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The Missing Ingredient in Online Healthcare: Trust

By Brad Davidson, PhD, SVP Strategic Planning, Aptus Health
When the term “virtual reality” was coined in the mid-1980s, a distinction was being drawn between the real world and one mediated through computer screens or similar technology—a distinction that seems to be fading, as more of our lives take place online.  A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that 21% of Americans report that they go online “almost constantly,” and overall, 73% of Americans say they go online on a daily basis. And, where once it was common to express hesitation at participating fully in things like e-commerce because of a lack of trust in the Internet, those days are long gone.

Clearly, we have replaced our misgivings with trust—trust that the Internet is safe, that we can find what we need there, that information and exchanges, at least with some partners, is trustworthy.  But while companies like Amazon and eBay have earned our trust and transformed the way we approach shopping, the way we (and our target customers) interact with the healthcare system in many ways lags behind. In part, this is because healthcare is not the same as buying books or used video games. The stakes are far higher, and gaps in trust or delivery can have potentially grave consequences. But in part the lag exists simply because the hard-won lessons learned in the e-commerce space are not being applied, or even recognized, in the healthcare space. The lessons, from our point of view, are clear—build trust, and they will come.

Let’s take a look at how online retailers have used the basic tenets of commercial trustworthiness (clarity, consistency, and customer-centricity) to yield success—and how pharma marketers can use these same elements to build trust and brand affinity among their target healthcare professionals (HCPs) in an increasingly transactional world.3CsClarity

Online retailers to who have won the ongoing trust of the general public are generally clear in their communications, interactions, and underlying set of values. In addition to avoiding all the classic pitfalls of “bait and switch” marketing that can apply in the real world, Internet-based companies and platforms also have to set clear expectations for what the transaction will be like, for both best and worst case scenarios. Their value proposition (such as Amazon’s positioning as “the world’s biggest store”) is clear, as are their policies, processes, and user experience.

Such clarity in offerings – and the ability to follow through on them– is key for any pharma marketer looking to win the ongoing trust of target healthcare professionals and consumers. In some cases, pharma must work doubly hard to combat negative public perceptions (cue the “pharmabro” headlines or even the more generalized pushback against pharma for charging what many believe to be exorbitant rates).

We’ve found that by cultivating trusted online environments in which sponsored content is clearly labeled as such, physicians will spend their time with and find value in both the expert-led content that they expect to see, but also (and importantly for our clients), the commercial messages about new therapies that appear within these digital environments. This clarity in our offerings drives HCPs to proactively seek out our content—about 60% of our traffic is from members visiting unprompted by promotion—and spend upwards of 20 minutes per session on average exploring and engaging with our digital content, returning regularly throughout the quarter.


Customers trust companies when they know what these companies stand for, and when they know what to expect from them. Brands that go too far in changing what they stand for, how they work, whom they work with, or even how online information is stored and shared can be lost, almost overnight, whatever equity and trust has been built up over time. Change a known user interface to improve the consumers’ experience, for example, but if you change it too much you can cause suspicion and frustration (here’s looking at you, SnapChat…). Offer one thing and deliver another, and your days of enjoying the trusted engagement of your target audience are numbered.

Of course, digital multi-channel marketing is an ideal way to tell a consistent message across a wide population – but just as important is the consistent execution of content. We often blame our internal review processes for an inability to deliver on promised content, but really, failure to deliver is the fastest way to lose trust (and traffic).

In contrast, HCP members of our digital communities have to come to expect an expert-led primer on a medically-relevant topic in the amount of time it takes for their morning coffee to cool. And they know they can engage with those experts—as well as their peers—within these communities, asking questions and getting personalized responses. But perhaps the true mark of a positive experience is whether it is of consistently high quality that a user would recommend it to others—and in fact, about 40% of our members who engage with our digital content end up referring a colleague. Since a recommendation is a reflection of the recommender’s taste and intellect, those recommendations are probably the best indicator of true trust and value.


A classic example of anticipating customers’ needs and wants—before they even know they need or want it – is the way Netflix uses personalized digital experiences to upend the way we consume media. You didn’t know you needed to binge-watch that recommended new series, but once you know you can, it’s harder than ever to wait a week for the next episode of your favorite show. It’s also harder to suspend your monthly subscription to the streaming video service.

For pharma, the lesson is to design digital experiences that will make your target HCPs’ jobs—specifically, keeping up with the latest medical therapies in an increasingly time-crunched environment—easier, more enjoyable, and delivering more value.

For example, in our online HCP communities we use both inferred and preferred information to serve up information that’s relevant for a specific member. While a PCP may be visiting our digital community to brush up on guidelines for addressing an infectious disease outbreak, if their browsing activity or profile suggests an interest in cardiovascular topics, they may see a recommendation to check out an interactive quiz featuring key points of a statin’s label.  And since the recommendation is relevant to one of their medical interests, though not directly related to the infectious disease piece, the PCP will likely choose to participate. That’s how we demonstrate that our content is aligned with their needs and interests, and how we drive the deep engagement and trust for which we’re known.

These are just a handful of examples of the huge opportunity pharma has to build trust and drive outcomes – as well as the potential pitfalls of pharma marketing campaigns that end up undermining trust.

12th May 2016



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Aptus Health

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