Social Media: The Science of Eavesdropping

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Healthcare marketing professionals have come to recognize the increase in consumer conversations related to diagnoses, treatments and other topics. They are happening in online social networks, on search engines and at customer contact centers. The pressing question is: How do I best measure these conversations to gain insight for my communications programs?

One strategy is the listening platform approach that collects and analyzes online conversations on a particular topic from search engines, social media sites (social networks, blogs, chats, forums) and customer call centers. In this case it has been applied to the hypertension category to understand patient conversations regarding treatments. Ultimately, it helped improve patient communication strategies.

Two major trends are driving the product marketing in the pharmaceutical industry. First, according to IMS, in 2007 over 40% of pharmaceutical promotional spending was on consumers. This spending shift of marketing dollars is the result of increased patient accountability (financial and information-wise) in managing their healthcare. Compounding this spending shift has meant a decrease in spending by pharma on traditional sales forces whose focus was on physician-targeted marketing. 

These consumers, with their new-found empowerment of making their own healthcare purchase decisions, are increasingly turning online for healthcare answers. New forms of social computing are emerging for healthcare, from expert health blogs that turn medical info into conversations, to social networks that inspire with personal stories and progress trackers. The result is more transparency, a trend that health plans and pharma must prepare for. 

Social computing
Social networks aren't just skewing to young patient populations. A recent Forrester Healthcare online survey pointed out that even for “older: disease categories with median age 50-60 years, roughly 20% of all patients turn to social computing for health information.”

Beyond the basics of looking up conditions and medications, health information seekers increasingly search for advice to help them deal with specific health challenges they or family members face. On a cardiology related health blog, physicians speak about medical advances. Then consumers actively chat about symptoms, diseases, treatments and medication. Another social network, Daily Strength, provides patient-to-patient support groups, including a forum where patients can actually provide informal feedback on the efficacy of Rx medications. 

Healthcare marketers recognize the increase in consumer conversations related to diagnoses, treatments and other topics that are surfacing in online social networks, on search engines and at customer contact centers. So, how can we best measure these conversations to gain insight for my communication programs?

New forms of consumer research
Traditionally, agencies conduct interviews or focus groups, where people are asked well-crafted questions in a controlled environment. These research projects aren't sufficient for capturing consumer conversations as they naturally occur. 

To supplement traditional market research, one alternative is to listen via a sophisticated listening platform which collects and analyzes online conversations for a particular topic from search engines, social media sites and customer call centers. That strategy can be applied to many therapeutic categories, including patient conversations on hypertension. As a result you can uncover a variety of insights that drive patient communication strategies.

To unlock the real value of sophisticated listening platforms, it's critical that marketers understand that it's more than reading some blogs and analyzing search trends. And no amount of powerful software alone will guarantee success. The right measurement tools are required. Listening—truly listening—to your consumer is an ongoing process that demands planning and a rigorous execution.

The first step is to define your business and marketing objective. Why do you need this information? What don't we know and wish to uncover? There are different ways of collecting and organizing data and the business objective will help define the best strategy. 

Sample critical business and marketing questions might include:
  • What is the consumer perception of the brand in the marketplace, especially. relative to our key competitors?
  • What effect does social media, e.g., referrals, recommends, bashing, have on the brand and on sales?

Using appropriate metrics
At this point, you'll feel that you are starting to get into consumers mind, hopes and fears. But this is only the first step. It's important to organize and structure the data. It's critical to develop a very robust topic taxonomy. This taxonomy will form the structure of the data within the database. The topic taxonomy is developed iteratively by the social media analyst/researcher as they read, capture and categorize the conversations. Conversations are identified and coded for broad themes as well as sub-topics within these themes. 

With this taxonomy in hand, the unfiltered language of the customer can be captured, coded and analyzed. That analysis provides a new lens into insights that can inform the full range of evolving marketing strategies: from message development, audience segmentation, channel strategies and media planning. Ideally this analysis should be ongoing so you can track evolution over time. 

The listening platform approach is one way to monitor search requests and online conversations related to hypertension (high blood pressure). Hypertension is a chronic, asymptomatic condition that is skewed toward older patients (55 and older), yet can also be present in younger patients for genetic reasons. There is a high correlation of hypertension with obesity, smoking and alcohol use. The business questions that were studied included:
  • How do patients feel when they are first diagnosed with hypertension? What information do they need?
  • What kind of solutions are hypertensive patients looking for?
  • What are the barriers to patients staying adherent to their hypertension prescription medication?
First we examine search terms, as measured from a range of keyword analysis tools. We examined the top 50 search keyword phrases, based on estimated average monthly search volume. Once you get beyond the definitional words “hypertension” and “high blood pressure” most of the next 50 keyword phrases fall into four main categories: symptoms, causes, treatments/medications/remedy/cure and treatments/general/alternatives. Two insights arise: 
  1. How many people are searching for signs and symptoms of hypertension, which is asymptomatic?
  2. The variety of treatments to hypertension that people search for including medication, diet, and exercise. 
Turning to the social media, by examining the most frequent words and phrases in online posts brought us to a topic taxonomy.

If one examines the most frequent sources of hypertension posts, one sees they fall into three main categories: cardiology-specific; general medicine; and other demographic/business. 

On further analysis, a new topic taxonomy for the hypertension category emerges. 

Here, three big themes of conversations surfaced: treatment styles, barriers to adherence and information seeking. Now we have rich insights on which to develop a new CRM program throughout the patient's lifecycle. 

On treating with natural alternatives besides Rx
It's important to read through actual conversation transcripts. The posts below reveal a great deal about the range of issues: uncertainty of hypertension's importance, searches for natural cures and cost concerns.

“I have high blood pressure, and the medicine makes me sick, so I'm looking for some herbs that might do the trick, anything?”

“My wife suffers from high blood pressure. What are the possible complications that are so dangerous? Why is it important to keep high blood pressure under balance?”

“Does anyone know of a natural cure for high blood pressure without prescriptions?”

“My dad has high blood pressure and we'd like to start using products that have no salt/sodium to add to cooking for adding taste.”

“How can one lower their blood pressure naturally without prescription drugs? My dad has high blood pressure and was prescribed some medication to lower it. He has to keep taking it for as long as his doctor tells him it's ok to stop but his medication is pretty expensive and sometimes he can't afford it so he just stops taking it. I worry that something might happen when he does this.”

So, what does it all mean? 
The listening platform program methodology can help clients improve their communications in the following ways:
  • You can hear directly from the patients in their terms.
  • Meet their unmet patient needs! This is critical point in establishing where next to put your efforts. 
  • Addressing reasons why patients are non-compliant, lapse or switch. 
  • Reinforcing product attributes held valuable by patients. 
Ira Haimowitz is group director of insights and optimization and Claudia Obata is director, digital strategy, both at Wunderman NY
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