The Impact of Patient Influencers and Online Communities in 2021


Doesn’t it seem like there’s a new marketing tactic or channel to consider at least monthly? There’s almost a paralyzing number of options, each one promising results that will blow your benchmarks out of the water. Sure, some of these tactics are proven, but pharma marketing doesn’t play by the same rules as most other industries. Taking a leap of faith on a new channel can seem somewhat intimidating and is also a heavy lift for pharma marketers for many reasons.

Brands work with limited budgets with high stakes to prove ROI — especially when it comes to new channels and tactics. Patient content and influencer marketing are some of those tactics with widespread appeal and proven results across several industries, but their adoption is not yet widespread within pharma company walls.

At WEGO Health, we live and breathe the numbers that show pharma brands not just the results these tactics can drive, but the how and why it works, too. Online communities and the leaders and influencers driving those groups have a concrete impact on patient behavior. Let’s dive into our latest research emphasizing how and why these marketing tactics work, especially in an industry with a well-documented consumer-brand trust gap like pharma.

In February 2021, we surveyed over 350 patients, from activated patients to patient influencers with thousands of followers. Respondents represent 150+ conditions and were asked if online health communities play a role in their healthcare, who within those communities drives them to action, how they consume and share health information, and what actions they’re likely to take with the information they consume from someone influential online.

Online Communities Unequivocally Influence Patient Health Decisions

In our research, 9 in 10 (91%) patients state that online communities play a “somewhat important” to “extremely important” role in their health decisions. 72% state online communities are “important” to “extremely important,” indicating that for nearly three-quarters of patients, most of their health decisions are impacted by online health communities. The information shared, the validation and reaction from others, and the suggestions made in these groups are all paramount in driving patient health decisions in 2021.

Top Information Consumption Channels

Graph depecting the top social media channel on which patients consume health information

As the only channel with private groups, an essential part of many online communities, it perhaps is no shock that Facebook still dominates all other social channels as the top social network for patient health information consumption. What’s more interesting to note, however, is that Facebook posts rank number one, and just slightly behind posts are Facebook private groups in the number two spot. More than half of patients are consuming health information behind closed digital doors in private groups, often condition and/or situation-specific. No other channel boasts private sharing capabilities the way Facebook Groups does, but other channels like Twitter are hoping to change that in the near future.

Speaking of Twitter, Twitter has dropped from a top spot in our 2018 research to tenth place in our 2021 survey. Tweets have been surpassed by Instagram and YouTube, who both jumped several spots. Blog posts, podcasts, and even direct email have overtaken Twitter in the information consumption rankings.

Instagram posts take home the bronze medal, and Instagram stories also make the top ten, further underscoring how influencer-style content is how a lot of patients get their health information.

Now it wouldn’t be 2021 without a mention of TikTok, which came seemingly out of nowhere to dominate much of the social conversation in 2020. The platform has had a profound influence on other platforms, with both Instagram and YouTube adopting new TikTok-like features (Reels and Shorts, respectively), but it hasn’t quite yet permeated the patient world to the same degree as other platforms. Most of us hadn’t heard of TikTok a year ago, but it now counts 11% of patients consuming information on the platform.

Top Information Sharing Channels

 graph showing the Top social media channels where patients share information

Just because patients are consuming information from the heavy hitters like patient influencers on specific platforms doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re sharing their own information in the same way. The distribution here looks a bit different than it does for consumption.

Facebook posts and private Groups still make the top three, but when it comes to sharing, private groups instead are surpassed by Instagram posts for the number two spot, dropping Groups to third. Another notable nuance with sharing is that more than one-third of patients say they share information in an even more private way, via Facebook private messages.

Channels like YouTube, Podcasts, and TikTok are far lower in sharing numbers, likely due to the fact that they are a much heavier lift for patients to execute, master, and monetize.

Patient Influencers are More Likely than Patients to Share Relevant Health Information

Graph showing that Patient influencers are more likely than activated patients to share health information online

True to their role as community leaders and curators, more than 9 in 10 (93%) patient influencers share with others “some” to “all” of the relevant health information they consume online. 1 in 5 say they share “all” of the relevant health information — that’s huge! Imagine a brand partnership with an influential patient and the trickle-down effect that content could have. 20% doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, but the potential spread of that information has huge implications for qualified impressions and quality conversions. This is an opportunity for pharma to focus on creating shareable content that can arm patient influencers with credible and relevant information to share within the walls of private groups.

Brittany Mathes BMS Quote from WEGO Health Webinar

Where Information Becomes Action

It’s can be challenging to measure the actions taken by patients with the health information they consume online. HIPAA and other privacy laws prevent brands from knowing who exactly takes the next step toward adopting a treatment or therapy. The next best thing is to ask the source — if someone influential in your online community shares information about a treatment or therapy related to your condition, what have you done or will you do with it?

An astounding 9 in 10 participants in our survey (89%) would ask a physician about information they consume about a specific medication. 4 in 5 (82%) would go a step further and also share that information with someone they believe to be interested.

WEGO Health Patient influencer quote about sharing specific medication information

When someone seen as influential in a patient’s online health community shares information from a pharmaceutical company about a medical condition, 92% would ask their physician or another HCP about the information. The same number of patients say they would share the information with someone they believe to be interested.

WEGO Health Patient influencer quote about sharing specific medical condition information

As with other areas of our survey, the level of influence a participant has does slightly affect their likelihood to take action.

Those considered patient influencers frequently report asking their doctors about conditions and medications for the additional purpose of sharing the conversation and learnings with their followers.

The greatest variance of likelihood to take action is among our non-influencer group. With specific medications, non-influencers are less likely to ask their physician about the information (83%) or share the information (76%). Sharing the information requires a certain level of comfort and openness about sharing with others that you have a medical condition. Those who don’t share their story actively online (non-influencers) have their reasons for keeping private and are therefore understandably less likely to be as actively taking ownership of their health or sharing private information with others.

Even still, more than 4 in 5 non-influencers will still ask their physician about the information and more than 3 in 4 will share it. While there’s a slight difference in numbers, the responses from all levels of influence show the power of trusted influence within patient communities and indicate the concrete impact those with influence within the communities drive by sharing information.

WEGO Health Patient influencer quote about Facebook driving specific medical condition actionWEGO Health Patient influencer quote about Facebook driving specific medical condition action

Tactics Worth Your Consideration

The data and the patient voice behind it speak for themselves. Online communities play a momentous role in the health decisions patients of all kinds make. Just as impactful is the information shared by those seen as influential in those communities. Some patients may be passive participants in their health journey, but the messages these influencers send still have a high potential to reach broad audiences beyond measure due to the sheer likelihood of people to simply pass along the information. Partnering with trusted, authentic, and engaged patient influencers is a proven tactic to bridge the trust gap and distribute brand messaging in a way that drives action.

Pharma brands have nothing to lose and everything to gain by building relationships and forming partnerships with patient influencers. If you think these methods could be a fit for your brand and you’re ready to take a step toward results-driven and meaningful engagement with patient communities, click here to get in touch with our team!