The explosion in social media outlets and usage over recent years has generated a wealth of new opportunities for pharmaceutical companies both to engage with an expanding customer base, from healthcare professionals through to proactive new patient communities, and to tap into organic information sources that provide valuable insights beyond the reach of traditional market research.
Listening to patients or other key stakeholders talk freely about their experiences, preferences, and needs around disease management and product usage is a window into a fluid and fast-moving world. This is a universe in which new influences and influencers can rapidly transform the competitive landscape for brands and the corporate reputations that sustain them.
But even though social listening is increasingly recognized as a viable research tool across a range of pharmaceutical company activities, it is rarely applied as a continuous and fully-integrated strategic function.
Social listening is being undertaken largely on a project-by-project basis, with relatively little evidence of ongoing, systematic monitoring across brands and business units. That typically involves seeking answers to specific, predetermined questions by tapping into online conversation around the issue and filtering it through relevant key words or phrases.
It may also reflect continuing unease about the pharmacovigilance reporting obligations that come with increased exposure to dialogue around brands online. With ad-hoc, short-term projects, those same regulatory obligations will come into play but there may be a level of comfort in knowing they will be contained within the parameters of a one-off exercise.
Companies within the pharmaceutical industry also tend to view social media intelligence as a separate entity from market research, whereas in fact social listening can fill in critical business-knowledge gaps, whether around brand awareness, patient adherence, physician preferences, or product misinformation, as well as suggesting avenues for more conventional market-research initiatives.
The Value of Ongoing Listening
To realize the full benefit of social listening, companies need to move progressively towards a continuous-monitoring strategy in social media—one that tells them not only what has happened but what is happening right now and what might well happen in the future.
A compelling argument for ongoing listening is that social media can be a highly variable environment in which opinions and perceptions change rapidly and virally in response to external events. Only through continuous monitoring can companies remain sufficiently alert enough to pick up signals about issues they may not even be aware of.
Ongoing listening also enables companies to identify and track trends over time. If social media monitoring is on an ad-hoc, reactive, or project-by-project basis, these companies may not even be conscious of important trends forming. Perceptions of different products in the marketplace, for example, may be overturned dramatically by an unexpected event or new piece of research that falls outside the three- or six- or 12-month frame of a discrete monitoring initiative. And social media will not wait for researchers to catch up.
Project-based listening also risks overlooking the factors that really matter to patients: Those emerging only through organic, ongoing conversations about day-to-day experience with a disease or brand. While a one-off or short-term listening exercise usually revolves around a predefined objective—finding answers to the questions the company wants to ask—it will not provide answers to the questions the company did not know it should be asking.
Tangible Benefits of Social Listening
For all the arguments in favor of embracing continuous social media listening as an integrated function within pharmaceutical companies, senior and departmental managers will still want to see evidence that the strategy delivers tangible benefits and outcomes that can be translated into action.
Social listening may explicitly improve return on investment in some circumstances, such as identifying market trends that enable brand strategy to be redirected towards more cost-effective activities, or accessing populations for social surveys at a fraction of the expense for mainstream market research. This is not, however, its primary benefit.
That resides in more long-term, beyond-the-pill factors, such as:
- enhanced corporate standing, particularly at a time when the determined media focus on drug pricing has pushed the industry’s reputational stock lower than ever; and
- developing a more responsive, engaged relationship with patients and the issues of concern to them.
These categories include opportunities to improve the overall patient experience through a combination of online listening and prompt intervention in the interests of patient care rather than any direct commercial gain.
With access to specialized software employing advanced-analytics techniques to track, grade, and contextualize dialogue around diseases, pharmaceutical companies are well equipped to embrace social listening on a continuous-listening basis, integrated across internal departments and with benefits extending throughout the product lifecycle.
The pharmaceutical industry needs to recognize that social media are a crucial part of how today’s patients, or other stakeholders such as healthcare professionals, experience both brands and products aimed at resolving their healthcare problems.