Recent data from the third annual Makovsky Health/Kelton survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults revealed key insights about consumer behavior when seeking healthcare information online—from preferred websites such as WebMD, to the type of device consumers use most often for these searches (tablets are gaining ground). But look a little deeper, and two major behavioral shifts become clear. By understanding these shifts and incorporating them into strategic planning, major communications initiatives can hit their bull’s eye.

First, healthcare providers are reasserting themselves as guides and knowledge sources. In recent years, doctors were often frustrated by patients who sought out Internet-generated information—which was not always well vetted or checked for accuracy—rather than asking healthcare providers directly. Now, access to online info is such a given—and sources such as WebMD and Medline are checked and trusted to such a degree—that the patient-physician dialogue has reconciled naturally. The data now show that doctors have reestablished their informational authority—not seeking to “disprove” online info, but in fact, guiding patients to appropriate online resources. Survey respondents reported that they were most likely to visit a given health-related website based on a physician’s recommendation. Other recent data shows that 89% of doctors report recommending a mobile health app to their patients.

What does this mean for marketers? Recognize that the doctor is not only a product prescriber but an information navigator. Focus on how to establish good disease awareness partnerships with major third-party providers like WebMD, or with therapeutic category patient and professional organizations, so that key product and disease-state insights are captured within online resources trusted by those who direct patients to information sources.

Also playing into the theme of trusted information, the second key trend revealed by survey results finds that despite heavy spending, pharmaceutical company-sponsored sites have to work harder to secure consumer trust. Consumers prefer information from websites perceived as more neutral or trustworthy: WebMD, Wikipedia, or third-party patient advocacy organization sites.

One of the leading online tracking tools, Quantcast, shows the need for added strategic firepower in planning disease awareness websites. In the oncology space, for example, unbranded disease websites designed and launched by pharma companies receive fewer than 1,300 unique monthly visitors on average. In contrast, Quantcast analyses show cancer advocacy organizations receive as many as one million average unique monthly visits.

This clear consumer preference speaks to the need for healthcare marketers to consider collaborative models rather than building something new and shiny—no matter how beautiful the website and easy the navigation, or how accurate, trustworthy and helpful the content! By partnering with organizations that have a shared mission of reaching and helping target patients in need, marketers can help ensure that the wealth of knowledge that companies possess can reach the people who need it most.

At a time when social media and web information is critical to the success of any campaign involving corporate reputation, disease awareness or brand development, marketers need to consider the communications channel and its real-world impact on their target audiences. That timeless line from the movie Field of Dreams—“if you build it, he will come”—simply isn’t a given in the world of online disease awareness or brand information.



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