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Is anybody listening?

Chris Ross explores how pharma can – indeed must – end its long history of anti-social behaviour

social media

Last month, the cosmetics retailer Lush announced plans to abandon social media in the UK claiming it’s ‘getting harder to talk to customers’. It’s a fragrance that’s all too familiar to the European pharmaceutical industry, which – for a whole heap of reasons and not all of them regulatory – has long struggled to engage consumers via social channels. Yet, as widespread scrutiny of tech giants’ conduct is persuading many industries to reconsider their use of social media, the continued growth of the channel as a destination for health conversation is forcing pharma companies to buck the trend and look for safe ways of engaging online audiences.

Almost a decade ago, 80% of adult internet users looked online for health information, with a quarter relying on third-party commentaries and experiences expressed in personal blogs to inform decisions about their health. Today, 40% of consumers believe that information found on social media alone impacts the way they manage their healthcare. What’s more, almost 90% of millennials trust health information shared by others on social platforms. These are powerful channels that are influencing behaviour. Yet look closely and you’ll find a strange phenomenon: pharma, one of the main players in global health, is not there. As Lush UK prepares to exit the social stage, the European pharmaceutical industry has barely made the auditorium. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

A power shift in social media?

The challenges of using social media are not limited to pharma – in fact the medium itself is in the middle of a firestorm. Across the world, renewed scrutiny of technology giants and social media platforms is ushering a shift away from self-regulation. Swayed by a wave of high profile scandals, data breaches and indiscretions, governments are looking to regulate social media in key areas like data privacy, disinformation, cyber bullying and online content that incites violence and suicide. The UK has recently unveiled plans to introduce the world’s first online safety laws, vowing tough action on social media companies that fail to protect their users.

Similarly, authorities in Germany, China, Russia and Australia – as well as the EU in general – are all taking measures to clamp down on companies that aren’t doing enough to fulfil their moral duty of care. Yet despite the global scrutiny of technology providers, consumer appetite for social media isn’t diminishing – users are simply becoming more savvy and more selective in who they choose to engage online.

“The landscape is changing,” says Clare Bates, Deputy Managing Director and Editorial Director, Page & Page. “We’re starting to see a shift in the balance of power between social media platforms and the people. Consumers are becoming increasingly disillusioned by allegations of fake news, disinformation and high profile misuse of personal data. At the same time, as governments look to end the era of self-regulation for online companies, large corporations are rethinking their social media activities and re-evaluating their relationships with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. The shift in attitudes is reverberating across most industries.

One obvious exception is pharma, where relationships with social media platforms are less embedded and less advanced. Ironically – and, in all truth, inadvertently – the industry’s historical caution around social media is for once paying dividends. However, with social media platforms rapidly becoming consumers’ go-to destination
for discussions about health, pharma must itself re-evaluate its use of the medium and find safe ways of joining the conversation. The challenge puts the industry on course for a head-on collision with an age-old nemesis: trust. Consumers want truth. But as they become wise to the dark arts of fake news and media manipulation, their growing scepticism has meant that many trust the opinions of their peers more than they trust evidence- based information from corporate organisations. It’s an enduring challenge that the industry must overcome if it’s to maximise the opportunity that social media undoubtedly presents.”

Listening to learn the lingo

It’s commonly accepted that pharma must find its voice on social media or risk being isolated from the people that its products and services are designed to help. However, while open and transparent dialogue is ultimately the industry’s best hope of building public trust, the social media opportunity is not restricted to active participation. There is much that companies can learn through social media listening. In an era where pharma organisations are continually banging the drum for patient-centricity, social media provides a helpful window to consumer needs, attitudes and language. The most progressive companies will be those that maximise those insights to fuel health interventions and communications that drive better outcomes. The question is: how?

“There’s a growing consensus that, as an industry, we must learn to ‘speak patient’,” says Craig Mills, Managing Director, Frontera Group. “But to get there we need to move beyond the rhetoric and improve our patient engagement. Evidence shows that, in chronic disease areas, if you improve a patient’s knowledge, skills and confidence, those patients recover faster and live longer. Fundamentally, this means that – under the right circumstances – effective engagement can improve patient activation and drive better health outcomes. Increasingly, much of that engagement is happening on social media platforms. Patients are turning to social media to find out more about their disease, their treatment and their pathways. And, through peer-to-peer dialogue, they’re developing the confidence to ask better questions along that pathway and to feel more comfortable – and more involved – in choices about their care. These are powerful conversations. But they’re conversations that are passing pharma by.”

The industry has historically been too focused on whether it should be using social media and has allowed perceived limitations in what it can do with it to get in the way of progress. “Too many companies look at social media as if it’s a dangerous road to drive through; they’re often so worried about how high the speed bumps are, and whether they’re going to damage the car, that they tend to look for an easier route,” says Craig. “But social media is an inevitable direction of travel.

If you want to ‘speak patient’ – and confer all the competitive advantages of effective engagement – you don’t have a choice: you need to invest time and effort in social media and figure out a route through.”

