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Listen and learn

Social media conversations about drugs and diseases can teach brands how to reach out

A pair of headphones on a stack of booksPan-European product launches have always been challenging. In today's economic climate, brands are looking to optimise their performance and there is pressure on digital marketing experts to deliver economies of scale.

One secret weapon in today's marketing armoury is social media monitoring. Its place in mainstream marketing is assured by its ability to provide sharp, insightful knowledge of real conversations in real time, at a fraction of the cost of traditional research, broken down country by country.

Many, including Abbott, Pfizer and Merck, recognise the value of such monitoring. However, to heighten its effectiveness, it must be paired with analysis.

Mark Langsfeld is a social media intelligence expert in the US and CEO of ListenLogic. This year, his firm has seen a significant increase in the use of social intelligence prior to market launch in specific countries. Listening commences some six months before the marketing strategy is even discussed and is analysed to inform the country-by-country strategy and rollout. According to Mark, "pre-launch listening provides a clearer picture of the patients and their attitudes towards the specific product and condition, as well as the quality of healthcare provision around specific disease areas."

Better intelligence
In Europe, the story is the same: a steady increase in brands wanting better intelligence data from digital conversations, confirms Mark Rogers, CEO of Market Sentinel. Mark has helped brands secure government backing for new vaccines as well as building social media campaigns around new drugs like anti-cervical cancer vaccine, Cervarix, and Synagis, for breathing problems in premature babies.

In addition to providing category/ therapeutic insights, social media monitoring can help address poor public opinion. The need to create a positive perception and transparency in information sharing are major drivers for pharma companies.
Such monitoring is the first step towards a full social media strategy. It is a mistake to consider consumer conversations trivial or unrepresentative; research proves the opposite is true. Online conversations have been found to correspond closely to those being held offline.

All brands should be listening to customers and stakeholders in their therapeutic categories and analysing the results. It is important to be responsive to what you hear, but sensitive to the operating environment. This does not always equate to direct engagement. Creating relevant support and services which reflect a real need can make a difference to your brand's perception and the lives of the recipients.

At this year's Digitas Health conference, research results were reported on the attitudes of 1,000 doctors, patients and carers to the future of social media within healthcare communications.

Among many insights, the study data highlighted how European consumers were more likely than Americans to trust health-related social media information. In fact, consumers and GPs in Europe saw social media as key to strengthening the physician-patient relationship. Over 40 per cent  of GPs in Europe believed social media would play an increasingly important role in their patient management and treatment and 70 per cent saw social media playing an increasingly important role in shaping patients' opinions about their medication and condition.

At the conference, 62 per cent of the marketers operating in Europe said they wanted to develop an effective listening strategy within the next 12 months. While many were already monitoring the blogosphere, they were not convinced about the effectiveness of their methods or the quality of the intelligence.

Sentiment and context
Judith von Gordon-Weichelt, head of media & PR worldwide at Boehringer-Ingelheim, is only too aware of how crucial it is for brands to understand the context of what is being said about them on the internet. She champions the need to discover and understand the sentiments, whether positive or negative, with which a blogger typically discusses her brands and/or related conditions. According to Judith: "Understanding sentiment and context can help turn promoters into brand advocates and, in some cases, convince detractors to adopt a more positive opinion."

Listening identifies the topics engaging the online community, who is influential on each topic and whether they are, or could be, potential promoters, or detractors, of a brand. It is best to identify the country or regional influencers using the context of a discussion. For example, this is useful in a therapeutic area like heart flutter or an issue like compulsory licensing.

Once a substantial number of internet pages can be identified as 'on-topic' in this context, the task is to identify the entities who are cited by high quality sources. These are the authorities, or influencers on the subject. Just as important are the connectors, or people who are good at identifying high quality entities. Brands can then track the themes used by these key influencers and their immediate social circle, or 'egonet', and then start to choose the optimal language with which to engage their audience.

A successful pan-European rollout will customise the content plan by looking, country by country, at the structure of the conversations and then make decisions about which platforms are the most appropriate to each country or region.

Listening picks up national and regional variations and conversation tracking identifies any shift in behaviour or influence. For example, erectile dysfunction is a subject of matter-of-fact discussion in Germany, but in Italy the digital conversations are much more shamefaced. In both countries the problem is discussed by patients with scant reference to medical therapy of any kind. In Germany self-help groups are very influential, as they are in the UK. Meanwhile, The Netherlands has a clinic-orientated society and the church is very powerful.

Therapeutic communities defined by disease area, for example psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis, often discuss the topic in an oblique way. For example, in the case of erectile dysfunction, conversations are often around sexual self confidence, which is how women talk about their partners, and sexual spontaneity.

A key element of any listening brief is to be sensitive to nuances and understand how a drug or condition is being discussed. When monitoring conversations around childhood asthma, for instance, it was noted that mothers were referring to inhalers not as inhalers but as 'puffers'. In this case, by advising the client simply to change its language helped increase its credibility in this space.

Successful monitoring often hinges on subtleties of language. Typically, patients talk about the problems they are having and what solutions are available; they do not typecast themselves by symptoms or a specific drug. People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) talk about a 'smoker's cough' or 'smoker's lung' online, while physicians use the correct medical terminology and the language of the regulator or government focuses on how to improve the health of inactive workers in order to reduce the fiscal strain on the State's healthcare budget.

The key skill required is to be able to identify and translate the various complex strands of conversations.

Today, there are some leading pharmaceutical companies exploring how to apply key social media insights to their marketing and communications strategies, with the objective of making themselves more relevant and responsive to the needs of key stakeholders while remaining sensitive to the individuals participating.

Optimise spending
To optimise the marketing spend for a pan-European product launch, brands must measure the effectiveness of social media. Analysing the online conversation of regulators, politicians, physicians, carers and patients allows strategy to be prioritised based not on a hunch, but on the mathematics of network science.

The valuation framework for measuring success as a result of social media monitoring will be different for every brand, but there are a number of key performance indicators: awareness, sentiment, action and ongoing engagement, that can provide a good indication of how successful an initiative is.

Fast turnaround
With social media providing near real-time intelligence, market insights are no longer limited to research organisation data and market research, says Aaron Uydess, associate director of sales and marketing excellence at Novo Nordisk. He sees a value in how social media can deliver volumes of unbiased, cheap insights. But, he warns, if the brand marketing team is not able to react to these insights, the effort is wasted. Like many brand owners, he is willing to pay for measurement and evaluation, but he believes agencies have a stronger role to play in helping clients understand the true scope and value of the insights as well as the magnitude of information they can produce.

In summary:

•  All brands should be listening to customers and stakeholders in their therapeutic categories and analysing what they discover
•  Be responsive to what you hear, but sensitive to the environment within which you are operating; this does not always equate to direct engagement
•  Creating relevant support and services which reflect a real need can change perception of your brand and the lives of the recipients.

The Author
June Dawson is managing director, Digitas Health London

To comment on this article, email

18th October 2010


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