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Seek first to understand

Knowing the content, location and authorship of traffic can aid pharma's Web 2.0 engagement

Animation of illuminated people connected togetherSteven Covey, he of the seven habits fame, advises that we should 'Seek first to understand and then to be understood'. It is a worthy principle that can be applied to most endeavours. It also reflects the pharmaceutical industry's current approach to social media.

All of us are aware of the impact of social media in everyday life; 200 million active users of Facebook probably indicate that social networking can now be classed less of a fad and more of a bona fide trend. Yet, despite the clear magnitude of this phenomenon the pharmaceutical industry has yet to settle on an approach for engaging with web 2.0.

The ethical, legal and regulatory issues that constrain and confound our industry's approach to participating in social media have been well documented. As a consequence many have adopted a 'wait and see' policy while others are just tentatively 'dipping a toe in the water'.

Despite these issues there is some activity by pharma in the social web. Several companies have achieved degrees of interaction with healthcare professionals through professional medical networking sites such as Sermo in the US, while others are leveraging their Web 1.0 presence through search engine promotion or viral marketing. Even the more contemporary Web 2.0 services have been exploited by pharma; a number of companies including Boehringer Ingelheim, Johnson & Johnson and Roche (to name a few) have developed a healthy following on Twitter through which they can direct followers to relevant non-promotional disease awareness content and/or corporate PR information. This activity aside, however, the overriding approach of pharma to Web 2.0 has been relatively conservative in comparison with other areas of the marketing mix.

Such constraint is understandable, and given the issues, appropriate. But even if full engagement is difficult, companies should not be reticent in their efforts to understand what is happening to their brands and customers within the healthcare social web.

A clearer view of the current landscape will help us understand the magnitude of the task better and how it may differ for specific brands or therapeutic areas; it will certainly make the route to engagement that much easier to follow.

But the internet is not always that easy to understand. The CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, famously stated, "The internet is the first thing that humanity has ever built that we didn't understand."

This and subsequent articles will attempt to understand the social web from a healthcare perspective. We will investigate how both healthcare professionals and patients are using social media and review new technologies and methodologies that will allow us to collect insights from the social web routinely.

The ubiquitous web
We know that lots of people use the social web. The statistics are often breathtaking with the top 10 social networking sites having nearly 900 million users. 30 million photographs are uploaded onto Facebook every day and about half a million of us are following Stephen Fry on Twitter. But are we using any of this for health related reasons?

Fig 1 Social media service use by HCPs

Fig 1: Social media service use by HCPs

In recent research conducted by Opinion Health with over 400 patients, 60 per cent of them revealed that they are using social networking sites, 51 per cent visit online forums and 25 per cent are blogging. Of those who use social networking sites, 70 per cent either currently use or intend to use such sites for health related matters. When healthcare professionals are asked the same questions, we see a similar usage profile (see fig 1).

Fig 2 Favoured social networking sites

Fig 2: Favoured social networking sites

If we focus on the social networking sites alone we can see that Facebook is by far the most popular choice among patients – although it will be interesting to see how the Twitter profile has developed in 6-12 months considering it already has the highest level of future intent (see fig 2).

The reasons given by patients for using online resources for health related information, however, are perhaps more indicative of the growing importance of the internet as a first-line healthcare channel. Table 1 shows the range of reasons provided.

Table 1: Reasons why patients use online resources for health related information


% Patients (N=405?)
To build awareness around a disease or cause
To see what other consumers say about a medication or a treatment
To research other consumers' knowledge and expertise
To learn skills or get education that helps me manage a condition 50%
To find consumers' recommendations and opinions about treatments
To share my knowledge and experience about a health issue
To share my knowledge and experience about a medication or a treatment 21%
To find consumers' recommendations and opinions about hospitals
To find consumers' recommendations and opinions about doctors
To get emotional support

Critical from a marketing director's or a brand manager's perspective is the fact that 57 per cent of patients are using the web to find out what other consumers say about a medication or a treatment. This is strong, if not surprising, support for engaging with the social web. However, the most popular reason (60 per cent) for online activity is to build awareness around a disease or cause; indicative that patients are using the web to talk as much as they are using it to listen.

A similar usage picture can be seen with healthcare professionals; 90 per cent of GPs use online resources to learn skills or receive education to help them manage a condition and 58 per cent use it to find other healthcare professionals' recommendations and opinions about treatments. Moreover, when asked directly, 73 per cent of GPs confirm they use the internet to investigate which products are available for specific conditions.

So, both doctors and patients are using the social web to a significant degree and they are using it for reasons that appear important, but does all this activity actually signify anything? How influential are these online resources compared to the other more established sources of advice and information?

Our research reveals the possibly surprising fact that GPs regard the internet as the leading source of information and advice for healthcare issues. It scores an average of 8.4 out of 10 for helpfulness in sourcing healthcare information, compared to 7.5 for peer reviewed journals and 7.8 for GP colleagues. Of course, it can be argued that GPs are using the internet as a more convenient means of accessing other resources, but it is undoubtedly indicative of how ubiquitous and trusted the web has become, that it now ranks above GP colleagues or peer reviewed journals as a source of healthcare information.

For many of our major healthcare stakeholders, the internet and the social web is now the primary communication channel. So far, so good; but where are they going within the social web, and what are they doing and saying when they get there?                            

Not all brands are created equal
The first task for any researcher or product manager wishing to understand their company or brand's presence in social media is to spend some time there themselves – it pays to immerse oneself in the web regularly to get a feel for what's going on. But most of us, at least those of us who are not teenagers, do not have the time or the will to spend every day monitoring the social web for content and discussion about ourselves or our brands. Thankfully there are now tools that will do this for us. These tools, similar to the search engines we are all familiar with, crawl through the internet identifying sites and postings for pre-defined key words. The helicopter view this provides can reveal surges in activity linked to market events such as launches, data publications and major conferences. As such, it is a useful tool for tracking a brand's web presence, particularly in comparison to competitors. Much more important though is to understand the location, content and authorship of the traffic.

Not all posts are created equal
Thankfully, the same tools used to monitor the volume of traffic can also identify where a reference was posted, the key content and the authorship – provided it is in the public domain. Over time, algorithms can be developed that measure content for positive and negative sentiment and grade authors for their relative influence. With this type of insight it becomes possible to create an overall picture of a brand or a company's presence on the social web. It also allows that presence to be described in both quantitative and qualitative terms and for that 'description' to be tracked over time.

The social web – by its very nature – is a hot-bed of interactivity and communication and, given its ubiquitous nature and the importance it holds for our key healthcare customers, our ultimate aim must be to participate in the discussion. What is holding people back from that participation is uncertainty about the regulatory and ethical framework and also, perhaps, a lack of understanding about how our products and services are currently being dealt with in the social web.

horough and ongoing analysis of the social web using established tools starts to bring us closer to the point of really understanding our web presence. Once we have at least achieved that level of understanding, we can start to think about the next step of participating – making ourselves understood.

The Author
Eric Sharp is sales and marketing director at Opinion Health, telephone +44 (0)20 7486 6700.
To comment on this article, email

9th July 2009


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