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Listen? Do you want to know a secret?

Social media listening is currently trending, but is it ‘hear’ to stay for pharma?

"If you make listening and observation your occupation, you will gain much more than you can by talk.” The words of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement, come from a by-gone era, but their sense and sentiment still resonates today. As the saying goes, if you're not listening, you're not learning.

It's little wonder then that, in an age where communication has been transformed by online interaction, social media listening has become the zeitgeist of the modern marketer. Automated technologies that scour the digital ecosystem to monitor social chatter are now widely used to bring a speed and scale to listening that the human ear could never achieve. Even the pharmaceutical industry, traditionally reticent around social media, has removed its earplugs and started to develop 'listening strategies' that optimise new technologies. But with social listening just one component of broader efforts to align brand commercialisation with robust customer understanding, how can pharma companies better develop products and solutions that respond to identifiable customer needs? Listening will undeniably play a role. But the most effective approaches will balance new and traditional methodologies to develop measured, integrated customer experience strategies – rather than becoming disproportionately reliant on social listening to drive customer-centricity.

Listening to drive product adoption 
One of the most important aspects of commercialising any product is to identify early adopters of innovation and find the best ways to engage them. It's hardly surprising that social media is increasingly, if cautiously, being used to facilitate this engagement. As the era of the 'digitally native HCP' embeds, pharmaceutical companies are evaluating KOL models and exploring digital channels to leverage influence and raise awareness at scale. In the process, the term 'digital opinion leaders' is gaining traction, advocated not least by purveyors of social listening tools seeking to exploit the trend. But what are digital opinion leaders? And does the pursuit of them automatically ensure that pharma is listening to the right people? Perhaps not.

“The terminology is confusing,” says Peter Joshua, senior consultant at MMRG. “We know from research that there are small communities of people in every area who are early adopters of innovation. Everett Rogers called them 'opinion leaders' on the basis that their beliefs help to shape, influence and guide the behaviours of others. Healthcare KOLs are defined by their research, leadership roles and reputations within their therapeutic specialisms. But research shows that people who are heavily active on social media – the so-called Digital Opinion Leaders – don't always have that same depth of credibility. Although they publish at frequencies that senior HCPs cannot possibly match, few are originators of content, they merely curate and signpost information. They are 'digital activists' and maybe even 'digital catalysts' - and they have a valuable voice. But in pharma's battle to identify and engage the early adopters, their role is as yet unproven. If we are looking to find the needle in the haystack, social media has simply added more hay.

Digital opinion leaders don't always have deep credibility

Joshua says: “It's within this context that pharma is now grappling with social listening. The industry has always sought to understand the needs of its customers – and social listening is an extremely useful mechanism to help do that. But it's just one part of a whole mosaic of tools and techniques. It's very exciting and has rich potential, but before leaping in, pharma companies should take a measured approach that considers social listening within the full context of the healthcare environment - rather than deploying it as an isolated tool that must be adopted immediately.”

From listening to engaging
An additional concern around social media listening is privacy. With public trust in pharma perennially questioned, the industry cannot afford insinuations of eavesdropping in the pursuit of profit. Pharma must therefore improve its social engagement to ensure it has a voice in the conversation, rather than playing the role of online lurker, observing and absorbing but never intervening. One potential approach is crowdsourcing, which builds on the principles of listening by creating secure, open online forums where participants opt-in for transparent, closed discussion. “One of the limitations of social listening is that people often haven't given their consent - and this leads to the Big Brother argument. But beyond privacy questions, there are also studies out there that suggest that what people say online doesn't necessarily influence what they actually do. There is a massive disconnect between the way people talk and the way they act,” says Kate Eversole, marketing director at Create Health. “Crowdsourcing takes social listening to another level. It works by leveraging multiple digital channels to drive people from open forums to closed platforms - creating a safe environment where an active and engaged audience can have a transparent conversation. If you look at the traditional push/pull model, social listening is neither - it's basically using insights gained from listening to push messages across different channels. Crowdsourcing is about the pull - how can we pull people into an environment where they are engaged and want to share ideas? It's a big opportunity.

