Humanizing the Brand Experience

The one-size-fits-all wonder drug and the physician-voice-driven model, as we know it, is rapidly undergoing a paradigm shift towards advanced biologics (i.e., cell-based immunotherapies) and outcomes medicine based on patient-centered participation. Much of this shift is primarily driven by the rapid advances of technology and the exponential growth of adoption in using the Internet.

Pew Research Center’s survey1 revealed more than 72% of Internet users looked for health information, and 77% of those online health seekers began their session using a search engine such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo. These findings do not necessarily mean that patients are replacing consulting about their health issues with a physician, but are adding the Internet as a medium to be more educated and informed.

The inaugural Inspire Annual Survey2 of more than 13,000 patients found that 55% of patients said they are well prepared for their doctors’ appointments. Also, 52% said they are largely responsible for initiating new treatment discussions (Figure 1), and 89% ask about other treatment options at least once a year. When it comes to making the treatment decision, about 70% of patients said it was a collaborative effort with their physician. The trend is clear: patients are actively participating in their medical care journey via electronic communication tools. They are researching molecular diagnostics of diseases, exploring treatment options, and sharing irrecoverable and unequivocal sentiments with others like them. Many patients want information from multiple sources—even from industry.


When an Inspire member with rheumatoid arthritis was asked about her thoughts on pharmaceutical companies’ direct to consumer advertising, she replied:

“I do not mind if they advertise because I think it is better to know what all is available and know the possible side effects.”

Every day, stories feature various dimensions of the “E” from the phrase “e-patient”—empowered, equipped, engaged, enabled, emancipated, equal, and experts. With the patient in the center, marketers now must be able to comprehend the vast network of information that makes up the patient’s digital body language, which can be translated into what the patient is thinking, feeling, saying, sharing, and discussing.

Pharma and Patient-Centric Social Media

Despite the slower adoption of social media as a marketing and research tool by pharma in the past, we are seeing an increasing trend by several leading pharma brands developing advanced content and digital marketing capabilities such as social media listening (SLM) to support their product launch. Many software-as-a-service (SaaS) and Big Data analytics vendors are available to help process and organize various type of data, in real time, that are relevant to their brands. While this approach has worked well in other industries, in reality, there are still many challenges in this area for pharma.

Major challenges include the ability to make informed decisions from so much data and find return on investment (ROI) from the data. However, the pieces are coming together, and some new methodologies and niche social media channels are available to marketers to help address some of these issues.

In order to find the context and relevancy of social media platforms for patients, marketers should examine their target patient profile and project objectives with the DNA of the social media site in use. This is referred as the Honeycomb Framework, or the seven basic building blocks of social media sites, first originally outlined by Silvestre et al. in the May 2011 issue of Business Horizons’ “Social Media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media.” The seven building blocks are: Identity, Conversations, Sharing, Presence, Relationships, Reputations, and Groups (Figure 2 is an extract from the paper)3.


These building blocks can help explain how users and audiences engage on specific social media sites. Using this knowledge, marketers must develop a patient-centric social media strategy—one that integrates the entire patient’s experience from the initial diagnosis through deciding treatment options and management of quality of life (QoL).

Most patients begin their journey by typing disease-focused queries into a search engine, and throughout their journey they are most likely to return to the search engine and ask other questions. We also see that patients want to connect with others who understand what they are going through and can relate to their experiences. To better understand the patient experience, many pharma brands are beginning to partner or discuss with major patient-centric social media sites, providing intelligence to the brand, market research, digital, and commercial teams.

Five Key Elements to Patient-Centric Brand Strategy

Based on these insights, the top five consumer-based tools that marketers can leverage from patient-centric social media sites (by way of targeted surveys or UGC analysis) to build a humanized, patient-centric brand strategy include:

1. Persona development: These are fictional representations of patient customer archetypes that provide a point-of-reference for who patients are, what they do, and what motivates or causes them to engage with your brand. Not only is this critical to brand planning, but it can be synthesized into documents that can be shared across the organization, such as sales, marketing, or customer service. As discussed earlier, many patient archetypes are becoming empowered and are actively seeking information. This is especially true for patients who are seriously ill, as referenced by an Inspire member when prompted about DTC ads:

“I would support and provide any information to any drug company able to provide me with any information on any new drug that could help me with my quality of life. Which, at this point, is not much of a life.”

2. Patient journey and content mapping: Patient experience maps3 can offer tremendous insights in developing the right content at the right time point for the patient. Different challenges and pain points arise throughout the patient’s lifecycle (and for many, there’s no cure or high rate of recurrence). For instance, when an Inspire member was asked about the practicality of talking to her doctor about a potential drug, she replied:

“What good is it for me to suggest a drug to my doctor if he knows nothing about it?”

Another member noted:

“The good is that it builds awareness for patients whose doctors practice community-based medical protocols and may not prescribe or even be familiar with new and cutting edge drugs. The bad is that these drugs, at least in the oncology world, are very specific and suitable to a tiny percentage [of cancer patients].”

Similar insights like this one offer the opportunity to strengthen educational/content training and support for physicians and other healthcare providers.

3. Empathy/sentiment testing: This is one of the most important tools available and is sometimes folded into persona development. Today many brands are working with various creative groups or agencies, and empathy can be grossly diluted in the translation. Testing interactive ads, such as radio or video ads, with patients can offer valuable insights into which one may best resonate with target audience.

4. Message/perception testing: Every component of the content (or the ad) can be perceived as a message. The color, model in the picture, side effects, labels, background, sounds, and words are all integral parts of how a customer may or may not perceive the message. With the advent of digital technologies, marketers now can (under one of the three new FDA guidances released in 2014) dynamically deliver optimal content to their target consumer based on the channel or third-party data. Additional insights can be garnered to optimize in which channels to advertise.

5. UGC analysis: The inherent nature and advantage of using niche, patient-based social media networks for UGC analysis is their privacy. Sixty-five percent of U.S. online users do not use mainstream social media sites to discuss health because of privacy concerns (a GE Healthcare survey conducted by Harris Interactive in 2012), which leaves most of the information that is available to be fragmented or possibly useless. With patient-based social networks, patients are actively engaging, discussing, and sharing with one another about their entire journey from diagnosis through treatment options and other emotional support. Not only does this yield potential value for pharmacovigilance, but also provides pharma brands with unique insights to patients’ health journey and outcomes.

While this is a small sample list of the available tools, it illustrates where marketers can access humanized data that can serve as the bedrock to a patient-centric brand strategy and move away from the mindset of “advertising” to “engaging.”


1. Perrin A. and Duggan M., “American’s Internet Access 2000-2015.”

2. Loew B. and Taylor D., “Insights from Engaged Patients.”

3. Silvestre et al., “Social Media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media.” Business Horizons, 2011; 54, 241-251.

4. Hall L.K., Kunz B.F., Davis E.V., Dawson R.I., Powers R.S., “The Cancer Experience Map: An Approach to Including the Patient Voice in Supportive Care Solutions.” J Med Internet Res, 2015;17(5):e132.

  • Richard Tsai

    Richard Tsai is Vice President of Marketing at Inspire. Richard is a marketing strategist and digital technologist specializing in the biopharmaceutical and healthcare industries. As Vice President of Marketing, Richard is responsible for developing the brand and accelerating the growth for Inspire as the leading social network for health. Visit the website at

  • Brian Loew

    Brian Loew is CEO at Inspire. Brian created Inspire with the goal of accelerating medical research through the use of safe, trusted online social networks organized by medical conditions, for patients and their caregivers. Brian believes that great progress will result from involving patients in research and fully valuing their contributions. Visit the website at


You May Also Like