Social media is awash in hashtags – from the beloved #dogsofinstagram to the deeply serious and timely #metoo and #marchforourlives, there’s a hashtag for nearly everything. This is true in the healthcare space as well.

Vibrant online communities are thriving across multiple social platforms, and each of them is filled with hashtags. Event-awareness hashtags, disease-related hashtags, patient-support hashtags … since 2010, the Healthcare Hashtag Project has counted more than 17K healthcare-related hashtags being used in more than 1.5 billion tweets. That’s a lot of hashtags.

In addition to connecting like-minded audiences, hashtags continue to be a great way for brands to identify influencers, as well as monitor and track interest and discussion about a topic, campaign, or awareness event. Think #migraine, #lungcancer, or #severeasthma, for example.

While patients and caregivers are free to tag and talk about symptoms, condition management, clinical trials, new products, and so much more, pharmaceutical companies are still bound by strict regulations regarding what they can and cannot say in the social space. Nonetheless, maintaining an active, engaged social presence – including hashtags – isn’t optional. Following are two MUSTS and seven SHOULDS for hashtagging safely and effectively in a time when internet trolls are ready, willing and able to hijack your message.

Hashtag With a Cause
In a 2016 report on social media activity among pharma companies, it was noted that “the top performing hashtags didn’t follow a specific trend, the most used hashtags were either event related or disease/cause related …. [and] in spite of content regulations, brands were able to engage their community with creative content … The campaigns that performed the best involved the brands speaking for a cause.”

Images of tweets from GSK and Astra Zeneca

Encourage Discussion
One pharmaceutical company that Twitter itself praised for its early, effective use of hashtags is Boehringer Ingleheim, which was “the first in the pharma industry to use Tweet chats to encourage awareness and engagement within the medical community around a specific disease.” BI continues to encourage engagement today.

Safety First
No matter which platform you choose to engage on, we offer these best-practice recommendations:

  • Do your homework — Before associating a hashtag with a campaign or in your social content, start with some manual research and social listening to see who else is using the hashtag and how it’s being used.
  • Look at it from all sides — This is really part 2 of “do your homework”: Ask yourself, is it possible that the tag will be misinterpreted or misused? Avoid embarrassment or backlash by ensuring your hashtag doesn’t become someone’s bashtag!
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel — Use popular hashtags for disease awareness, health awareness days/months and holidays to help reach new users.
  • Be specific — Lengthy hashtags can eat up characters on platforms like Twitter, but they do allow for greater specificity, and a greater chance to reach a desired audience. For example, if you’re looking for cancer-support communities, which hashtag is more compelling: “#cancer” or “#bcsm”?
  • Know the magic number — Hashtag use can vary across social media platforms. For instance, posts with at least two hashtags on Instagram typically receive more engagement than posts with 0-1 hashtag. On Facebook, users are less likely to use hashtags, so use should be minimal compared to Instagram and Twitter.
  • Build engagement, not follower numbers — Understand your audience, how they speak and what they care about. And be real. People can smell insincerity a mile away.
  • Be helpful — Don’t spam a community just to stay top of mind. Provide useful information and demonstrate understanding of, and empathy for, your audience.

Need help sorting out which hashtags are best for your brand? Reach out to your Intouch team for expert assistance.

Penelope Larson is the editor for Marketing & Communications at Intouch.