While working in social and digital media, we continually espouse the value of social listening as a key input into making decisions as to whether your company should enter social media and how it should engage patients.

Other industries use social listening to identify how customers talk about products and industries as a whole, to identify trends that might not be apparent to mainstream consumers yet and to find influencers who can help amplify a product’s message to a whole new audience. There are many use cases for industries ranging from retail to travel to consumer packaged goods as well as for regulated industries like banking and financial services.

With the continued success in these industries (regulated or not), the question persists as to why pharma companies are not getting the value out of the initiatives they expected. I propose that social listening may not be delivering total value due to changes in how data is being created and identified, how marketers are interpreting data and how they are following up on what they have learned.

Social Data Creation and Identification

Social listening relies on analyzing existing conversations in public forums by utilizing specific keywords or phrases. The technology utilizes a mixture of advanced searching techniques as well as natural language processing to identify key conversations around diseases and treatments. There are two vulnerabilities here:

1. All patients are not yet comfortable sharing their personal health information online. A significant number of patients are perfectly happy to share their information either anonymously or publicly. However, the number of participants will increase. The next generation of patients has a significantly different perspective on privacy and their online activity will reflect that in in-depth personal patient journeys and stories. We are already seeing these types of posts today and the amount of information being created and shared continues to increase.

2. Marketers are looking for specific words that they expect to see. These words are not necessarily the words that patients are using, though. Patients are more likely to use different and more common words to describe their symptoms even after diagnosis.

Marketing Interpretation

Whether you are handling your social listening all by yourself or you’ve hired a world-class team (internal or external) to handle the heavy lifting, ultimately, people are looking at massive amounts of unstructured data and trying to make sense of it. Some programs turn unstructured into structured data by using text-based analytics and clustering while other programs create text visualizations that bring the commonest keywords to the surface. In other industries, taking some of these text-based shortcuts can be essential for sorting positive and negative mentions of brands and experiences.

Unfortunately, this process can be flawed for pharma marketers. It’s important to remember that there are two distinct experiences that patients have with medicines: the treatment experience (that is, how they responded to treatment) and the surrounding experience (that is, doctor visit, pharmacy visit, insurance discussions). These two experiences must be separated before being analyzed so that marketers can drill down into the true issues at hand, which can then be addressed.

Once the experiences have been isolated, marketers need to spend time getting into the actual posts and seeing what is being written—not summaries, not word clouds, not someone else’s analysis. In order to truly understand what people are saying and how, it is imperative that you spend time getting into the posts in order to understand the issues that patients really have.

The common response I get is, “How will I know if something is truly an issue versus just the ‘vocal majority’ who seem to mention these issues in forums?” My response is that it doesn’t matter how many people it is affecting, what matters is that the “vocal majority” is talking about it and if a new patient goes online to research your brand, that is exactly what they are going to see. Do not assume that patients understand that this opinion may only be held by a few people. If online readers see that others are having problems with your medicines, then they will expect to have similar problems.

Actionable Marketing

So now what? If a patient doesn’t respond to medication, that’s important to know. But can we do anything about it? No amount of commenting and content is going to make a patient respond to treatment. However, by gaining insight into the breakpoints along the patient journey with your medication, you should be able to develop programs or fix current underperforming aspects of your value chain. If the problem starts in the doctor’s office, then that is valuable information that your HCPs should be aware of since they probably don’t realize there is an issue. If there are continued issues with prescription fills or reimbursements, then bring that evidence to the team members responsible and try to convince by showing them exactly what is being said.

When I get asked what people should do, I remind them that they are the stewards of the patient’s voice. You are holding the unfiltered, pure thoughts of your patients: Get those insights (not the word clouds or text analytics, but actual verbatims, once they are cleared with your legal and compliance counterparts) into the hands of the managers and stakeholders responsible for those issues.

Actionable doesn’t mean you have to respond to people within social media to let them know the issue is being fixed. Actionable marketing should mean addressing issues on your end and being the patient’s champion within your organization. If you fix those issues, other patients will come to your defense in the future or provide their own stories of how their experience differed from those of initial posters.

The biggest complaint we hear about social listening is that everything is not immediately actionable. This is true if you expected actions to be limited to online advertising or social responses.

Our Responsibility

It is our responsibility as social listening champions to not be limited to such a narrow scope. Take advantage of having this treasure trove of data and spread the word throughout your company. Create graphics, hold lunch-and-learns and work hard to get everyone in your company to understand what you can learn from social listening—you’ll know you’re successful when inquisitive minds throughout the company begin asking you the question, “Can we find out what patients are saying about X online?”

Don’t limit yourself to thinking you can only take action within online forums. Broaden your scope to see how much change you can effect so that future online users will be inspired to post positive experiences about your brands online.

Greg Cohen is associate director of global strategic marketing and multichannel engagement lead for UCB.

For more on how pharma can go from social listening to engagement, attend MM&M’s Leadership Exchange