An exclusive analysis conducted by Talkwalker for PharmaTimes reveals which companies are the most successful at using social media and what they’re doing right

The research analysed the following companies: Merck & Co. (MSD), Bayer, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, GSK, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Roche (Twitter only), AbbVie, Sanofi, Gilead (Twitter only), Lilly, Amgen, Boehringer Ingelheim, Novo Nordisk, Astellas, Takeda, Merck KGaA and Teva.

The research was conducted by Richard Sunley, copywriter and communications officer, Talkwalker. Talkwalker is a social media analytics company that provides businesses with actionable social media insights through real-time social listening and advanced social media analytics.

CompanyTwitter followers
Novartis (@Novartis)224,291
Pfizer (@pfizer)213,817
Roche (@Roche)168,116
Merck & Co. (@Merck)145,013
Johnson & Johnson (@JNJNews)157,205
GSK (@GSK)153,349
Bayer (@Bayer) 139,175 
AstraZeneca (@AstraZeneca)132,856
Bristol-Myers Squibb (@bmsnews)114,308
Lilly (@LillyPad) 103,197
CompanyTwitter engagement (retweets & likes)
Merck (@Merck)104,504
Bristol-Myers Squibb (@bmsnews)40,904
Johnson & Johnson (@JNJNews)27,849
AbbVie (@abbvie)22,349
GSK (@GSK)21,487
Pfizer Inc. (@pfizer)17,324
Roche (@Roche)17,050
Novartis (@Novartis) 13,574
AstraZeneca (@AstraZeneca)8,340
Gilead Sciences (@GileadSciences)8,181
  • Average posting frequency on Twitter: Around 3 per day
  • Most: Amgen – 5.8 per day
  • Least: Takeda – Less than once per day
  • Pictures are the most successful tweet type overall by engagement, but on a per-post basis videos get more likes and retweets (45 for video, 41 for pictures).
  • Generally, owned tweets make the most impact rather than replies or retweets of others.

What are the best-performing Twitter users doing?

  • Top performer – Merck & Co
    • Mostly ahead due to massive sharing of tweet posted announcing Merck’s withdrawal from President Trump’s Business Committee.
    • Focus on their present and past history of innovation, with posts using their hashtag #inventingforlife getting high levels of engagement.
    • Merck have 3 of the most highly engaging tweets during this period.
  • Bristol-Myers Squibb:
    • Predominantly posts linked to their ReadyRaiseRise campaign to fight cancer.
    • Most of their top tweets were on the subject of either this campaign or educating the public about cancer.
    • Using influential people in their campaign also helped to extend reach.
  • Johnson & Johnson
    • Quite varied but tweets on the theme of improving employee benefits (parental leave) and working mothers strike a chord.
  • AbbVie
    • Very focused on the treatments they are working on, particularly their work with autoimmune diseases
    • Use sponsored posts (Twitter cards) extensively to promote their content and these posts are top performers in terms of engagement.
  • GSK
    • Very focused on short advert style videos which receive high levels of engagement
    • Also sharing company news e.g. the arrival of new CEO Emma Walmsley.

CompanyFacebook followers
Boehringer Ingelheim1,009,202
Johnson & Johnson (jnj)765,500
Merck KGaA (merckgroup)59,724
Sanofi US (sanofiUS)44,553
AstraZeneca US Community42,040
Eli Lilly30,098
CompanyFacebook engagement (shares/likes)
Johnson & Johnson129,015
Boehringer Ingelheim97,580
Eli Lilly12,189
Sanofi US6,513
  • Average posting frequency on Facebook:
  • Around once per day
  • Proportionally a much higher usage of video – 25 percent of all posts vs 8.9 percent on Twitter – but on here videos get significantly more engagement – 384 per post vs 248 per post for pictures.

What are the most successful Facebook users doing?

  • Johnson & Johnson
    • Broadly similar content to Twitter, which is successful, just in a slightly longer form
    • Charitable activity also gets high engagement.
  • Pfizer
    • Very varied: from their plans to eradicate trachoma to employee stories to work with the White House and wider charitable campaigns.
  • Boehringer Ingelheim
    • Relatively technical education content with mix of video and pictures
    • Focus on patient groups and listening to patient voices.
  • Novartis
    • A fair amount on company appearances at events, PR and articles penned by employees
    • Also educational content on the subject of diseases like malaria in particular.
  • GSK
    • Top performing posts are about charitable work, especially link with Save the Children
    • Also general company updates about arrival of a new CEO, opening a new vaccines centre and breakthrough on Malaria vaccine.


  • The most successful post on Twitter by far was Merck & Co.’s withdrawal from President Trump’s business committee showing that pharma giants wading into public affairs can have an impact. Generally speaking Merck was applauded for this move
  • The theme of medical innovation was also one that resonated strongly with audiences particularly on the subject of historical advancement and progress/efforts made to tackle major diseases like cancer and malaria
  • Technically speaking, video content has proved to be very effective in inspiring engagement, outperforming pictures on both Twitter and Facebook
  • Pharma brands as a whole don’t seem to make much use of influencers who have a presence outside the pharma community. BMS did this with their cancer campaign which is one of the key reasons they appeared so high in terms of Twitter engagement
  • The brands that used more video content were also generally speaking, higher performers when it came to engagement
  • On Facebook, where there is generally a bit more positivity, posts surrounding charitable work by pharma brands works well for engagement.

