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Rethinking influence in a networked world

Networks are revolutionising the nature of influence and the spread of ideas in science and medicine

Networked worldScience, medicine and healthcare have always been collaborative but in recent years this has intensified. The web both encourages powerful networks and makes them easier to explore – whether networks of co-authorship between key opinion leaders, citations between scientific papers or interactions between patients on specialised social networks.

The web has given us the tools to connect and collaborate. For good or ill, influence nowadays is not always defined by knowledge, experience and authority, but also by how connected and engaged you are.

The importance of networks in healthcare and medicine will only increase. In Reinventing Discovery, Michael Nielsen argues that 'to historians looking back a hundred years from now, there will be two eras of science: pre-network science, and networked science'.

Nielsen explores how scientists, including physicians, are using the web to develop new ways of working together to pool expertise and amplify individual insight, including open-access publishing, the open-data movement, and tools such as blogs and wikis. Patients, too, are increasingly using social media to share data and experiences on sites such as CureTogether and PatientsLikeMe, or advocate for greater awareness and better care.

Networks and influence
This movement has many implications for healthcare communicators. First and foremost, networks force us to rethink the idea of 'influence'. Nowadays, 'influencers' are not just the traditional authority figures. They could be a researcher who forms a bridge between tightly clustered groups and is thus able to exchange ideas between them, or a highly active online 'connector', for example, a high-profile scientist using social media to communicate with a lay audience.

Networks, including Doctors.net.uk or Sermo, also affect how ideas, opinions and content spread, and for how long they are sustained. A truly effective or useful idea is quickly spread by a network, especially if it is easy to find and share. Unfortunately, networks also mean that big ideas can get bigger regardless of merit (the principle of preferential attachment) and old ideas can linger on beyond the end of their useful life.

The growth of networks has resulted in quantitative as well as qualitative changes – communication is quicker, and has greater reach and greater volatility. It is not always possible to predict the direction an online conversation will take – being 'embedded' in the network, as opposed to trying to influence it from on high, is therefore essential.

Pharma in the networked age
So what can pharma do to ensure it thrives in this environment?

First of all, it must understand the networks. Listening and profiling exercises can identify where conversations are taking place, what content resonates and how it is being shared.Crucially, there is a need to map the relationships between actors in the network, not just the actors themselves.

Beautiful visualisations have resulted from mapping online networks, but aside from their aesthetic value these exercises are genuinely useful. For example, a communication plan for a new drug can now be informed by whether the scientific literature for a disease area is characterised by tightly clustered groups of KOLs with little inter-communication, or a more evenly distributed spread of contact and collaboration.

But listening is not enough. Pharma must engage, embedding itself in networks and communicating honestly, ethically and as an equal. A strong presence will ensure that a brand's voice is heard, as will checking that all the touchpoints discovered during the research phase are addressed.

We shouldn't ignore the opportunity that online networks offer to fine-tune communication – to assess how initiatives are received as they spread through the network and then to concentrate resources in the areas where they are most effective.

This new, highly networked era is a huge opportunity for pharma – an opportunity to get closer to customers and become a bigger part of their lives. But it's much more than that. It's also the best feedback loop we could ever wish for, giving us a chance to understand the impact of our actions on those who matter most – healthcare practitioners and their patients.

Andrew Lamb, Ketchum
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The Author

Andrew Lamb is Digital Strategist, Healthcare at Ketchum PLEON & Inspired Science

 

2nd March 2012

From: Marketing, Healthcare

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