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The Influence of Influencers: Ways Healthcare Brands Can Leverage Their Impact

Humans are strange beings. We know what we believe and we believe in what we know. Sometimes we ignore facts, and sometimes we change our minds.

Brands need to keep these truths in mind when considering engaging with someone who is opinionated and who has a lot of social media followers.

Social Influencers: Observations for Healthcare Brands

One of the exciting things about tracking social media is the ability to see – literally, in the form of charts and graphs – how topics and themes evolve. I am fascinated by the role of influencers, both positive and negative, and how their involvement can escalate or change a conversation entirely.

A great place to see this is in Cision’s report, The Vitals on Vaccines, which uncovers a variety of perspectives on the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine.  The report is drawn from tracking four months’ worth of social and electronic print media related to the topic, from January to April 2015.

Since this period corresponded with a measles outbreak at Disneyland, we were able to look at the conversations prior to and following the outbreak that ultimately affected 147 people.

While the report is far-ranging (you can get it here), in this post I want to share some observations about the role of influencers in the vaccine controversy that can help healthcare and pharmaceutical companies considering more closely aligning their brands with influencers:

  1. Some influencers reach a lot more than others, so choose carefully.
  2. When the topic gets personal, people are more passionately involved.
  3. Assets can become liabilities over time.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail, with examples from the report.

Scope of Influence

Influencers are influencers because their activity is seen, heard or read by many others. They have larger networks and more social media followers than most of us. They have the ability to make their opinions widely known.

Obviously you want your brand to be aligned with key influencers in your market. Being able to measure just how much reach a key influencer has can help you decide where to focus your efforts.

Two bubble charts below reveal a big difference between the Democrats and Republicans on the subject of the measles vaccine during the reporting period. The bubbles show a sample of people with a significant number of followers who tweeted or retweeted posts. The size of each bubble represents the number of Twitter followers who potentially saw relevant tweets and retweets.

The blue bubbles below show a sample of people who tweeted or retweeted a post about former U.S. Secretary of State (Democrat) Hilary Clinton and vaccines, including retweeting her famous post:

Democratic Vaccine Conversation

In contrast, the red bubbles visually depict the volume of people who tweeted or retweeted about Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul and vaccines during the same period, illustrating how fast controversial news can travel.

Paul received extensive coverage on Twitter following his initial statements, since recanted, in which he expressed concern that the MMR vaccination can cause autism. The late David Carr, then a reporter for The New York Times reporter, shared his tweets with nearly half a million followers.   

Republican Vaccine Conversation

Key take-aways:

Some influencers can be more “influential” than others. Knowing who influences conversations online, and how many people they, in turn, influence, will help healthcare brands identify those most important to their marketing efforts.

Keep in mind that the essential role of the influencer is to make more people aware of a topic. Thus, Rand’s initial comments, however uninformed, got more people talking about the vaccine on social media than did Hilary’s single tweet.

When It Gets Personal

By reaching large numbers of people, influencers serve to broaden a conversation. They raise themes, identify issues and get more people to join the discussion.

Our report saw a significant shift in online participation when some polarizing issues were spotlighted. While those in favor of vaccination generally owned 70 percent of the conversation, that number dropped to 55 percent after the outbreak.

More people against vaccination joined the conversation to weigh in on topics that were expressly personal, from purported vaccine side effects and family lifestyle preferences to a distrust of pharmaceutical companies and government mandates.

Passions (and posts) will flare up when themes and topics are more personal — involving family and lifestyle choices, religion and/or politics. Being “a voice of reason” and presenting facts is unlikely to be an effective strategy for the most passionate participants due to the psychology of Motivated Reasoning (read more about this in our white paper). But, for the majority of the population, making sure the facts are unassailable and easily accessible online should be a priority.

Key take-aways:

What beliefs do your consumers/patients hold close? Depending on which side of an issue you fall, addressing sensitive topics can create significant problems or opportunities by increasing the volume of conversation. Tapping into people’s passions can increase engagement, but you may need to rethink how some portion of your audience is addressed.

From Asset to Liability

The anti-vaccine community has had to shift their loyalties over time. First, there was a 12-child study in 1998 by Dr. Andrew Wakefield linking the MMR vaccine to autism. That study was discredited by 2004 and fully investigated and retracted by 2010.

Jenny McCarthy (TV personality, author, comedian, actress and former Playboy playmate who originally claimed that her son contracted autism from a vaccine) was a strong defender of Dr. Wakefield for listening to parents’ concerns. Once called a health menace in a Salon.com article for her influence on the anti-vaccine community, McCarthy insists she is not anti-vaccine, making her less of an asset than a liability.

Instead, many point to Mayim Bialik, a Ph.D. neuroscientist and an actor in The Big Bang Theory as a worthy influencer. Her academic background — and the fact that she said in a 2009 People magazine article that hers was an anti-vaccination family — made her the darling of the anti-vaxxer community. In 2012, she declined to elaborate, despite many calls for her to do so.

Yet, following the outbreak, with all the attention she received as the anti-vaccination poster family, she broke her silence with a short post to her social media profiles on February 10, 2015, including this tweet:

Key take-aways:

Influencers’ comments can be taken out of context or misinterpreted, and they can change their minds. It is essential to monitor the primary influencers in your industry, especially if your brand becomes associated with them, even informally.

Do you know what your influencers are saying today?  We can help.

See – literally! — the impact of the Disneyland outbreak on branded conversations, gain a perspective on prominent disease conversations, and read the prevailing social and political themes and other key findings in The Vitals on Vaccines white paper from Cision Global Insights.

About Mathilda Joubert

Mathida Joubert is a Vice President in the Global Insights group at Cision. An analyst at heart, she loves following data bread crumbs to ultimately tell stories. She has consulted numerous automobile manufacturers, biotech and pharma companies, major foundations and other not-for-profit organizations to help them measure the success of their communication activities. Always planning the next place to visit, she’s visited over 30 States in the U.S. and extensively abroad, but her favorite remains her native country, South Africa.

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