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Seek first to understand

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

A signpost labelled 'www'Headlines such as "Web 2.0 represents the greatest opportunity faced by pharmaceutical marketers for the past 20 years" must bring a wry smile to most brand managers' lips. Not only is Web 2.0 the latest in a long line of market events claiming to be "the greatest opportunity" but also, as any brand manager or market researcher making a foray into social media knows, it presents significant legal, technical and practical challenges. We all know that the Web 2.0 elephant is in the room, it just hasn't come with any instructions.

Web 2.0 is getting bigger all the time. Over 50 per cent of healthcare professionals and patients interviewed in a recent survey said they already use the internet and social media to collect, discuss and disseminate information about healthcare issues and therapeutic alternatives. Despite this ubiquity, I suspect that – like many other major market developments – the significance of Web 2.0 will depend largely upon a company's or a brand's particular issues. For some it will be a useful additional element of the communication and information mix, but for others it will be a critical priority. The first step in addressing Web 2.0 is to understand which camp your business is in.

Horses for courses
The first question to ask is whether your target customers are using social media. It's likely the answer is "yes". We already know that the internet is the favoured source of healthcare information for both patients and healthcare professionals so perhaps the more important question is not if, but how, are they using it?

A recent study by the healthcare research company, Opinion Health, investigating the internet usage and behaviour of over 400 patients has uncovered some interesting insights.

Unsurprisingly, use of knowledge-base websites is universal with both younger and older patients (85 per cent of all patients using knowledge-base websites regularly, n= 405) whereas social networking sites are more popular with younger patients; 88 per cent of those under 35 (n=119) using social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace. But the surprising finding is that although the rates for older patients are lower, there is still a large proportion who are actively using social networking sites, with 43 per cent of patients over 45 (n=206) active on social networking sites.

Fig 1: Proportion of patients using online resources analysed by patient disease type

Graph showing Proportion of patients using online resources analysed by patient disease type


So age plays some role, but differences are magnified when disease type is included in the mix. Fig 1 shows the level of knowledge-base and social networking activity among a variety of patient types. Use of knowledge-base sites is consistent across all disease types, but social networking activity appears to vary depending upon disease type. Age and perhaps sex are playing a role here, but it is likely that other factors are also at work. One can speculate that certain types of patient are more reticent to discuss their condition online, while others may be more attracted to the medium because they know that there is useful content and advice to be had.

Looking in more detail into the behaviours of online patient communities reveals yet more. The top three reasons for patients' online activity are:
1. To build awareness around a disease or cause (61 per cent of patients)
2. To see what other consumers say about a medication or a treatment (59 per cent of patients)
3. To research other consumers' knowledge and expertise (52 per cent of patients).

It is interesting that the top reason for online activity is to build awareness. This reflects the interactive nature of Web 2.0 and perhaps also the pioneer profile of patients attracted to this medium. It also surely highlights the fact that patients are fast becoming key opinion leaders in the healthcare marketplace. 

However, not all patients go online for the same reasons. Patients with different conditions have different priorities for their online activity.

Fig 2: Reasons for use of online sources by patient disease type

Graph showing reasons for use of online sources by patient disease type


Fig 2 shows some selected reasons for the on-line activity of different patient types. Although the general pattern is consistent, there are some differences that do stand out. For example, overall, Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD) patients have more reasons for online activity than the other patient types and, whereas a large proportion of all patients are looking for recommendations about treatments, over 30 per cent of IBD patients are also looking for recommendations about doctors. Also, in common with patients with anxiety, a large minority of IBD patients are using social media to get emotional support. Such in-depth Investigation of different customers' motivations and attitudes regarding the internet and social media activity can surely help marketing managers develop digital strategies that address the needs of their particular customers more closely.

Perhaps the most pressing issue from a brand manager's perspective is how much all this influences the treatment a patient may receive and does this differ depending upon the disease area concerned? Well certainly some types of patient are quite prepared to challenge their medical practitioner about their treatment based on information they have sourced online. Fig 3 shows a range of patient types and ranks their preparedness to request specific treatments based on such information. Again this shows that patients differ with regard to their use of on-line information.

Fig 3: Effect of patient type on preparedness to request specific treatment based on information sourced online

Graph showing effect of patient type on preparedness to request specific treatment based on information sourced online


So we begin to build a profile of the online patient, the level of social media usage, the type of usage, the reasons for usage and the influence this may have on the treatment a patient receives. 

Given the current restraints on promoting to patients and the lack of clarity about what is allowable in the digital arena, isn't this all just academic? Certainly it may not be possible to engage directly with patients within the social media space, but that does not mean that we should not be listening, learning and understanding how our markets are developing online.

Building an understanding of both patient and healthcare professionals through Web 2.0 will serve, not only as a basis for the formulation of social media strategies, it will also help to inform off-line activities better.

The Opinion Health research detailed above was performed with a traditional patient panel, but we are not far from the time when companies will use Web 2.0 research technologies to research the internet automatically, to provide similar and even greater insights. Search tools can be constructed with specific search terms, for example key words for a specific disease area. These tools interrogate the entire public web to give a detailed profile for that disease area, providing volume of traffic, key authors, influence maps and positive and negative sentiment tracking.

The advantage of the Web 2.0 research methodology is that it is generated from an observational standpoint. Consumers use their own terms, slang and descriptive language which is unmoderated and unfiltered, offering real emotions and raw feedback.

Because of the scale of social media activity, Web 2.0 research provides very large sample sizes and, in addition, the content is available in real time, which allows you to view and monitor events and trends as they unfold with data reports that are consequently available on short lead times.

Such research will not replace existing methodologies, but will either augment them or serve as specific tools to track on-line communications. Indeed, there are particular instances where such techniques may be of greater value, such as in developing an understanding of a new marketplace or tracking awareness at launch or opinion during a PR campaign or issue management initiative.

As with digital marketing, Web 2.0 research does not come without its regulatory and ethical issues, but many of these can be avoided with good design and a clear understanding of the research objectives.

Not all customers are the same in the digital world and marketing managers and research managers alike should develop customised approaches to address their particular customer group and its particular market issues.

We can't ignore the elephant in the room any longer, particularly because, as we all know "Web 2.0 represents the greatest opportunity faced by the pharmaceutical marketers for the past 20 years..."

The Author
Eric Sharp is sales and marketing director at Opinion Health, a full service market research company. Data in this article was derived from research conducted with Opinion Health's proprietary patient and HCP panels.
To comment on this article, email

16th October 2009


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