What wider impacts does having a good social media presence have?

  • Generally speaking the larger pharma giants (J&J, Roche, Novartis, Pfizer, and GSK) have larger followings than competitors, but as BMS show it’s possible for (slightly) smaller companies to match giants when it comes to engagement
  • In terms of reputational impact, looking at spikes in negative sentiment over the last six months, it’s generally hard for pharma companies to overcome discussion about them when they enter the news cycle. The general public is much more likely to hear about pharma companies in the news – usually either a scandal, a breakthrough or a takeover/merger – than they will from the company’s social media activity
  • None of the pharma brands have followings on Twitter that would come close to that of a major new organisation or large consumer brands in the automotive, fashion or tech sector, for example. In the end, people follow brands they are interested in and inevitably fewer people have enough of an interest in pharma activity to follow them
  • But, as Merck & Co. showed when they withdrew from Trump’s business council, using social media to highlight news that is big enough to enter the news cycle can make a bigger impact, helping pharma to reach beyond the industry bubble. This is also the case with breakthroughs around vaccines and major fundraising activity such as BMS’s drive against cancer.

How do patients/customers view and engage with companies’ social media efforts?

  • They generally receive a substantial level of activity in the form of replies, especially on posts that have received a lot of engagement already. In terms of replies, it is very often quite negative (e.g. calls to lower drug prices) and as a general rule the brands don’t seem to respond unless the response appears to have come directly from a patient
  • As a general rule, pharma companies don’t seem to respond to general Twitter criticism but rather to positive mentions and occasionally when they get called out by a celebrity
  • As a general rule, there is more negativity on Twitter than Facebook. This is perhaps due to Twitter being a more open platform whereas Facebook is significantly more private so negative comments have less opportunity to spread and be seen widely
  • That said, if we can say that retweets/likes are generally speaking, a positive action, then we can say that pharma companies do still receive a fair amount of support on Twitter as well  when they get their message right.

How to stay compliant when using social media

By Rina Newton, managing director, CompliMed & Debbie Young, head of channels, AstraZeneca UK

The ABPI Code allows pharmaceutical companies to communicate compliantly via social media when the strategic intent is clear.
PMCPA case rulings in this area suggest breaches are usually because promotional content has been naively shared via these channels, which are open to the public.

To ensure AstraZeneca’s UK-specific Twitter account was compliant from the outset, the company collaborated with CompliMed to support the proposed strategy and content.

Top tips include:

  • Ensure the cross-functional team (including reviewers) understand the channel, the Code principles and previous rulings on communications with the public. Are procedures, contracts, briefings, training in place?
  • Create a social media corporate strategy that responds to the needs of prioritised target audiences and is aligned to the company purpose and goals. Should we use this channel for disease education or to discuss relevant healthcare topics?
  • Categorise communications according to the strategy – include dos, don’ts, approvals required and examples. What types of corporate communications are allowed?
  • Create content that is meaningful. Join conversations that are relevant to the audiences you want to engage with – messages should be approved by signatories. Does the audience of a tweet change if we add a mention or hashtag?

Pharma’s challenges in social media

By Matthew Worrall, senior corporate communications manager at AbbVie UK

This study offers a good pulse check on the progress of industry in social media and flags the importance of quality content and relevance. Many companies, AbbVie included, are increasingly working towards a family of country-specific social media channels alongside the global effort.

As this analysis shows, the social media community in our sector are those with specific interests and expertise in healthcare. Debate can be very different from country to country, and getting the right details to be relevant is easier on country-level channels. EFPIA’s #WeWontRest campaign shows there is a role for trade associations to coordinate and amplify industry efforts to raise issues of common interest to make an impact on social channels – it is a trend I expect to see more of in coming years.

The finding that most engagement success can be found through visual content rings true with what we have measured since launching @abbvieuk in July and there is definitely more that industry can do to imaginatively link online experience from social to owned digital channels. Whatever the platform, the next step to improving engagement is to move from ‘broadcast mode’ to taking part in relevant online conversations that we haven’t initiated but which matter to our audiences. Any communications professional working with social will know that getting there will not be without challenges and will require strong collaborative team effort with colleagues across departments to make it happen.


  • The big pharma companies are relatively active on social networks with many using a variety of Twitter channels in particular to reach different audiences (patients, clients, region, special interests)
  • For the top performing brands using video content, using influencer tie-ups, focusing on broader brand values (innovation, employee care, standing up for principles) and genuine breakthroughs helped them stand out from the rest
  • But the impact of owned social activity from pharma brands pales in comparison to mentions by news media and celebrities on Twitter that overshadow pharma announcements
  • Pharma companies also tend to receive a lot of negative comments on Twitter making this a relatively challenging environment, though retweets and likes on posts do counterbalance this negativity.