Social analytics provides an Rx for the pharmaceutical industry

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The pharmaceutical industry on the whole has been cautious about its use of social media and mobile technology, but the pace is rapidly picking up. Case in point: the Mobile Pharma BizTech Conference I'm speaking at this week in New York. The agenda is full of topics you wouldn't ordinarily associate with big pharma: social engagement, patient-centric communication, cloud strategy, big data and reality mining.

Sure, pharmaceutical companies understand how these strategies can empower the sales force and support branding efforts, but the idea of truly engaging with patients -- beyond the blitzkrieg of direct-to-consumer advertising -- is relatively new. The lack of clear guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration (promised for 2014) is a good reason to tread carefully into social media, but many companies are already beginning to explore the potential benefits.

According to a 2012 California Healthcare Foundation and Pew Internet study, nearly 60 percent of adults looked online for health information within the previous year. Today's social media platforms offer a new avenue of information and dialogue, creating a comfortable (and sometimes anonymous) environment for information exchanges.

For pharmaceutical companies, this opens up new opportunities to connect with consumers, to communicate the value proposition throughout a product's lifecycle, and to improve health delivery and outcomes. It sets the foundation to mine information and apply behavioral principles to understand how and why consumers make buying decisions and specific health/lifestyle choices.

Even as companies await further clarity from the FDA, there is a way they can get plugged into the social world by sharing the content of their websites and drug- or brand-specific portals.

They can also begin to:

  • Monitor conversations relevant to their brands, industry and competition. Along with a rigorous assessment of current social media activities, this is key to developing a future strategy and for determining goals focused on measurable return on investment.
  • Conduct forward and backward listening assessments. With so much noise from online drug sales and other "spam," it can be difficult to cut through the clutter, but it's important to monitor relevant conversations both in real-time (forward listening) and historically (backwards listening). By tracing topics for the past year or so, you can create a baseline of social media activity/sentiment for a specific drug or brand.
  • Monitor product/service launches to gauge reaction and make adjustments if necessary.
  • Compile business/market intelligence reports to stay one step ahead of the competition.
  • Improve current social media outreach by identifying key influencers and channels worth engaging. Look for opportunities to be a thought leader or share your expertise without directly promoting a product or brand.
  • Improve customer support to increase customer satisfaction levels and improve brand loyalty.

It's critical to adhere to the founding principles of listening and monitoring at all times: ensure truth and accuracy, be transparent, and be respectful of the interests and privacy of patients, caregivers and healthcare providers. And companies must always maintain a strong awareness of the regulatory environment.

That said, imagine how powerful social analytics could be when launching a new drug. During the research and development phase, a company can review conversations pertaining to similar drugs and/or competitors' portfolios and develop launch plans accordingly. Companies can also get an aggregated view on pricing, direct consumer experience, demographic segmentation and sentiment of their messages versus their competitors. And once the product launches, direct engagement with consumers, caregivers and healthcare professional can provide a forum for ongoing education and real-time feedback, and may even help improve patient compliance.

The opportunities are great and the time is right for pharmaceutical companies to establish and strengthen their social strategies as they await further guidance from the FDA.

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