More than two decades ago, graphic artist Richard Saul Wurman— author of Information Anxiety and founder of the TED and TEDMED forums, where innovators in technology, entertainment and design converge—predicted society would become overwhelmed with online facts and data pretending to be useful information. With a vast menu of expert voices available, the eventual response to the flood of information is to devalue expert advice and gatekeepers whose words are bound by regulatory and financial oversight. Patients and caregivers prefer to extend trust to “people like us” sharing common experience.

With all the free, accessible data available— information overload—it’s no surprise that consumers react with skepticism to corporate information or even traditional news sources. Yet through all the noise, three basic truths remain for communicators: Content is vital, facts remain the foundation for trust, and advocacy voices are potent influencers.

Chris Bowe, senior analyst for Scrip, notes that the actual news source has become less important than the provocative message. Audiences are not turning their backs entirely on corporate-sponsored information or government-agency public health campaigns—but they are watching their peers to gauge reaction within their community, and seeking rich content. So how do biopharma industry executives and their communication counselors engage online audiences? By shifting from the inside-out task of “Here is the information I need to tell you,” to an outside-in conversational approach: “What do patients want to hear from us in order to maintain a valued conversation?”

In our over-saturated information environment, here are three steps client- and agency-side communications professionals should consider:

Relationships first and foremost. Meet with key patient and professional advocacy groups and gain their insight—a minimum of one year prior to an anticipated product launch or introduction. Be prepared to share background on clinical science and even marketing plans, and ask what questions patients will have if and when your product becomes available. Do not assume that they will want the therapy at any price. Today, advocates influence trial recruitment, media coverage, compassionate use demands and reimbursement: Incorporate their voices into your planning or risk incurring, publicly, their wrath.

Presentation over presence. Content is as important as ever, but if it isn’t shared with consumers in a way that “connects,” the message is lost. Robust web presence requires more than the information you want to share (inside-out); it prioritizes audiences’ confidence-building visual experience (outside-in). Successful communication demands more than data-rich content and a visually pleasing website; the communications architecture itself must match consumers’ channels and speed. (When was the last time you saw a chief medical officer tweeting clinical trial results? The tweet itself would be newsworthy.)

Checkmate. Too often biopharma companies think linearly and forget that their target audiences may not react to the new information as anticipated—instead of applauding they may hiss and boo. Watch for reactions on Twitter, Facebook and advocate blogs—outside communities mobilize suddenly around shared points of view. Have a “what if” plan ready to engage. If you’re wrong, get ready to apologize—promptly. As Effective Apology author John Kador notes, “willingness to apologize signals strength, character and integrity.”

Patients want to hear from biopharma companies—perhaps more than ever. The goal is to think about how information either informs, or informs and opens the door to connection. The latter path is arduous, but infinitely benefits patient care.

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