Tunnah’s musings: The difference between listening and understanding

The pharmaceutical industry has always been obsessed with conducting extensive research to underpin its activities, but Paul Tunnah wonders whether, in our quest to analyse everything to the highest level of detail, we are listening, but not really understanding.

For someone who is regarded as an advocate of social media, I’m actually a big fan of meeting people in the real world. Social media, and the broader digital and tech revolution, has done amazing things. It connects people in distant parts of the world, allows us to obtain information on just about anything, anywhere and at any time, plus has unlocked the potential of ‘big data’ to allow analysis to a level that we could previously only dream of.

“I’m actually a big fan of meeting people in the real world”

But I also believe that virtual interaction and analysis has its limitations. There is a level of exchange and understanding that happens when you spend time chatting to someone in the real world that can easily be lost through the text-based nuances of social media, or even more sophisticated technologies, like video engagement through Skype.

It’s a reason why the most stimulating part of being involved in pharmaphorum is the chance to meet all kinds of people with an interest in healthcare, from those working within pharma, to doctors on the front line, carers, policy makers and, of course, patients. They all have their own perspectives, backed by unique stories and their personal background. It is fascinating getting to know not only what different people think, but why – what experience has shaped their thinking.

This struck me particularly during a recent advisory board I was chairing, which included almost all of the above ‘stakeholders’, as a pharma researcher might call them. Traditional market research among the same group of people would provide much more robust quantitative information, where enough of them were interviewed, plus it would provide some great ‘qualitative’ analysis around what they observed and believed around the topic in hand.

Likewise, a virtual advisory board, or social media discussion through a channel like Twitter, would provide some more real-time and interactive qualitative information, but probably not to the same level of depth. There is something unique about being able to listen to someone who knows they have your full attention and being able to follow up with those all-important next questions. Why do you believe that? What do you really need? How can the industry help you? Plus, of course, all of this happening in a ‘safe’ environment, where everyone’s opinion is respected and treated with the confidence it deserves. Again, this is hard to replicate online.

“There is something unique about being able to listen to someone who knows they have your full attention”

So what’s new? I hear you cry. We’ve been doing advisory boards for a long time and are still doing them!

True. But I also worry that in the quest for greater efficiencies and, of course, the need to operate in a compliant manner, we are shunning such face-to-face engagement in favour of more efficient and ‘of the moment’ virtual engagement – chasing ‘big data’ over meaningful engagement and endlessly pursuing an analysis of what is happening at the finest level of detail, rather than seeking to understand exactly why.

But wait a minute. Why is someone whose business focuses on helping to drive content and social media engagement such a big fan of such physical interaction?

Well, aside from the fact that I also get involved in helping facilitate such real world meetings, I also firmly believe that one fundamental purpose of any kind of virtual engagement, whether driven by social media conversation or intelligent content, is to help bring people physically together for more interaction. It is a way of setting out your opinions, understanding those of others, and identifying common objectives that make it worth everyone’s time to discuss in more detail.

It’s also why, in my opinion, any kind of media engagement that is primarily designed to just push your message out, get picked up by search engine bots or ask leading questions in the quest for answers that you want to hear is not going to achieve its potential. In an age of transparency, people can see it for what it is: of little value to them.

You want media that really stimulate people, which make them see you understand, and that make them identify the mutual agenda that absolutely warrants meeting to discuss further. In doing so, it also needs you to bare your soul a little bit, to set out your beliefs in a personal way. This is also why even virtual person-to-person engagement is much more compelling, in whatever form it may be, than company-to-person. Even the most famous companies, like Apple, Coke and Google, don’t have nearly as much personality as the people who work within them.

“Enjoy the conversation, listen, and ask as much as you can”

So my advice to pharma is simple. Keep doing market research, keep interrogating big data, keep using ever more sophisticated technologies to drive virtual engagement with your customers, keep using intelligent content to drive engagement and, of course, keep doing more with social media to drive more conversational interaction.

But use it all with a view to drive more real interaction and, when you get the chance to actually meet doctors, regulators, payers, technologists, service providers, your peers, the public, carers and patients, make the most of it. Enjoy the conversation, listen, and ask as much as you can.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to meet some of you who are reading this soon and, until then, stay well.


About the author:

Paul Tunnah is CEO & Founder of pharmaphorum media, which facilitates productive engagement for pharma, bringing healthcare together to drive medical innovation. It combines industry-leading content and social media engagement services with the globally recognised news, information and insight portal pharmaphorum.com, working with pharmaceutical companies, service providers and broader healthcare organisations to help communicate their thought leadership and connect them with relevant stakeholders.

For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

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