In the race for brand loyalty, pharmaceutical marketers are increasingly investing in patient outreach initiatives: Materials patients can read, websites they can browse, and communities they can join. The problem is, no matter how well intentioned these initiatives may be, patient outreach only flows in one direction—out. Without a deep understanding of what patients need, and how their needs change over time, we could deliver materials every day and they could prove to be meaningless. Worse, they might be perceived as one-dimensional or self-serving.

Why is this? Making assumptions about patients’ desires is a common mistake—and it can be the kiss of death for a marketing campaign. To complicate matters, patients may be unable to articulate what they want, even when you ask them directly.

Dive Deep Into Patient Needs

A patient with a chronic health condition, for example, may express a desire to prevent recurring flare-ups. Your drug may have an excellent track record in reducing flare-ups, but so do may many of its competitors. To distinguish your product, you need to transcend its features and benefits and tap into something more powerful: Patients’ emotions. Research shows that emotions sway purchasing decisions more than intellect. When you offer patients a “feeling proposition,” as opposed to just a selling proposition, you harness emotional purchasing power.

The key is in understanding how your product integrates into a patient’s life. What does it really mean to a patient to have fewer flare-ups? What does this desire really ladder up to emotionally? For one patient it may mean being able to keep her job. For another it may mean being able to attend his daughter’s wedding. When we connect the dots between a drug’s features and its true benefits, patients feel supported personally. And when patients base their decisions on both intellect and emotion, that’s a powerful prescription for brand loyalty.

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Help to Connect the Dots

How can you create material that connects the dots? Start with insight mining and patient profiling. Within the target audience, what are the patients’ attitudes, unmet needs and gaps in knowledge? What barriers exist to treatment or adherence? It’s often useful to segment patients by groups. For example, research may reveal a group of “doctor-dependent” patients who see their doctors as the gatekeepers of all medical information. Marketers might engage these patients at the physician’s office where they are most comfortable and receptive to information.

The “skeptics” are another noteworthy patient segment. They are often resistant to brand-related messages, but are open to learning. Disease and management education are core tools for engaging these patients as long as the content meets their specific needs and is provided through credible channels.

Involve All Parties

One way to lend added legitimacy to your content is to deliver it through patient advocacy groups and community leaders. You may find yourself working within a disease category with a “high-touch” patient community—one that includes people at the forefront of patient support who are already actively engaged. Partnering with these “patient thought leaders” can be invaluable.

Other influencers have a stake in the patient’s well-being—so it’s essential to identify them. These may include a spouse, parent, nurse practitioner, dietician or other healthcare providers. Be sure to enlist the participation of these stakeholders and support them as they support the patient. You might, for instance, provide advice on how to stay positive when a spouse is suffering from depression, or offer tips for talking to a child’s teacher about his medical needs.

Build and Maintain Relationships

Once you’ve established an emotional connection with your target patients, keep the relationship alive through regular communication. It’s not enough to build a website or send out an occasional eBlast. If patients don’t hear from you often enough, you’ve lost them.

Patient loyalty is nurtured through consistent, frequent interactions. Check in regularly, and give patients the opportunity to choose the kind of information they receive. At times, patients may be looking for straight-up medical information. At other times, what they really need is dietary advice, lifestyle tips or emotional support. A good tip: Ask how often they’d like to be contacted—you don’t want to overload them with information.

At the same time, offer patients a mix of online activities combined with in-person interactions. Many people are eager to meet others who truly understand what they’re going through. No experience behind a computer screen can match the quality of support patients feel when meeting face to face with their peers.

Anticipate the “Activation Points”

Building brand loyalty involves learning how patients’ needs evolve over time—in each individual disease state. Find out the timing, sequence and details of major life events faced by patients with this condition. A patient may be entering the workforce, for instance, and concerned about dealing with medical needs on the job. Another may have a child who’s getting ready for college—and must now learn how to manage his meds independently.

Knowing your population allows you to anticipate “activation points”—key moments when you’re at greatest risk of losing patient loyalty. (Ironically, these are the same moments when you have the greatest opportunity to win them.) An example: Your drug requires titration and a patient has her first follow-up doctor’s appointment before she has reached therapeutic levels. She may not have noticed any improvement yet, or may be suffering from early side effects that will subside in time. This is an opportunity to provide tools that encourage her to stay the course instead of going off the drug.

For patients with cancer, a predictable “drop-off” point might occur between cycles of chemotherapy. Patients who are worn out from chemo may have a hard time motivating themselves to resume treatment after a break. To keep these patients on track, engage them with information on what to expect from the next round, how to manage side effects, and how to talk with their family about what they’re experiencing. Research shows that the very act of providing patients with good information helps to boost adherence.

Enlist Patients in Data Gathering

Throughout the process, continue to gather data. Ask patients to keep a digital adherence diary, for example, or to post a daily emoticon that illustrates how they’re feeling. You’ll be surprised how much information patients are willing to share with you once they come to trust you as a source of support.

Electronic tactics also allow you to measure success according to pre-established metrics. For example, while you may not be able to measure drug refills directly—privacy laws don’t allow access to this kind of information—you may be able to track how many co-pay cards are activated on a patient website or how many people are clicking on a banner ad for further information. These kinds of insights can help you tailor your tactics to work harder toward your goals.

Tune, Then Fine Tune

To effectively communicate with patients, always remember to fine-tune your communications to their level of health literacy. If you are concerned that simple writing will offend people who read well, understand that skilled readers are not insulted by the same clear, concise writing that less skilled readers need. Think about busy, tired new parents who want to read a simple booklet about vaccines. Or a person with advanced cancer (or their worried, stressed family members) who needs to decide about an advance directive. Using plain language demonstrates respect and sensitivity for your audience and strengthens trust. Think about how hard it is to listen and remember things when you’re feeling scared, sick and overwhelmed.

Building brand loyalty is not a dip-your-toe-in-the-water endeavor. It requires consistent tracking, adjusting and refining. But by truly understanding your patients’ needs and making a strong emotional connection, you can build brand loyalty with the right message, through the right channels and at just the right time.

Sidebar: How Peer Support Built a Brand

While working on a drug that had the potential to extend life significantly, I fully realized the important link between affecting emotion and building brand loyalty. The product was one that doctors found hard to embrace because the early side effects were very difficult to tolerate. Initially, we thought physician education was the way to overcome this hurdle. But we soon learned otherwise. Doctors understood the value of the drug, but they really didn’t “feel” it.

Once we started talking with patients, however, we realized that they were our best advocates. Having benefitted from the drug themselves—after getting through its initial side effects—they were eager to encourage other patients to give it a try.

That led us to shift resources from physician promotion to patient advocacy, and we created a program through which patients could reach out to each other and trade useful information. The strategy worked because patients could relate to each other on an emotional level.

Our thinking came full circle when these patients began to educate their physicians. During doctor office visits, patients asked for the medication, basing the request on the experiences of other patients. “My friend had a good experience with this drug,” patients often noted, “and if she can do it, then so can I.”

  • Nicole Hyland

    Nicole Hyland is Chief Marketing Officer at Natrel. Nicole oversees all five of Natrel’s business divisions, supervising strategy and client services for all accounts. Natral helps healthcare companies optimize the performance of their brands and marketing operations.

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