where in the world these stakeholders were located and what topics they were interested in, including disease areas, of course. So please, stay tuned and subscribe to our news feed below so that we can inform you when the first study is released.


15 pharma twitter accounts included in pharma twittersphere benchmark

This post is the first chapter of probably the most extensive pharma twitter analysis undertaken up to date: a benchmark of 15 pharma twitter accounts and its 50k+ followers! We chose only corporate communication accounts to ensure comparability.  All accounts benchmarked were Global, except for AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim and GSK, where also US accounts were included.


  • Pharma Twitter Overview: How does pharma presence on twitter compare to other industries? To overall twitter followers? To overall population demographics?
  • Follower Overlap: To what degree do followers overlap between pharma companies? Which stakeholders follow/interact with pharma most?
  • Follower Geography: Where are followers located? Which countries are over/underrepresented?
  • Pharma Twitter Account Benchmark: Which companies use twitter to communicate with their stakeholders? How is their engagement evolving?
  • Pharma Engagement Benchmark: Twitter Echo: Which stakeholders engage most with pharma content on twitter? (@replies, RTs)


12 Comments on "Pharma on twitter: Neither lagging nor leading"

  1. Andrew Spong 7 November 2011 at 12 h 17 min ·

    The Empress of Metrics does it again :)

    Thanks for sharing even this much of all your hard work.

    There are some wonderful data overturning some commonly held preconceptions here, Silja.

    So: thanks again for this fantastic introduction; now, where will you be offering the commercial version for sale?

  2. sally 7 November 2011 at 12 h 42 min ·

    Love this article, Silya, especially the beautiful interaction graphic.

    Just wondering about Bayer – were they are early or late adopter?

  3. Silja 7 November 2011 at 12 h 50 min ·

    Thankyou @Andrew! Sing up for newsfeed and I will let you know …unless I may reach out and ask you for advice :-P

    @Sally, Bayer joined in June 2009, thus right as the same time than everyone else. In terms of followers they place below pharma average in terms of followers, but as you will see in further post, we are trying to move away from the “follower” obsession and rather promote looking at reach and quality of audience in terms of % of media, HCPs and advocates. Unfortunately, we did not include Bayer in this first lot of analysis…do you think we should?

  4. Daniel Ghinn 7 November 2011 at 18 h 00 min ·

    Great work Silja, thought-provoking analysis.

    I think your point that “We chose only corporate communication accounts to ensure comparability” is a fair and practical approach, and I suspect that in many cases, a greater level of engagement may come from pharma Twitter profiles tailored to specific groups, such as by disease area or around a health topic.

    If not today, perhaps in the time to come… that is if pharma catches up before the next big thing replaces Twitter ;-)

  5. Michi E 8 November 2011 at 10 h 27 min ·

    A lot of great work! :-)

  6. Miguel A. Tovar 8 November 2011 at 13 h 34 min ·

    Great analysis, Silja. In addition to the correlation between revenues and followers I think it would be also interesting in general to check the correlation between ad spending (or share-of-voice) and followers. On the other hand I think that the number of followers is conditioned partly by the potential motivations to follow a particular corporation. For instance I guess that public companies should tend to get more followers (investors, analysts, journalists,…) than family-owned companies.

    Looking forward to reading the upcoming chapters, especially the segmentation of followers by stakeholder type.

  7. Jason Boies 8 November 2011 at 15 h 17 min ·

    Wow, there is some serious mythbusting on display here. Excellent analysis you’ve provided here, Silja.

    Daniel, nice point about more disease or topic specific Twitter handles providing more room for engagement, is this happening at all already or is that purely a hypothetical?

    Looking forward to the next installments. :)

    Jason Boies
    Radian6 Community Team

  8. Richard Meyer 8 November 2011 at 17 h 45 min ·

    Your metrics completely miss the point. The accounts you talk about are mostly PR accounts for investor relations and if you look at who is following you’ll find that most of the followers are industry insiders. You can’t just quantify as the number of followers as social media has moved far beyond that.

    Second, when you look at social media you have to look at the value of each platform. Facebook for example allows people to share content and posts whereas Twitter is more of answering questions from customers or for customer service.

    Pharma lags in social media not in numbers but in their thinking. Social media is not a channel or strategy it is a way of thinking about marketing from push marketing to engagement marketing and pharma has not made that leap yet. That is why I laugh when I see the Merck commercial with people saying I am not a patient I am a person; pharma looks at market segments not individual people and always has seen market audiences not people

  9. Jack Florio 15 November 2011 at 4 h 56 min ·

    Superb analys – Thanks !

    The missing piece has been a good tool for engagement.
    Pharma could listen, possibly make some sense out of the dialogue with some of the big data analytics platforms, but not be able to engage in a meaningful fashion. I feel as more tools that allow for a one-to-many targeted engagement are available, like what we have at Swarmology, we will begin to see an entirely different usage pattern.

  10. vineeth 14 March 2013 at 21 h 38 min ·

    Nice article. Agree and Disagree 50/50.
    People to a larger extent at least in India are not aware of the R&D, trials etc taken out by the said MNC’s for the regulators’ approval.
    This is not what they want to understand?
    They seek answers for spiraling cost of medicines…!
    I’m sure that you are aware of competition and market (ethical or un-ethical) dynamics of pharma sector in India.
    Same molecules with different brand names with diverse MRP’s are flushed into the market, How can you justice a molecule like Atarvostatin 10 mg taken on a long term basis getting rolled out of the same Third Party Manufacturer, QR matching from raw material to Finished product.
    Liponorm# 10 mg from M/s Blue Cross* a quality company selling at INR 2.30 (as of today eve) and all the other brands selling at diverse MRP from INR 3.50 to 12 or 15 for the same 10 mg. Specially an Sector where the system needs to be empathetic. If I’m interested in launching this molecule at the same factory with the same QR raw materials, nothing different other than the box size, brand name, PRICE at INR 1.00/= the margin is 121%.
    What justifications can we present in such cases? What could be the reason why the Doctors Rx costly brand ONLY. (For every rule there are few exceptions).
    Last one year, the media was agog with SCAM reports on NWM/MLM companies. Why are the Vultures of Pharma Sector given a free run – 60 years plus – I suppose, this could be the mother of all SCAMS throughout the South Asian countries.

    I do not mince words because; I’m setting on pile of evidence, once put in public. 100% there will be a 360 degree change towards the captains of of these companies will run for cover.

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  12. PharmaBizConnect 27 July 2019 at 7 h 39 min ·

    Nice article shared by you. keep it up in future also. pcd pharma companies list

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