The world of market research has to move fast. As people communicate in ever more complex ways using an array of new technologies, market researchers have to innovate constantly. Yet, in a regulatory space as tightly controlled as healthcare, pushing at the boundaries can have profound repercussions.
Even in tough times, the pharma industry tends towards the reactionary, relying on tried and tested techniques that delivered results in the past. However, as delegates at the largest gathering of market researchers in Europe – the annual conference of the European Pharmaceutical Market Research Association (EphMRA) – heard recently, unless the industry embraces new technologies then it will not be able to provide the insight that drives commercial success.
Keeping pace with the tech revolution
Back in the 1990s, the internet sparked a revolution in market research, shortening timelines, changing the way it captured data and providing a powerful new toolbox for researchers. With the growth of social media and mobile technologies, the sector is in the midst of a second technological revolution, one the industry is racing to embrace.
The adoption of mobile technology is accelerating. By 2014, more people will use mobile phones to access the web than all PCs combined. By 2016 there will be more than 10 billion mobile, internet-connected devices in the world.
Twenty-first century healthcare professionals are already sophisticated users of technology. Physicians will use whatever technology makes their lives easier and improves patient outcomes, whether ePrescribing, electronic patient records and email consultations or portable data capture, medical apps to transfer data from patients' homes or automated reminders.
New technologies, especially smartphones, are delivering new customer touch points, better ways to monitor research and more opportunities to improve trust and form new collaborations.
However, as with internet research in the 1990s, experimentation is vital to discovering what works and what doesn't.
The results of one example of that spirit of experimentation were announced at the EphMRA 2012 Summer conference, when Merck Serono set out to test whether iPhone apps could capture real-time data on prescribing decisions.
“As a company, we are very interested in new market research methods and saw huge potential in mobile technology,” says Martin Lange of Merck Serono, Germany. “In preparation for the launch of a new indication of our cancer medicine, Erbitux, we ran a pilot study to gain insights into the prescribing rationale of consultant oncologists.”
In the study, physicians were asked to submit basic patient and medical information then choose the most appropriate prescribing rationale from a defined list, after which, they had the opportunity to record a more full explanation of their decisions verbally.
“Physician feedback to the app was largely positive,” says Lange. “Our conclusion is that mobile research is not the future, it's now.
This study was not a quantum leap – doctors were recruited and questions were asked in the normal way, and the usual rules of engagement applied. Like all new methodologies, we must learn by doing, and it is up to us to work out what is possible.”
Grappling with big data
“When people in pharma discuss research and technology, they talk about transitional technologies such as online focus groups, whereas I believe we need to concentrate on the big changes,” says Alex Butler of digital marketing agency The Social Moon, speaking to a large audience at the EphMRA conference in Paris.
“We have moved beyond social media to an online world where everything is socialised and the way people use the internet is changing. Increasingly, the internet offers users the opportunity to come together as a group and effect change; people are longer mere consumers of information, they are collaborators in its development.”
For Butler, the shift in user expectations has led to the rise of two key phenomena: big data and 'gamification'. “Big data is a collective term for the material we all contribute to social networks and other platforms every single day. Eric Schmidt from Google estimates that every two days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation up until 2003, and that's a lot of data. But, as market researchers know well, data is useless by itself, it has to be interpreted and understood.”
Big data is already being harnessed to track disease. “By following Twitter conversations alone, it was possible to predict a cholera epidemic two weeks before it would have shown up normally. Also, University hospitals in the US are using Twitter to track the spread of flu infection as well as studying how individuals respond to the disease. The sky is the limit in using big data to better understand disease and the use of medications.”
Playing the game
Butler's second phenomenon is 'gamification' – the use of games to enhance a non-game experience – a word on the lips of many in market research. “Gamification plays on users' need for achievement, competition, learning and collaboration,” says Butler, citing the online puzzle Foldit. “Scientists at the University of Washington developed Foldit to increase their understanding of how proteins fold in the hope of solving health problems.
“The objective of the game is to fold the structure of selected proteins using the tools provided; the highest scoring solutions are then analysed by researchers to determine whether the new configuration could be applied in the real world.”
In 2011, players were asked to help decipher the crystal structure of a retrovirus protease. “Although scientists had been working on the problem for 15 years, a 3D model was developed in just 10 days,” says Alex.
Market researchers are already starting to reap the rewards of using games in their studies, says Deborah Sleep of Engage Research. “Bored respondents are a big issue in market research; they tend to speed through the questionnaire, fail to read instructions properly and give fewer answers to open-ended questions.”
Sleep and her team started thinking about how they could enhance the user experience, which led them to games. “We are not talking about immersive virtual gaming environments, rather simple games with universal appeal, such as crosswords, sudoku, quizzes and guessing games. One of the differences between a boring task and a fun game is rule; for example, if you tell a respondent they must answer a question in only seven words, you get double the response rate and they spend longer on the question.”
Gamers like challenges, says Sleep. “We asked respondents to imagine they owned a radio station and could choose the playlist. They identified a huge number of different artists, 75 per cent more than in the control group.
“Competition is also a powerful driver; by challenging respondents to answer a question in a set amount of time, it fundamentally changes the nature of the experience. For example, if you give respondents two minutes to list their favourite foods, they spend longer answering.” In their study, respondents identified 35 food items, six times more than in non-gamified questions.
“Gamification changes mindsets. If the games are pitched correctly, nearly everyone responds positively. What's more, many of the basic principles can be applied at no extra cost or time implications. While it can be open to misuse and misinterpretation, gamification is the most powerful engagement technique that we have developed to date,” Sleep concludes.
Bernadette Rogers is the general manager of the European Pharmaceutical Market Research Association, EphMRA. She can be contacted on email@example.com