March 2014 marks Twitter’s 8th birthday; eight years since the social media channel’s founder Jack Dorsey sent his first tweet in 2006. At the time, few people would have imagined that this new sharing platform, limited to just 140 characters would take off on a global scale; and certainly very few would have predicted the incredible global impact that the channel would have in the world of healthcare.

Who could have known that Twitter would enable thousands of people living with diabetes to connect around the globe, learning and sharing with each other? Or that hundreds of thousands of doctors would exchange ideas and solve problems together on Twitter, even improving outcomes in emergencies?

For pharmaceutical companies, which have on the whole been somewhat behind the curve in adopting emerging communications channels, it took some years to embrace Twitter. Today, however, the platform has become a powerful engagement tool for many, who are learning to embrace its environment of open dialogue.

From birth to adolescence

Pharma’s relationship with Twitter over eight years has evolved in three phases. In each phase, pioneers led the way with new ideas, often conceived by one or two ‘champions’ in a company. The trail blazed by those champions, and the lessons learned along the way, have stimulated the industry as a whole to make better use of Twitter and social media.

Infancy, 2006 – 2010

The infancy stage of pharma’s relationship with Twitter spans the first half of the past eight years, between 2006 and around 2010. Arguably, the first two years after Twitter’s launch in 2006 were more like a ‘pregnancy’ period where ideas were being formed but in practical terms had not yet been ‘born’.

The growth of Twitter since 2006 has coincided with significant growth in pharmaceutical companies’ use of many other social media channels. Even the most pioneering corporate healthcare social media initiatives, such as Johnson & Johnson’s JNJBTW blog, had not yet been launched when Twitter first started.

When I spoke with Marc Monseau in 2008 – who was then a director of communications with Johnson & Johnson – about the corporate blog, he told me how social media was changing the way that the company looked at the world:

“After doing this for a year, one of my biggest surprises was that the people who read the blog are not who I originally thought they would be — they are not just members of the media or healthcare bloggers — but include doctors, nurses, employees, competitors, retirees, supporters of J&J and detractors. It’s that the audience — and this is important — the audience is defining itself — which is different from how we’ve looked at the world in the past.”

See original article here.

At that stage, Johnson & Johnson’s corporate Twitter profile @JNJComm (which has more recently been renamed JNJNews) was branded as Monseau’s own profile, reflecting the role of the individual in pioneering new channels of engagement.

Toddler, 2010 – 2012

The period from 2010 to 2012 may be considered pharma’s Twitter ‘toddler’ development stage. In child development, the toddler stage is associated with the ability to move around, make marks, the development of language and communication skills, and social and emotional immaturity. It is also a stage of much learning through experimentation. For pharma, this was the period when companies started to try new things with Twitter for the first time.

Pfizer embarked on a multi-platform social media campaign in partnership with advocacy groups across Europe that included Twitter and numerous other channels. The channel choice and messaging were informed by what Pfizer learned through studying stakeholders in social media, as Louise Clark, who was then Associate Director Communications EU & UK at Pfizer, told me at the time:

“We carried out some research to look at who was talking about what, in which places; and those greatest places of engagement opportunity were our initial target to ensure that the uptake of the campaign was good …so we’re reaching out to people in the right way and in the right language and in the right environment.” (Daniel Ghinn, ‘Pathways to Engagement for Healthcare Organisations’ – see original link here)

In the end, Pfizer’s ‘Can You Feel My Pain’ campaign included separate Twitter accounts for different European languages, as part of an international engagement initiative with local context.

In 2011, AstraZeneca embarked on a pioneering Twitter chat, using hashtag #rxsave to host a one-hour open conversation about the company’s prescription savings programs in the US.

“We thought that using Twitter would help us reach a broader audience of community advocates than through our traditional channels,” Jennifer McGovern, AstraZeneca’s Director of Patient Assistance Programs, told me about the chat, adding that it was an experiment to find out how useful Twitter might be in reaching patients across the US who are eligible for the company’s program. (Daniel Ghinn, ‘Pathways to Engagement for Healthcare Organisations’ – see original link here)

Early Adolescence, 2012 – 2014

With lessons learned from early adopters, and a growing sense that much more was possible, the most recent two years of pharma’s relationship with Twitter may be considered the early adolescence phase. In this phase, pharma has become bolder with Twitter as it continues to try new ideas with increased confidence.

Practical tactics have been deployed by some to support compliance obligations, such as the use of pre-approved tweets – some pharmaceutical companies are said to have thousands of pre-approved tweets that they can use to provide engagement that feels close to spontaneous. Others use a mix of pre-approved tweets relating to regulated content such as product mentions, and allow more flexibility for non-product related conversation.

Some, like Boehringer Ingelheim, have taken Twitter chats to new levels by collaborating with healthcare professionals; others such as GSK have deployed dedicated profiles for engagement at conferences.

Changed for good

As we look ahead to Twitter’s ninth year, the platform’s effectiveness in healthcare looks set to keep growing. As other social media channels come and go, Twitter will continue to connect resources and people, and to give pharmaceutical companies new opportunities for learning about their customers and engaging them. With many lessons still to be learned and opportunities to be taken; perhaps pharma will yet achieve Twitter’s full potential while the platform keeps growing. One thing is certain: whatever social media channels come or go, what pharma has learned about Twitter has changed healthcare engagement for good.

This article was originally published in PharmaPhorum.