“Accelerated word of mouth” – is this the new pharma model?

Pete West

Vox Marketing Limited

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…

You may recognize the opening lines of this verse by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I was reminded of it recently during a trip to Boston MA, the scene of Paul Revere’s famous ‘Midnight Ride’.

In case you are unfamiliar, Paul Revere is the guy credited with starting a movement that led to the establishment of American independence.

He was acting as a messenger at the time when the British Army was ensconced in Boston. The locals were expecting the British to advance, at any time, on Lexington. Revere took to his horse and galloped off into the countryside, raising the alarm amongst the locals and rapidly spreading the news of the British threat, by word of mouth, to others. The result was that by the time the British troops had advanced, the locals were ready and waiting for them – leading to the eventual defeat of the British Army and the birth of an independent America.

Revere is extolled in folk history but a remarkable thing about this tale is that Revere wasn’t the only messenger that rode off into the night to raise the alarm. However, he is the one that gets the credit for having done it so successfully. It appears that Revere had some ability, some quality, which enabled him to connect with others in a most influential way and transmit communications, rapidly, throughout a community.

If you are thinking to yourself – “what has this got to do with pharma?” Then the short answer is, in my view, “everything”.


“…something needs to change in the way we do things if we are to succeed in an increasingly difficult market environment.”

Over the past few years the pharma industry has faced increasingly difficult challenges from research and discovery, through licensing and reimbursement to patent-expiry and beyond. So much so, that some people say the traditional pharma model is broken.

Whether this is true or not is not so important as recognising that, at the very least, something needs to change in the way we do things if we are to succeed in an increasingly difficult market environment.

Traditionally, pharma’s marketing focus has been on the prescriber. But now there is a much greater influence from other Health Care Professionals (HCP’s), regulators, payers, policy-makers and the patients (consumers). These groups have very different information needs from those of the traditional prescriber – and understanding what those information needs are – and finding a way to satisfy them in an appropriate way is key to our success.

We are now in the age of digital communications. It has been described as the biggest revolution in the way we communicate since the advent of the printing press, 500 years ago. The major change for pharma is simply this – we are no longer owners of the conversation.

We now have a dilemma. There is a conversation going on out there about us over which we have little influence or control. Do we want to be part of that conversation? If so, what is our role? Do we want to just listen? Or interact? Or influence?

Many pharma companies are now starting to look for ways to engage in this conversation. However, a recent survey by EPG Media, discussed here in pharmaphorum, showed that pharma’s desire to communicate with HCP’s and patients was not reciprocated by HCP’s and patients themselves.¹ There is something here about ‘trust’ but let’s just hold that thought right now. The point is this, if we want to speak to them, but they don’t want to speak to us, how are we going to do that?


“The major change for pharma is simply this – we are no longer owners of the conversation.”

In any other situation in life there would be just a few choices. Speak to them through an interpreter, or, influence the conversation in your absence.

The traditional method of speaking to others through interpreters and influencing is not new to pharma. It’s called “Key Opinion Leader development” or “Advocacy”. The issue now is that those “KOL’s” and “Advocates” that pharma have groomed may not actually be the real KOL’s and Advocates in the digital world.

This is a very different type of community. An irreverent space where every participant has, potentially, an equal voice. What is being said is arguably as important as who is saying it. Understanding how to manage “word of mouth” in this situation is critical.

Let me refer back to our friend, Paul Revere, for a moment. In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell cited the tale of Paul Revere and his Midnight Ride. It is just one of many examples that Gladwell studied in order to understand how “word of mouth” spreads and what makes it reach The Tipping Point where it can spur a social epidemic.

According to Gladwell, it is the assembly of a small number of people with very specific and differing qualities, the “stickiness” of the message and the context in which that message is communicated that makes the difference.

Although we can see some things in common here, I believe, this is really quite different to how we have approached advocacy in the pharma industry up until now. It is worthy of further investigation.

“Word of mouth” is one of the most powerful influencers of purchasing decisions. Whilst that has always been the case it has traditionally been seen as somewhat slow and unsophisticated compared to other marketing methods. But the digital communication age changes all that.


“The fundamental attraction of word of mouth is that people trust people – especially people like themselves.”

The fundamental attraction of word of mouth is that people trust people – especially people like themselves. It is a relationship based on ‘trust’.

Given that ‘trust’ is a commodity that is in short supply when it comes to the perception of pharma, by HCP’s and patients, it would seem appropriate that pharma should seek to harness the power of word of mouth in its communications with customers and consumers.

This calls for more than just a website, or a presence on Facebook, or Twitter. It calls for an appreciation of how communities are constructed and how the members of that community interact with each other – and with other communities. It calls for a new approach to advocacy, where the real opinion leaders may not be immediately obvious, but where they all trade in the same currency – i.e. word of mouth. And it calls for the ability to use word of mouth to shape the conversations we want to have – whether we are present or not!

Is it the new pharma model? I will leave you to decide. The main point is that it is not merely a digital solution – but an integrated marketing solution that is required.


1. http://www.epghealthmedia.com/blog/post.cfm/the-changing-social-media-landscape-in-healthcare

About the author:

Pete was formerly Senior Marketing Director at Wyeth. He is now Managing Director of Vox Marketing Limited, London, focusing on “Accelerated Word of Mouth” marketing.

Email: info@voxmarketinglimited.co (yes, it’s dot co!)

Website: www.voxmarketinglimited.co

Is ‘accelerated word of mouth’ the new pharma model?