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The holy grail

Gain a competitive advantage by developing an effective digital listening strategy

A set of goblets and cupsDigitas Health launched new European research, across five countries, on the attitudes of 1,000 doctors, patients and carers to social media and its future within healthcare communications in March 2010. The research revealed startling contrasts in the adoption of social media technologies for health purposes between European countries and the US. Among many insights, it found that Europeans are more likely than Americans to trust health-related social media information, and European physicians welcome pharma services for their practices more than twice as much as their US counterparts.

European GPs and consumers alike outpace Americans in their use of Wikipedia, patient disease forums, social networks and blogs. In part, this was evidenced by the popularity and value exchange of community sites in France and the high degree of trust German consumers gave to web-based healthcare information.

Additionally, two thirds of primary care physicians in Europe and the US expect their online communication on health-related matters to increase over the next 18 months as do 32 per cent of patients.

Over 40 per cent of GPs in Europe believe that social media will play an increasingly important role in shaping their patient management and treatment, and 70 per cent see social media playing an increasingly important role in shaping patients' opinions about their medication and condition.

Digitas asked marketing directors to identify their priorities for 2010/2011 and the issues that kept them awake at night. The first priority for 64 per cent, was to improve integrated online acquisition and retention campaigns, 62 per cent cited developing an effective listening strategy that would give a competitive advantage and produce consumer insights to gain competitive advantage.

The next priority was web optimisation (41 per cent) and in eighth place was the willingness to support an online patient education awareness programme, less of a priority but a priority for 12 per cent nonetheless.

Of the 62 per cent of marketers who stated the need to develop an effective listening strategy for their brands, some 43 per cent admitted that they were undertaking some form of digital listening but they were not convinced that what they were doing was effective.

Today, a brand is what people say it is and the best way to find out what people are saying, but not intrude in these conversations, is effective listening. Intuitively we know that effective listening will reduce the risk of being unprepared for a conversation that might blow up in our face.

Effective listening is certainly not just an eavesdropping exercise; it is the first step towards a full social media communications strategy. By listening you will understand what conversations are occurring around a particular topic, relevant to the brand. Listening will identify which topics are interesting to the online community, who is influential on these topics and who are potential promoters or detractors for your brand. There is a broad range of tools to help with monitoring but as yet very few can answer credibly the key question 'who is influential?'

As Judith von Gordon, head of media & PR worldwide at Boehringer Ingelheim, said: "Effective listening is certainly an important element in future digital marketing strategy. There is a need to discover and then understand the sentiment, positive or negatives with which a blogger typically discusses a topic or brand. It is then possible to zero in on who you should be talking to, about what, and in what tone. Understanding this will help to turn promoters into brand advocates and in some cases convince detractors toward a more positive opinion."

Influence is a measure of the ability of an individual or web property to propagate a message to a large number of people through the influencer's network. Measuring a blog's audience is not enough to understand influence, you need to know if the blog's audience has, in turn, its own audience and so on. In this way you can develop a clearer picture of the impact content delivered by a particular individual, webzine or tweet is likely to have.

An important element in transforming the digital chat into reliable predictions is the ability to attribute to each online 'voice' the correct weight; often referred to as 'influence'. This of course is very intuitive and tough to measure. It counts more when somebody who is a recognised authority or has a large following on a particular topic talks about a particular brand, than if somebody with no following voices his or her opinion.

Effective listening allows brands a much better understanding of the consumer 'attitude' landscape. Not only will you hear what is being said about your brand but crucially what mis-information is passing between consumers/patients online. Doctors continually complain about the time they spend correcting mis-information patients get from the internet and would welcome a neutral informative source that is able to correct in real time health myths and misunderstandings.

We need to listen and resources like Converseon, SentiMetrixs, TruCast and BuzzMetrics can help to colour the consumer insights brands already hold about their customers. Digitas works with InteractiveLabs offering clients a sophisticated bespoke listening room tailored to their needs. The intelligence delivered will influence marketing strategy development, crisis management, outreach and content development.

Going forward, brands need to source social media audiences at scale. Digitas builds platforms around brands, its sister agency has Audience on Demand (AOD), a partnership between VivaKi and four major internet networks (Google, Yahoo, MSN and Platform A). This partnership aggregates social-media and keenly defines communities via influencers that enable us to create ads that resonate within social.

Social and search feed each other and more attention needs to be paid to this alignment. Social bookmarking, blogs, review sites and social-network listings increasingly influence search results. Social media has opened up new avenues for pay-per-click ads and has created more opportunity for search to be a vital function for each site. Agencies should capitalise on this inter-connectivity to create more points of entry for clients.

With the right combination of scalable social insights, experiences and ads, a social-media programme can go far but it will fail to succeed unless proper measurement mechanisms are in place.

The ability to predict business outcomes from digital listening is in its infancy and sparking some exciting new ways of working for many industries. The global healthcare industry is well placed to learn from these pioneers. Social media is perhaps the most powerful communications platform of the future. Making it viable is an industry imperative.

The Author
June Dawson is MD at Digitas Health London
She can be contacted at

To comment on this article, email

23rd December 2010


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