Want to Listen Better? Ask the Right Questions


5 Keys to Success for Social Listening in Pharma

The tidal wave of big change in digital technologies saturated the pharma world by giving patients access to more information than they’d ever had, or maybe could even handle. Before that, pharma companies and marketers focused on the healthcare professional audience, and their efforts didn’t necessarily have to accommodate patient opinion–or their feelings and concerns over treatment. Things have clearly changed.

The World’s Largest Focus Group

Even today, there are residual hangers-on to the idea that HCPs make all the key treatment decisions. This has been the prevailing attitude of pharma marketers, especially related to complex diseases or high science categories like oncology, rheumatology, and neurology. In a brave new world simply overflowing with social content, however, it would be irresponsible to develop healthcare marketing and communications strategies without social listening to accompany the de rigueur qualitative and quantitative assessments, those pricy stalwarts of the product planning process that traditionalists cannot bring themselves to abandon. Pharma companies and marketers aren’t taking full advantage of all the patient-generated content that exists across channels. Social networks and online communities are venues where at least 52% of patients, consumers, and caregivers meet to ask questions, share information and compare experiences, per a recent Deloitte survey study.

Now the challenge remains how to leverage the world’s largest focus group on social to identify market opportunities, inform engaging customer experiences and relationships, manage PR crises, and optimize corporate communications. In healthcare, this is not only daunting because of the sample size, but also you do need to reconcile the information you collect with HCP attitudes and behaviors, which are much harder to tease out of social media.

Hearing Vs. Understanding

There is a difference between just listening and doing social listening well, especially in healthcare. After all, you don’t need a platform tool that aggregates data and sentiment to go online and “listen”. This is sort of like that age-old idea of hearing vs. understanding. In the pharmaceutical and biotech worlds, especially with complex disease states, a marketing strategist may find plenty to observe listening in the social sphere, but may also find it quite difficult to draw conclusive insights. This can be a barrier not only to creating strong internal and client business cases, but also in the end to relevant use cases based on actionable results.

So here’s why it is in fact critical to do listening well and why the investment in the right platform tool, depending on size of business or enterprise is important:

It’s more vital than ever to know what’s out there, so you can benchmark content, attitudes and beliefs, gauge the volume of clean data versus chatter, identify myths and facts, and even predict possible barriers from a product planning perspective. As we continue to learn, the social media world is filled with at least as much misinformation and false supposition as it is with clean facts and filtered discussion. 

The best-executed quantitative study still depends on screening, recruiting, weighting, and importantly, framing questions in precisely the right way (eg, multiple choice versus open ended). Using a social listening tool allows you to refine and tweak your inputs. It doesn’t have the fixed parameters that a traditional research study has. This means you have a lot more flexibility; you can operate cheaper and faster. Patients, caregivers, loved ones, friends, HCPs—they’re all out there interacting with the social world, saying something, behaving a certain way, expressing attitudes, beliefs, and lifestyle preferences. To understand all of those on some level is paramount to communicating with them in the most relevant ways. A platform tool can help aggregate and segment all the data out there, and it can be used to optimally visualize those data.

Here are 5 tips:

