Photo credit: Duncan Kendall

Digital safety requirements are an oft-cited reason why pharma companies have steered clear of social media. As firms sift through patient chatter on blogs and forums, applicable laws for reporting medication side effects can seem like a pharmacovigilance nightmare.

“When I did this all by hand… there were some days I was reporting upward of 80 to 90 adverse events in the course of my social-listening process,” recalled Greg Cohen, associate director, global strategic marketing (multichannel) at UCB.

To be sure, 80 or 90 in a single day was “abnormal,” added Cohen, “but you’re going to find things as you go through, and the intention we’ve taken is not to avoid adverse events but to rather embrace them as a point of understanding the landscape and getting insight from patients.”

Social listening employs various algorithms and indexes to crawl news sites, Facebook, Twitter and more, Cohen explained during his keynote address at last week’s MM&M Leadership Exchange event in Philadelphia, titled “Social Listening in Pharma: From Intel to Action,” sponsored by IMS Health.

UCB has been listening for several years. In addition to building its own communities—like the multifaceted Epilepsy Advocate program which started on Facebook and which now has nearly 200,000 followers—UCB monitors what patients are saying outside of its proprietary communities as a way to inform activities in other spaces, and also engages where appropriate.

The depth of its conversation analysis makes the Brussels-based firm—which markets products for epilepsy, Crohn’s and Parkinson’s disease—somewhat of an outlier. The percentage of pharma brand managers actually even thinking about social engagement hovers at about 8% globally. Among the rest, about half are merely listening on social, and half are doing nothing as a company, according to stats cited by Siva Nadarajah, general manger, big data and compliance, IMS Health.

Sifting through the data, much of which is spam, to find what’s helpful, and following applicable safety laws, are daunting tasks, but worth the effort, Cohen said. Listening, for instance, has grown more sophisticated since the days when search was done simply through keywords. Natural language processing, a feature of many newer tools, can determine the context of a comment and assign a sentiment, positive or negative.

Social has also become a very visual medium, something which listening also takes into account. As use of images and video by patients, and hashtags to share them, becomes more common, one of the common “push-backs” is: how do I know a given group of images isn’t the vocal minority? 

“My push-back is, ‘Now, so what?’ This is now overshadowing the work you’ve done online,” said Cohen. “The vocal minority now becomes the published majority, and that becomes the experience that everyone attaches themselves to….Putting your head in the sand and ignoring these people is the wrong way to think about how people are experiencing your brand or your content.”

An audience member at the event asked Cohen about another big fear: lack of demonstrable ROI, at least by the classic definition. “You’re asking the wrong question,” he parried. “People who want to see dollars and cents come out of an unbranded social media community, you won’t see it.

“I’ll be the first to tell you I can’t prove we drive sales or derive revenue because that’s not the purpose of those communities,” Cohen said. But, “I can drive it back to really deep insights. I can drive it to really cool programs that we’re going to be able to do in the short term as well as some longer term.”

Demographic and psychographic insights drawn from Facebook, for instance, allow the marketer to build a better profile of its audience and how they engage. Besides a high population of rural parents, “We have a lot of desktop engagement on Facebook and over-index on Android,” he said.

In terms of programs, he cited the firm’s Everyday RA campaign, which encouraged patients with the disease to share their story. “Instead of just listening, we wanted them to feel heard.” For the first 220 responses with custom pictures and stories, UCB execs recorded a personalized thank-you video for those people. 

UCB has also started a response program through UCB Cares, its new customer service center which it organized based on a survey of how patients want to be dealt with by pharma companies.  “If people tweet that they have problems with a med, we are now responding to them and directing them to our UCB Cares associate,” he said.

Moreover, this data can help “all along the value chain, whether it’s from a research and discovery standpoint, understanding patient demographics and who they are, as well as understanding geography, language—all these pieces that are helpful in developing marketing plans and strategic planning.”

And social media isn’t all fuzzy metrics. Cohen points out that in the six months since the launch of UCB Cares, the firm’s customer satisfaction rating improved from 73.25% to 93.5%. Since then, it’s seen three rolling quarters of near 100% satisfaction rates and conducted a more in-depth follow-up survey.

Are there limits to where pharma can and should listen in? Although technology allows companies to listen in on some private networks, this is where UCB draws the line.

“We don’t engage on the private forums. “We just listen,” Cohen said. “To me it would feel pretty intrusive. Patients don’t want to feel that pharma is showing up in those places.”

That said, he believes notions of patient privacy are changing: “It’s shifting more to a, ‘If I share this, maybe someone else will benefit, too.’ … That is a very generational shift. You’ll start to see people are less and less concerned about privacy and more concerned about finding the right information.”

Following Cohen’s keynote, he and several other marketers sat down to debate some of these issues in a closed-door roundtable. MM&M will produce an Uncut ebook of their discussion.