Evidence-based listening

The evidence-base is growing. A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research shows how ‘social ties’ formed in online spaces provide the basis for both self-management support and emotional support for patients with long-term conditions. This support is shown to improve an individual’s illness experience, tackling aspects of self-management that are either difficult
to meet, limited or indeed absent offline. The study concludes that these resources ‘require little negotiation online because information and support is seemingly gifted to the community by its members.’

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine confirms social media as an important health destination. “The study not only indicates that patients who are members of social media communities online enjoy improved outcomes, it also suggests that online peer-to-peer support can reduce healthcare utilisation and facilitate both direct and indirect healthcare cost savings,” says Craig. “The research says that online health communities have a major role to play in promoting self-management in chronic diseases, citing ‘super-users’ within these communities as critical influencers. These are influencers pharma cannot afford to overlook.”

Naturally, the usual suspects of Facebook and Twitter are commonly used channels. However, other more focused platforms exist – and their increased use is helping to reshape consumer attitudes and behaviours around health. “Organisations like Health Unlocked – who have over 600 different patient communities in specific disease areas – are making it easier for patients to surround themselves with analogues that they can learn from,” says Craig. “Those patients are sharing information and experiences and, as a consequence, their health management is improving. Social media communities have become a compelling area of learning and advancement in the improvement of healthcare.

“The peer-to-peer sector is a huge opportunity; pharma can either stand outside, or it can become a participant or catalyst to encourage and support these communities. The potential rewards are significant; peer-to-peer engagement improves outcomes and reduces the cost and burden of disease. The successful companies of tomorrow will therefore be those who recognise the value of online patient communities and support them in ways that unlock provider partnerships and drive better health outcomes.”

Listening is marketing 1.0

At present, despite the rapid growth of peer- to-peer online communities – and despite an abundance of listening platforms designed to improve companies’ social media intelligence – pharma’s social media listening capabilities are largely underdeveloped. “It’s often said that pharma is data rich but insight poor,” says Clare Bates. “The dial has undoubtedly shifted – but it’s widely accepted that the industry’s use of customer insight is not as advanced as it is in sectors like Financial Services or even online gaming. The tools to help are out there – but they must be used carefully and proportionately to ensure companies can distinguish ‘insight’ from ‘noise’.

Fundamentally, social media listening differs hugely from controlled Ad Boards where it’s often easier to base a belief structure on the opinions of smaller groups of target individuals. Social media dialogue is naturally freeform and unstructured – and companies need to be prepared to listen to things they may not wish to hear. Similarly, in the search for real-world truth, organisations must be mindful that social media debate is commonly cluttered with hot air and misinformation. As with all engagement initiatives, marketers need to work as hard to identify COLs (Consumer Opinion Leaders) and POLs (Patient Opinion Leaders) as they’ve historically done to identify clinical KOLs. Ultimately, social media listening isn’t about deploying clever technology

to take a random snapshot of opinion and using it as the basis of your market research. It’s about identifying the right channels, the right people and the right conversations to inform your real-world view. Social media listening may seem a relatively new phenomenon – but it relies on the basic principles of marketing 1.0.”

A team sport

The technology to support social media listening certainly exists. However, a Forrester evaluation of listening platforms conducted in 2018 found that, although the technology has great potential, the world is still holding its breath for that innovation to come good. The report highlights a common flaw in companies’ application of social media listening strategies: ‘despite widespread eagerness to combine social media data with other data sources, marketing still primarily owns and uses social media data in a silo’.

This silo mentality, which minimises the power of deep analytics and stifles insight, mirrors a familiar characteristic elsewhere in organisations that’s holding back pharma’s social media progression. Too often, companies’ social media champions operate in silos and aren’t involved in strategic decision- making. This can sometimes mean that the value of social media is not well understood by the wider organisation and innovation is quickly discarded at the first sign of a perceived risk.\

“Brand success is all about aligning your team around a clearly defined patient problem,” says Craig Mills. “Leading organisations – right from the outset – establish multidisciplinary teams that represent all the constituent parts around that patient problem and explore solution designs together. If social media is identified as part of that solution, it’s far easier to navigate the regulatory challenges when everyone has bought into the rationale and understands the evidence-base that supports it. Pharma can’t afford to allow its social media champions to sit on the peripheries – they must be there from the beginning and bring the rest of the organisation with them.”

A long-haul journey

Pharma’s route to social media maturity won’t be travelled overnight – it’s a long-haul journey. “Whether companies want to listen to the conversation or actively contribute to it, making progress requires patience and long-term commitment,” says Clare Bates. “If pharma wants to use social media channels properly, it must invest time and money in ensuring that engagement is meaningful, useful and valuable for patients. Ultimately, dialogue is – by definition – a two-way street, so companies cannot rely solely on social media listening. They must add value to the exchange and there isn’t a quick fix. Organisations will only win by building and sustaining trust – and delivering content that delivers against patient needs rather than commercial imperatives. Developing an ability to listen is key. But it’s just the first step of an ongoing journey.”

Chris Ross is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry

15th May 2019

Chris Ross is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry

15th May 2019

From: Marketing

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