From chaos to calm: how to make sense of social media
What do you know about chaos theory?
Chaos theory was recently described to me at a rudimentary level as being about the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. This got me thinking about social media and how to makes sense of what is being said online.
Did you know that on average around 6,000 tweets are posted every second? That’s 350,000 tweets a minute, 500 million tweets a day and 200 billion tweets a year – and that’s just one form of social media.
It’s fair to say that the way we communicate has been transformed by online interaction. We post, blog, tweet, “like”, “pin” and talk through online and social media mechanisms, all of which has an impact on commerce and industry today. They say “a brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is – it is what consumers tell each other it is” (Scott Cook co-founder Intuit) and this causes problems for marketers, who for so long have been used to controlling the conversation with their consumers. Social media has changed this dynamic.
What does this mean for pharma?
Like any other industry, its customers are talking. Payers, patients and physicians all routinely use social media to share opinions and discuss treatments. We operate in the era of the “digitally native doctor” and the inquisitive, health conscious patient. However, many big pharma companies have been wary of social media, constrained as they are within a heavily regulated environment and concerned with issues around compliance. But if you truly want to be customer centric you do need to be in dialogue with your customers - and social media can allow that.
Which brings me back to chaos theory. How can pharma generate useful insights from the endless supply of tweets, blog posts and data that social media generates?
How can we create insight from this chaos?
I want to look at a few ways social media can be leveraged most effectively for pharma and what market research can do to help in that pursuit.
I’ve read many articles that pose similar questions and which seem to suggest that pharma must simply “listen” to its customers. Since the popularity of social media has grown we’ve seen companies and agencies developing listening technologies to leverage the conversations that are ongoing on social media. Improvements in machine learning and sentiment analysis algorithms have brought us to the point where quantifying the vastness of social media is a possibility. However, is listening alone enough?
Firstly, critics of social media listening will tell you that the problem is scale. Social media creates a lot of “noise”. It creates “chaos” for researchers and marketers to analyze and understand. It is unstructured and because of the open nature of the content generation, it’s difficult to answer specific questions in adequate detail. You may be able to understand some of the “what” people are talking about without knowing “why”. The result is that all too often listening reports end up with endless counts of brand or product mentions, without the means to understand the implications.
So what can we do to overcome these obstacles?
Well, there are specific examples of where listening techniques can capitalize on its scale. For example, social media has extended the life of a medical conference, offering a platform for stakeholders to engage pre and post-conference, as well as live blogging throughout. As the content is anchored towards the conference, researchers are able to generate insight and understand reactions to specific trial data and new product information as and when it becomes available to them.
In an era where digital product launches and awareness campaigns are becoming more common, digital listening allows us to measure the effectiveness of these initiatives and benchmark the success against that of other brands. Boehringer Ingelheim capitalized on this idea and its blog “Not just one disease”, which aimed to create a dialogue around ASCO 2014, picked up an award for Excellence in Digital Communications at the 2015 Communique Awards recently.
Other listening techniques allow us to understand an entire audience by segmenting them based on social connections, brand and product discussions. Such methodologies have led to the coining of the term “digital opinion leaders”. Listening platforms enable us to understand these new ecosystems. As pharma increasingly engages in digital channels, listening methodologies will allow them to identify their target audience and target messaging accordingly.
Beyond stakeholder identification, listening platforms can be used for engagement purposes. This is of particular value when trying to hear the voice of the patient who, along with advocacy groups, have taken to social media to discuss and share opinions about their condition, treatments and management. We can use crowdsourcing techniques to engage the most active patients. Crowdsourcing can be used to drive big pharma’s target audience or “digital opinion leaders” from open-source platforms to closed communities. In a moderated environment people are able to engage and share their experiences, allowing the researcher to control the conversation and leverage the access they have to a previously hard to reach audience. This approach allows pharma to better understand the concerns and experiences of customers that they might not have been able to hear from through traditional market research recruitment methods.
In conclusion, I feel one of the greatest opportunities social media offers to pharma is also one of its greatest problems – its scale. It’s unstructured and in truth, chaotic! However, by recognizing and understanding the chaotic nature of this new ecosystem we can generate fresh insights and as a market researcher, I am keen to embrace this opportunity. Using some of the techniques discussed in this article, I hope we can cut out the noise and amplify the voice of the customer in an unbiased research environment. The chaotic nature of social media may generate surprises but also provide answers to questions brand teams may not have even thought to ask. At a time when patients, physicians, payers and others are increasingly turning to digital channels to communicate, it should naturally follow that market researchers explore new ways of engaging with them in this environment.
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