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Community research

Leveraging ‘controlled’ social web environments to garner healthcare business insights
Community Research

Market research, like most industries, is in a constant state of change. Survey completion rates continue their downward spiral, and the perils of 'speed survey taking' make many question the validity of the data. The time and cost efficiencies of conducting traditional qualitative research via focus groups and in-depth interviews are dropping in comparison to the efficiencies possible through online qualitative techniques. 

With mass-market acceptance of social media platforms and the technical ability to replicate social media environments in controlled capacities for research purposes, online qualitative methodologies have been adopted as a legitimate approach to primary research.

One of the dominant online qualitative methodologies are online research communities, which provide a unique approach to getting qualitative insight from a patient universe. Unlike an interview or focus group, which relies mostly on participant to moderator/interviewer interaction, online research community members can also exchange ideas and discuss issues with each other. This peer-to-peer engagement enables us to observe how patients genuinely interact, and sometimes they raise questions and bring up issues we may not have even considered.

Related to online research communities are online research forums. Some still refer to these as moderated bulletin boards, but I prefer the term 'forums' as the available functionality goes well beyond the text-based interactions that the term bulletin boards bring to mind. While online research communities can last anywhere from a few months to a year or longer - enabling actual bonds to form between participating patients which lends itself to the true definition of 'community' - forums have a shorter duration, anywhere from three days to five weeks. Two- to three-day forums are especially good for research with physicians and other healthcare providers, who may find it difficult to participate in any research engagement requiring long-term commitment due to time constraints. Another factor to consider is cost. Physicians require higher honoraria for their participation, so engaging them for a shorter time, such as two to three days for a forum, would be less expensive.

Why go online?
Online communities and forums have several advantages over traditional research methodologies. They expand the recruitment pool and demographic scope by removing geographical barriers and being more convenient for immobile patients, busy healthcare providers and caregivers. Online discussions run over an extended period of time, allowing participants to become immersed in the issues being discussed. The asynchronous nature of online research communities and forums means that participants can put more thought into their answers as they are not rushing to answer a direct question from a live interviewer or a focus group moderator. This thoughtfulness results in higher quality data, resulting in a deeper level of insight. They are also beneficial for people who may feel uncomfortable or intimidated voicing their opinions or discussing their conditions in a focus group or interview setting. Online communities and forums give them a chance to contribute more freely as they offer patients anonymity. This is especially relevant for sensitive health topics.

As a rule, online research communities and forums are especially appropriate when:

  • Broad understanding of how a target group deals with a particular condition is required
  • You have long-term/longitudinal needs and will want to gain insight from the same pool of Patients throughout an extended time period
  • Patients are geographically dispersed
  • Engaging with caregivers to young patients.

Researchers cannot just incentivise patients to join an online discussion for a one- or two-week period and call it a 'community'

Also worth noting is that although some may feel that age can be an issue, experience has shown that older participants take very well to digital methodologies. The fact is that, for the near future at least, there will be people of all ages who are not completely comfortable with technology. This aversion to technology is not limited to the older demographic set. It is also important to note that with the platform solutions available to market researchers these days, it is quite simple for even the most tech adverse people to participate in these studies. Still, there will still be those who will shy away, and they can be filtered out during the recruitment process.

Establishing successful communities
Online research communities and forums are able to replicate true social media environments. However, they should not be confused with the many real online communities and forums out there. Online research communities and forums have a more finite nature as there is often a planned end date. Plus, members are recruited based on specific criteria and incentivised to participate. As in any qualitative research engagement, there are planned activities/questions and active moderation. Plus, in an engagement for any pharmaceutical company, there need to be rules and regulations around any discussion of adverse events or off-label usage. 

Online communities and forums have several advantages over traditional research methodologies

In other words, online research communities and forums have a strong degree of control, which is the antithesis of a regular online community or forum because one of the key attributes of social media is that, for the most part, it cannot really be controlled. This is part of the beauty of the social web. It is also the aspect of social that most concerns the pharmaceutical industry when it comes to creating its own social media presence.

Enabling mobile access to research communities and forums is vital. We must make it as easy as possible for patients and healthcare providers to participate. That means letting them do so via their PC, smartphone or tablet, with the seamless ability to switch between screens. Mobile is also key for patient diary work in order to capture 'in the moment' insights.

Pharmaceutical companies face increasing downward pressure on their time and budgets, making it imperative that research solutions produce accurate, quality data in as cost efficient a manner as possible. To do so requires four key things that can be delivered through the virtual, asynchronous nature of online qualitative methodologies: the ability to generate large amounts of relevant data with less researcher time; a consistent pool of patients or doctors who can be tapped into repeatedly during an extended time period for longitudinal insight; an environment which feels natural and comfortable for research subjects/participants; and time for research subjects to become immersed in the issues we are addressing with them so that they can dedicate a deeper level of thought than what is allowed in more time constrained research approaches.

Article by
Brian Mondry

vice president, integrated strategies and digital solutions, Kantar Health

3rd January 2014

From: Marketing



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