  1. Don’t skip the search audit—a good foundation for gathering conversations and sentiment is understanding the current search landscape. Listening without this can present confounds and generate even more questions. For example, some disease categories may have a lot of volume, but it’s still hard to find quality conversation. Sometimes the conversations marketers want patients to be having aren’t yet happening or the content companies want and expect them to be looking for doesn’t get found. If patients are not looking for a brand or product or even the disease state term(s) you’re expecting, they’re still probably doing something. Listening is not that useful if you don’t have any idea what patients and targets are looking for.
  1. Understand the nuances around where the volume is—Most listening platforms make it easy to determine where the sources of volume are, but you must be careful about overlap of trending topics or cross-channel redundancies due to news stories or PR moments. Forums, blogs, and communities are more likely to include a window to patient insight, but attitudes and behaviors may be amplified through news stories, editorials, and comments in social channels like Twitter and Facebook. It is important to first identify where the sources of volume are and then peek behind the curtain to validate what’s there.
  1. Avoid focusing on the “brands”. Focus on the disease—as much as we’d love them to, patients, caregivers, and consumers in healthcare are much less likely to have a relationship with a brand than with their disease or diagnosis, especially early on in their journey. This isn’t to say that brands won’t come up, but it may be hard to gauge sentiment if they do. Brand names will surface in negative or positive news stories, from marketing communications themselves, or from patients or caregivers talking about a positive perception that turned negative (or vice versa). Social listening in healthcare can help with pinpointing moments of truth and leverage points in the patient journey, but it is much more likely to identify those if you’re looking at the category or disease. This is much more fertile ground for gathering insights.
  1. Pick your tool wisely—There are lots of social listening tools out there, and more emerging by the day. Honestly a lot of them do the very same things, but have slightly different user interfaces or serve up their offerings in slightly different ways to make them look truly proprietary. You do have to be careful. They are all vying for your loyalty and they will tell you what you want to hear. Each seems to invest in constantly evolving features and benefits that serve as added temptations in persuading you to buy. For example, if you have a disease or therapy you’re exploring and you want access to closed communities on Facebook, some will say they have Facebook data and others not so. There is only so much you’re allowed to take away from the Facebook API, and to even access it typically requires a separate platform, with separate access credentials, and a whole approval process you are required to go through with Facebook itself. And it can take weeks to get approval from Facebook. Like with many purchases or deals you might make, a savvy sales person will take you through glossy, even pertinent use cases with media bells and whistles and custom built dashboards to showcase the capabilities of their tool. But this is often all presentation. And importantly, one tool might be better based on a particular strategic need while another tool may be better for the next one. It’s really hard to find one size that fits all needs best. Support and service are also important to understand, just like with anything else you buy. Is support all automated or can you get someone on the phone when you can’t get to what you need? Social listening can be a truly valuable research exercise if you understand exactly what are the opportunities and limitations of the tool(s) you select.
  1. Analyze, analyze, analyze—There’s no question that social listening represents a research opportunity to explore key questions and to be curious in developing marketing and communications strategies. You can learn where dialogues and conversations originated, how they evolved, and where, how, and why audiences engaged. Like with any type of research methodology, social listening platforms are marketed based on how they will elevate analysis. In most cases, these tools are really just aggregators. In other words, they are fine for collecting market observations, but unless you’re paying a premium to have platform “analysts” go through the data, ensure that it’s clean, and pull out and dashboard the key learnings based on a particular strategic need, listening is the same as “doing” the research. Then, just like with traditional research, listening observations need to be organized and analyzed in some way that’s actionable for clients to make marketing and business decisions. The listening itself doesn’t take that long and it certainly can be done more quickly than your more traditional forms of research that require recruiting, traveling, etc. It’s the refinement and analysis that is essential and often easier said than done, especially in high volume categories.

Social listening represents an incredible opportunity for pharma and healthcare companies and agencies to get an idea of what is already being done in a disease category or space. It can help identify ways to better innovate or where the open opportunity is to do something new. It can allow for learning from the mistakes of competitors and informing company discourse around legal, business, and policy decisions. This becomes more and more important as pharma companies and healthcare professionals begin to realize the incredible prospects for leadership and collaboration in the social space.

About Elevate Healthcare

Elevate is the only agency specializing in helping guide healthcare challenger brands—biopharma and medical device brands that need to overcome more powerful competitors, market limitations, and internal obstacles to achieve their full potential. Based in suburban Philadelphia, Elevate was founded in 2016 by two successful former healthcare agency presidents, Lorna Weir and Frank Powers, as a new kind of agency, purpose-built to serve clients in the current challenging and dynamic healthcare marketing landscape.

Contact Information:

Frank X. Powers