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Can pharma quit Twitter? Social strategy evolves as Musk changes the platform

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Elon Musk’s official takeover of Twitter has led to large-scale uncertainty for industries that have come to depend on the platform, and pharma hasn’t been immune — consider the infamous 48-character tweet impersonating insulin-maker Eli Lilly that sent the company’s stock plummeting in November.

Prior to Musk’s ownership, pharma companies relied on Twitter to foster relationships with healthcare practitioners sharing research under hashtags like #MedTwitter and frequented the platform to communicate during conferences. The social media platform was also a mainstay of pharma advertising, with industry marketing efforts growing 160% on the site this year, according to a report by Trinity Partners.

“Twitter is the only social network that’s used for professional purposes as a vehicle for scientific exchange amongst pharma companies, HCPs (and) medical affairs physician societies,” Matt Titus, chief commercial officer and vice president at Epocrates, a clinical reference provider owned by Athena Health, said, noting that most conferences now funnel into Twitter.

But continued upheaval on the platform, including the termination of its COVID-19 disinformation policy and the recently relaunched Twitter Blue subscription service allowing users to buy “verified” status, has created even more apprehension in the scientific community that uses the social media site.

As Twitter’s new policies pose potential reputational risks for companies, questions swirl over whether to maintain the status quo on the platform.

Impact on pharma

Many pharma companies are taking a silent approach for the time being. The official Eli Lilly page @LillyPad has not tweeted since a parody account cost it millions with a tweet announcing the company was giving away free insulin. And most large pharmas, including Pfizer, AbbVie, Novartis and Merck and Co., temporarily ceased advertising spending on the platform after the incident, according to advertising database Pathmatics.

“If I’m a pharma brand marketer, right now … I can’t be in a place where there’s a lot of spam going around, or false information or hate speech,” Titus said. “So, I’m probably doubling down on my known entities with verified audiences that have clinically relevant information.”

As for practitioners, many are looking for alternative platforms, such as Mastadon and Post, to communicate about the latest research, threatening fewer opportunities for pharma companies to connect with them.

“You’ll see that a lot of HCPs have said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to be posting on Twitter anymore,’” Titus said. “Pharma has less of a view into what HCPs are thinking, what data is being shared, that scientific exchange.”

Dr. Nick Mark, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Swedish Medical Center Seattle who is active on #MedTwitter, created a Mastodon server in late October as a backup option for the HCP community.

“Think of #medmastodon as a small town (and) #MedTwitter as a neighborhood in a big city. In a small town it’s easier to have laws that reflect the values of the community. For example, prohibiting hate speech (and) blatant health misinformation. Self-moderation may be more responsive,” he tweeted about his decision to create the new space for scientific connection.

“I think throughout the pandemic pharmas started to learn you need to have a plan A, but then also plan B and plan C and be able to pivot quickly. We can’t forget that lesson.”

Matt Titus

CCO, VP, Epocrates

So far, nearly 10,000 users have joined the server, Mark said. He’s also seen a notable uptick in the last few days since Musk attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Biden, in a tweet.

Like many physicians, however, Mark continues to post on Twitter, in addition to Mastodon.

“I’m holding out hope that they can right the ship and that none of those existential threats (on the platform) will happen. Because I think there are still a lot of good things about Twitter,” he said. “I think it’s also a great platform to communicate medical information to other professionals or to the public and none of that has changed.”

A report by ZoomRx published in mid-November found that he’s not alone — over 90% of HCPs had still remained active on Twitter.

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