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Learning to listen - Examining the opportunities and challenges of using conversations on social media for Pharma brands

The world in which we do business has markedly changed since 2008, which has helped to increase the push towards the ‘digitisation’ of marketing communications’ channels, This feature explores the merits of effective social media listening, but cautions that not all conversations are equal.
Our starting point is the need to recognise that the world in which we now do business has markedly changed since 2008 and that this has helped to increase the push towards the ‘digitisation’ of marketing communications’ channels. Salesforces, though remaining present in some form for years to come, are in accelerated decline and marketing budgets have seen significant cuts. There is increasing pressure to demonstrate ROI (return on investment) at every level caused partly by the growing popular conception that digital marketing, including social media, is indeed more measurable. Within this world, HCPs (healthcare professionals) and patients are becoming rightly recognised as being increasingly social and digital, not just at a personal level but also in a professional capacity.  

One major shift that is already happening in online behaviour, at least amongst general consumers, is that social media as opposed to search engines is becoming the primary digital starting point for information on many online journeys. This change is already coming to Pharma with Facebook being the fourth biggest source of upstream traffic for Web MD, the world’s largest health site. No wonder that over 41% of Pharma marketing departments want to use social media for marketing and indeed for business intelligence purposes. [Source *1]  

So yes, social media can be an effective means of generating genuinely useful data and the sheer volume of data it is capable of generating is staggering. With all this data available, the effective Pharma marketer needs to ask, and accurately answer a number of critical questions beginning with perhaps the most pertinent, is all data equally as useful? In other words, does the value of the data depend on where within the social media spectrum it is gathered from? How does the data and resulting insights compare with that generated by more traditional approaches? Where ultimately do the genuine opportunities lie and how do you find them?  

Not all equal
Developing an effective social media listening (SML) programme therefore begins with an understanding of (i) who to listen to and when, (ii) what to listen for, and (iii) where to listen. At the 2015 Digital Pharma conference, 67% of those attending said they had already conducted SML so clearly this is something that is becoming widespread. These figures are in line with the 2014 GRIT report, which states that 77% of market researchers (client-side, within the study sample) are already doing or have considered SML. [Source *2]  

However, all conversations are by no means equal and the first thing to recognise is that certain topics are going to be much more talked about, in more places, and with a greater representation of views and opinions. For example, diabetes, asthma, fertility etc. will all generate far more conversations amongst a greater number of people than rare or orphan diseases that affect very few people and which have even fewer HCP specialists. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be impossible to find the specific information regarding the latter for example; simply that it requires a more carefully considered and constructed search.  

The next thing to understand is that in the context of Pharma, legally and ethically, not all conversations are accessible because they happen in private, password-protected sites. This is often the case when it comes to specialist HCP conversations so any starting point has to be on honest assessment of the extent to which the desired data is actually accessible. The value of any data that is accessible then needs to be assessed in the context of areas of information that may be missing. A good starting point is to think first and consult with HCPs in real-life to understand where the conversations are happening online, or consider replicating these online discussions within a controlled environment, e.g. a bespoke online community.

It is also important to recognise the value of influence relating to any conversation being listened to, because in the cut-throat world of social media, it’s not about ‘what you know’ but ‘who you know.’ A hugely profound blog written on the latest biosimilar developments and the impact this will have on a specific tumour type that is read by no-one has limited value compared to a more simplistic blog on a different subject that is read by millions.

A caveat, however, is to understand the scale of any impact or influence not just in terms of the quantity of conversations but also the quality of the people having them. It is essential to factor in the wider influences, online and offline, to establish the level of influence that online conversations hold.

What does this social media listening look like in practice? Recently we conducted research for an over the counter (OTC) client brand into the reasons for online searches in the US, Russia and China. This revealed that in the US, the Internet is used to do background research and for discussion purposes amongst fellow patients or parents. In Russia and China however, the emphasis was on consumers giving details about their symptoms and wanting advice from online HCPs. This then informed the type of social media marketing campaign required for each.

In the US this therefore took the form of creating messages/viral content for consumers to be spread by other consumers whereas in China and Russia, the messaging and channels used was aimed very much at an HCP level and to be seen to be coming from authority figures.  

When used effectively, SML can be a very effective tool for looking at general online brand sentiment as well as understanding language online used by a target group around a therapy area. It is also useful for establishing or identifying ‘influencers’ in a certain therapy area, for example, patient opinion leaders, as well as tracking the effectiveness of a social media campaign online. Lastly, it can be very helpful for discovering where conversations are happening online to help guide future social media marketing.  

 [Source *1] Based on a sample of around 50 attendees who voted in a straw poll at this year’s Digital Pharma ‘Advances’ Marketing conference in London#
[Source *2]  Grit Report 2014 :    

About the author
Dan Brilot is Director, Head of Digital Research at Cello Health Insight. 

For more information visit

This article was first published in PharmaTimes - September 2015 


  Learning to listen - PDF
PDF File: 298.0 KB

1st October 2015


  Learning to listen - PDF
PDF File: 298.0 KB



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