Life sciences companies can learn from marketers behind brand icons like Apple. In 2011, the technology company developed Apple Customer Pulse, a survey-based panel that asks customers to provide feedback on products in up to two, five-minute online surveys each month. The company describes its Customer Pulse as a “community of Apple product users who provide input on a variety of subjects and issues concerning Apple” and uses the ongoing feedback to improve its customer experience. This contributes to the company’s consistent ranking as one of the top brands in consumer loyalty.

Too often, though, life sciences companies focus so intensely on FDA requirements that they ignore customer feedback from marketing research and other commercial decision-drivers until it’s too late. In my own experience with both Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies and niche therapies, I’ve seen cases where failure to conduct timely and proper marketing research causes products to fall short of expectations.

Thanks to rich sources of data and powerful software to analyze it, however, life sciences companies can gain important insights into every audience that matters: Providers, payers, patients, caregivers. Companies that initiate marketing research early can optimize their return on investment and better manage resources.

Research can improve clinical trial design and marketing strategy and execution. For example, life sciences companies can benefit from better customer understanding to determine the most effective targeting and communications strategies, as well as develop more reliable product forecasts. An accurate forecast can yield efficient resource management in areas such as sales force sizing, incentive compensation design, and inventory maintenance.

Properly conducted, marketing research pays great dividends over time, as it can help build a product’s competitive advantage, optimize payer coverage, and raise investor interest and support. Follow these five steps to create an effective marketing research study.

1. Confirm Objectives

First, marketing research teams should define business objectives (e.g., what the company seeks to achieve overall) and create research objectives (e.g., detailed study outcomes). Then, review secondary data, some of which is available for free. Secondary data includes sales data, literature reviews of disease areas, patient blogs, comments and product reviews, and previously conducted research that their company has on hand.

Then, refine research objectives to design data collection materials (e.g., surveys, discussion guides) and gather primary data to inform commercial decisions. Finally, integrate all available data, both primary and secondary, into strategic recommendations.

2. Draw from Expertise

It’s important for marketing researchers to rely on their experience in the life sciences industry to understand a company’s business objective, conduct research, and analyze the data. The marketing research team must also have the knowledge to follow industry-specific regulations, privacy rules, and overarching best practices during the study’s design.

An experienced professional can use innovative techniques to efficiently design studies that adhere to a set budget. Contrary to popular belief, we find companies don’t need elaborate or extensive surveys to achieve their desired results and can allocate those reserved funds toward other commercial initiatives.

3. Seek out all Perspectives

Marketing research professionals should consider using mixed methodologies, where appropriate, to develop a full perspective of the customer and marketplace. If a company only conducts one type of research, it could paint an incomplete picture of an entire patient population. For example, a pharmaceutical company’s marketing research team conducted a qualitative study and interviewed patients who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Some patients described personal downward spirals that involved illegal substances, violence, and incarceration.

When it came time to present their findings to colleagues—including clinical psychiatrists—the team described the downward spiral as typical for patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In reality, this behavior is uncommon, and the clinical psychiatrists disagreed with the qualitative research findings accordingly. In this case, the marketing research team had succumbed to their own listening bias. In addition to qualitative research, the team needed quantitative research to form a more accurate representation of the patient population.

4. Communicate Actionable Insights

Some marketing researchers take pride in creating overly extensive questionnaires and long, data-filled presentations. Time-consuming surveys may fail to maintain respondents’ attention, which could lead to flawed data and inaccurate insights. In fact, some marketing research teams measure success by the length of their data-filled presentations (or “data dumps”)—the longer, the better—and not the amount of meaningful insights.

My client-side experience at Takeda taught me how important it is for marketing researchers to understand stakeholder needs and navigate data to provide actionable insights. Above all, marketing researchers must have a thorough understanding of business objectives and research objectives to synthesize survey results effectively.

In this extreme example, unclear study results can be fatal. Data visualization expert Edward Tufte said that NASA engineers who described potential disasters in advance of the 1986 launch of space shuttle Challenger failed to present data clearly. Tufte wrote the explosion could have been prevented had engineers presented better data on variable temperatures, instead of focusing on potential launch dates. Below-freezing temperatures caused O-ring seals at the bottom of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters to erode and ultimately led to the explosion 73 seconds after liftoff.

5. Make it a Habit

Effective marketing research allows life sciences companies to conduct research that leads to better strategy, execution, forecasting, and results. It impacts all phases of the product lifecycle, from the initial stages of development to launch, post-launch, and lifecycle management. The 360-degree perspective that marketing research provides—with both quantitative and qualitative research, and primary and secondary data—enables companies to properly position products among target customers and the marketplace. Companies that fail to invest in marketing research may find their product never reaches its true potential.

Exploring marketing research should be as fundamental for life sciences companies as it is for Apple to measure customer feedback after a new product launch. It’s unlikely that Apple would enjoy the same brand loyalty today had it not frequently surveyed its customers, then analyzed and acted on the results. Similarly, life sciences companies that invest in marketing research, then analyze and act on the results can look forward to a successful journey ahead.

  • Esin Izat

    Esin Izat is a Manager at Beghou Consulting and leads the firm’s marketing research practice. Esin has used marketing research to help companies enhance their commercial operations since 2001 and provides hands-on analysis to generate insights that meet her clients’ needs. Prior to Beghou, she spent 10 years at Takeda Pharmaceuticals, most recently as Director of Global Customer and Market Insights, before leading her own pharmaceutical-focused marketing research practice for several years.

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