“Pharma's key objective is to understand its customers. But if you truly want to be customer-centric, you need to be in a dialogue with those customers. Much social listening revolves around picking up trends from people that haven't opted in. However, by creating engaged communities, companies can build long-term relationships and dialogue that helps them answer their key business questions. Being customer-centric means building solutions with, not for, your customers - and that's not just about listening, it's about continuous engagement. Crowdsourcing solutions like the Create Health platform provide clear market insight and customer feedback, allowing pharma to engage in customer conversations in a safe, compliant way - crucial when building a customer-centric brand.”

A little less conversation
Engagement is clearly the key to progression. But whilst analysis such as Ogilvy's 'Pharma Social Media Butterflies' reports show that pharma is increasing its investment in social media, some companies still fall short of true social engagement. “Some companies are listening to - and actively engaging with - their followers and generating conversation. But our latest report, published in March, shows that other companies are still dabbling in social media and not taking advantage of interacting with their community. Elvis was right; it's time for a little less conversation and a little more action!” says Rebecca Canvin, Social Media Manager, Ogilvy Healthworld. “Listening needs to be a part of your social strategy, as well as integrated into your wider marketing plan because it has so many benefits. It allows you to establish a perspective on patients' or HCPs' online journeys, and how they actually behave on there. You can discover what people are saying about your brand or a specific healthcare issue, as well as identify and understand key professional and patient influencers. You can use these insights to inform the content needs and preferences your audiences have, rather than simply blasting out messages across all channels. Listening helps you develop a coherent social strategy.

“Success on social media depends upon defining clear objectives from the outset. What are you going to evaluate, how, when and why? It's then about outlining your tools, methodology and metrics and - critically - what you're going to do with the information you glean. At Ogilvy we measure how effective a campaign is in moving individuals towards an action. We measure against; reach, preference and action. Action is ultimately where individuals evolve from 'liking' or 'favouriting' your content to becoming a loyal advocate for your brand. In pharma social media, the important level of action is people engaging and talking about your brand in a positive way - and sharing it.”

Pharma has little choice but to embrace social media in this environment

A little more actionable
Certainly, as social increasingly features on pharma's agenda, listening is beginning to have an important influence on brand strategies. “Companies are dissecting social dialogue and trying to establish whether there are any actionable insights that can inform customer communications,” says Rob Fuller, strategy director at Havas Lynx. “But although there is much to be gained from listening, it can feel like a passive exercise. In many ways it's an extension of the old-fashioned, one-way glass focus group. One massive advantage it brings is scale. Whereas previously, focus groups might canvas opinion across a limited range of stakeholders, we're now able to analyse tens of thousands of blogs, posts and tweets. The technology's there to help, but it's the insight and interpretation that provides the value. And that's potentially where pharma has a capability gap.

“Proactive pharma companies have been doing social listening for years, whilst others are increasingly exploring it. To truly progress, however, companies should be undertaking social listening and actively responding to the insight it generates. Brands that stop at the understanding will be left behind. Pharma has little choice but to embrace social media, but active engagement in it shouldn't be driven by the fact that brands feel they need to 'do social' just to keep up. Instead, social strategy and engagement must only be undertaken if it represents an appropriate way of achieving brand goals, and only if you're prepared to respect two fundamental principles. Firstly, focus on finding true insight through multiple means, including social listening. Secondly, and more critically, successful social engagement relies 100% on creating, sourcing and publishing high-value content. Brands that can develop an effective content marketing approach based on meaningful real-world insights will ultimately seize competitive advantage.”

And so the message is indeed clear: if you're not listening, you're not learning. Social engagement will become an essential component of future models of healthcare communication, and social listening will play an important role in the evolution. There's work to be done in overcoming the ethical and methodological challenges that social listening in healthcare presents, but as consumer communications shift relentlessly towards digital technologies, pharma cannot afford to watch and wait. However, the core principles of effective engagement and influence will not disappear and traditional models of communication will remain. The best brand communications will lean heavily on the full mosaic of integrated marketing activities - and only be strengthened by the ability to listen.

And so to the words of our global Arcala: “If you make listening and observation your occupation, you will gain much more than you can by talk.” Perhaps Baden-Powell was only half right. Listening is important. But in the social media context, talk, and indeed action, carries equal weight. The trick, as every good scout knows, is to Be Prepared. However, it's not simply a case of being prepared to listen, but about being prepared to act on what you hear.

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

21st April 2015

From: Marketing



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