Pharma gets social: 7 pharma social listening strategies

Today many pharma companies have sound systems in place to help them benefit from tapping into social media conversations. Here Daniel Ghinn spotlights several areas where this can prove invaluable.

For many years the pharmaceutical industry has been incredibly cautious about ‘listening’ to social media, wary of what it might find in public conversations. In the past, while some pharma medics saw an opportunity to learn from customer experiences, many companies were concerned that they would overwhelm their pharmacovigilance teams with hundreds of adverse events that would need reporting and investigation as patients shared their experiences with medicines.

Today the industry is adopting a more mature approach, having learned that it is possible to put systems and processes for compliant social listening in place and, in many cases, having already experienced the benefits of learning from customers online.

This brief guide outlines seven ways that pharmaceutical companies are using social listening to learn from customers, and draws from anonymised examples I have observed during my recent work and research.

1. Market research

Social listening has been disrupting the traditional market research model for years and today it is being led increasingly by market researchers in pharmaceutical companies.

For example, one company was able to learn from online conversations among pharmacists dispensing products against generic prescriptions. By studying the language used to describe products, the brand team discovered which issues influenced a pharmacist’s interaction with patients and, as a result, was able to choose the right words for customer messaging.

2. Competitive intelligence

The open nature of public social media means that you can learn as much about your competitors’ products and services online as you can about your own. By listening to conversations among health stakeholders, you can find out how the messages and tactics of other brands in your therapy area are resonating with customers.

A company launching a product in a new, competitive class of drugs in Europe used social listening to compare customers’ views about each of the products in its class across its launch markets. Through online conversations it rapidly learned about competitors’ marketing tactics and was able to make informed decisions about its own customer engagement strategy.

3. Digital profiling

Not all social media conversation is equal. Understanding the online influence of individuals can help you decide how to respond to individual voices. In a recent study of 78,000 social media posts during the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2015 Annual Meeting, 230 of the most engaged online healthcare professionals were followed by more than one million people all over the world, of whom almost 40,000 were other healthcare professionals.

Many companies are using social media listening to understand their customers at an individual level, developing digital profiles of named key online influencers or ‘Digital Opinion Leaders’, which map out their online networks of influence, channel preferences and even brand advocacy behaviours.

4. Targeting rare disease

With billions of social media posts being published every day, social listening can identify and target very specific needs with great accuracy. This presents pharmaceutical companies with the opportunity to learn precisely where doctors are seeing patients with particular symptoms. For companies with medicines to treat rare diseases, the ability to geo-locate symptom conversations enables them to target messages to them anywhere in the world.

5. Clinical trials

Locating patients with particular diseases or symptoms can help identify potential clinical trial candidates. By listening to online conversations, companies developing or testing new medicines can track patient symptoms and also identify healthcare professionals who might support the trial. This approach enables companies to develop tactics for targeting and engaging candidates with other digital initiatives, such as Novartis’ online clinical trials tool.

6. Medical Information

While caution still exists over adverse event discovery in social media listening, Medical Information teams in some pharmaceutical companies are using social listening to learn about patient experiences, proactively tracking conversations about product use. By learning from conversations about behaviours, some teams are identifying potential new indications for medicines. Others are using data on side effects to improve their understanding of a medicine’s safety.

7. Congress strategy

Today’s medical congress meetings take place not only on the ground at a conference venue but all over the world via social media. As one endocrinologist told me, if he could not be at this year’s EASD meeting (the annual congress of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes) in person, he would simply take part via social media by following the congress ‘hashtag’ on Twitter. Indeed, one third of all social media content posted during this year’s ASCO congress originated from outside of Chicago where the meeting took place.

Listening to social media during a congress meeting, and analysing conversation from past meetings, should be an essential component of a company’s congress participation. Companies that listen to social media are developing some of the most effective engagement tactics to support their congress investment.

Take action

Finally, just one important word: action. None of the seven concepts above will make any difference unless, after conducting your study, you take action. To make your social listening useful, you must be planning for action before you even start. Use your listening to test hypotheses and answer specific business questions that will inform your direction, and then when you discover new things about your customers’ needs, you will be ready to act.

About the author:

Daniel Ghinn has been studying the digital behaviours of health stakeholders since the late 1990s. He is Founder and CEO of Creation Healthcare, which provides specialised social insights to most of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and inventor of Creation Pinpoint, which distils healthcare professional conversations from public social media. He tweets at @engagementstrat.

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