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Learning how to listen

The first in a series offering marketers a means to monitor online conversations about their brands

A man using a megaphoneWe're all familiar with social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, and video hosting channels like YouTube and MySpace. But for most of us, they're personal channels — we use them to catch up and tune in. It's not work (even though LinkedIn pretends to be). It's play.

But if marketing is your business, it's a different story. Or at least, it should be, because social media channels exercise tremendous influence over consumer attitudes. This is becoming increasingly apparent in the healthcare and pharma sectors, with patients and their families looking for opinions and experiences from other consumers via the web. If you want to know how well you'll be looked after at a particular hospital, you can tap into former patient experiences. If you're worried about the drug you've been prescribed, you can see what other consumers feel about it.

The surprise here is how willing searchers are to believe the consumers who post opinions: not the rants and raves, but the apparently rational, considered, first-hand opinions. Why are they so credible? Because they offer their opinions and experiences for free, for the benefit of other consumers. They have the credibility that comes from the perception of honesty, in an age when consumers are instinctively sceptical about marketing messages.

One of the key factors to bear in mind with content on the social web is that patients will consume content — good or bad — about a disease, treatments or your brand, irrespective of where that content comes from. A patient in the UK looking for advice on what to expect from her chemotherapy does not care if that advice comes from a fellow patient in the US, Singapore or the UK. It's the social element of shared experience, empathy and kinship that is important rather than where that connection lives.

What is social media?
The term 'social media' encompasses all the online activities, tools, platforms and practices that allow people to collaborate, create and share thoughts, knowledge, opinions and content. It's what people do online, and the environments (like blogs, forums and social networks) in which they do it.

Social media is not about messaging — that's what corporate websites, adverts, brochures and PR campaigns do. It's about conversations.

Social media exchange is group-driven, not top-down. Marketers can't control it, but they can influence it by making sure that their side of the story gets heard. To do this, you must make social media an integral part of your marketing strategy.

Individuals can now produce their own online media and include images, texts and videos about whatever they choose. In healthcare in particular, patients are sharing their experiences on blogs, forums, in chat rooms and social networks.

Consumers want to talk, and now they have the platforms on which to do it. You have the option to respond, and you need to recognise that the conversation will continue with or without you.


Six tips for social media success

• Track the conversation around your company, brands and treatment areas
• Identify the social channels where these conversations are taking place
• Create content that is authentic, credible and relevant to your audience
• Be prepared to interact and respond quickly
• Establish a dialogue with your customer
• Always remember that social media is not about branding or messaging


Getting involved
To get involved with social media, the first thing you need to do is listen, and keep on listening.

Social media is an extraordinary source of consumer insights, offering unfiltered evidence of people's behaviour and attitudes. Listening to what people are saying online allows you to get to the heart of the customer experience of products and services.

Buzz monitoring — tracking what people are saying and analysing consumer sentiments, as well as seeing how it affects other conversations — is vital to understanding what consumers think about your brand, and for building a business case for brand activity within the social web.

Once a brand becomes engaged with social media, it needs to keep engaging. It's an ongoing process, not an ad hoc tactical exercise.

To participate fully in social media, you're going to have to put resources behind it — probably at least one full-time employee, and engage the support of a specialist digital marketing agency. You can't do this thing by halves.

Once you're listening and participating, you must measure the impact. Measuring the impact of social media is different from traditional media because there are so many more quantitative and qualitative measurables (blog posts, comments, links, votes, views, bookmarks, tweets). You need to develop a consistent measurement framework which will enable you to judge how and where to raise an issue or respond to a perception.

The danger of non-involvement
Driven by regulatory concerns, the industry remains well behind the curve in the adoption of social media as a channel compared to other sectors such as technology, retail, sports and automotive. Nevertheless, the tools are available for us — at least — to listen, in real time, to what our customers are saying and understand where they are saying it. This, in turn, will help us make more intelligent decisions about our brand.

When planning social media activity, you need to understand that you're only one voice in the debate. Consumers are quickly becoming the new opinion leaders, but the opportunity for you to shape their opinions is there. In fact, consumers expect you to do this, and, if you don't, they will do it without you.


Case study: Gardasil

Gardasil is Sanofi Pasteur MSD/Merck's market-leading HPV vaccine, aimed at reducing the chances of developing genital warts, cervical cancer and other genital cancers in young women. Its competitor is GSK's Cervarix.

To assess the impact of social media on consumer perceptions of Gardasil and HPV vaccination in general, let's look at consumer posts on this subject on social media channels in July 2009. There were nearly 8,000 mentions in the sample under analysis.


Share of voice: which brand name are they mentioning?

Which brand name are they mentioning?

We can see from this pie chart that most of the conversations revolve around Gardasil. It's the dominant brand name in this area.


Share of voice: where are they talking?

Where are they talking?

This bar chart shows that for Gardasil, the key social channels are blogs, micromedia sites (like Twitter) and forum replies, which together make up 84 per cent of social media interaction around the issue.



Share of voice: where is Gardasil being discussed?

Where is Gardasil being discussed?

This graph shows that the amount of conversation around Gardasil varies greatly over time. There are three distinct spikes in conversation, possibly in response to news stories. Analysis identified that the initial spike was due to the launch of a new publication on the safety of Gardasil, which should have been positive news. However, the second spike identified a YouTube video launched days after the news release that was anything but positive about Gardasil.


Issues tracking: crisis management 

The video above shows an anti-Gardasil film on YouTube, uploaded by a mother blaming the vaccine for her daughter's death. Listening to the conversation about your brand not only provides quantitative measures such as share of voice, it can also give you real-life qualitative insights into what patients really feel about their disease, their experiences with treatment and the support they really desire. Listening can also help you identify the source of potentially damaging negative sentiment about your brand (or your competitors) such as this YouTube video, which was identified as causing the second spike in the chart above. Just type Gardasil into YouTube and you will find a plethora of negative videos and an absence of any authoritative commentary to balance this.

This real-life insight into patients' concerns around safety can be used to inform the development of education and communications programmes that address the issue that can be delivered through traditional and social channels.


The Author
Stephen Dunn is director of Brandcast Health

To comment on this article, email

21st July 2010


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