Findings from a recent study reported in The Oncologist last year revealed that, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, cancer patients disengaged from formal healthcare settings, turning to social media for support and to voice their concerns. This behaviour has certainly not only been exhibited by cancer patients; there have been many reports in the media of disruptions to traditional means of patient support throughout the pandemic and consequently, social media has become a valuable tool for patients suffering from a wide variety of conditions.
Using social media listening tools, researchers at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, were able to identify the most frequent topics of online conversation had by cancer patients during the pandemic, as well as the overall sentiment of these conversations, and how this changed over time.
The report concluded that even as lockdown measures start to ease (and access to formal healthcare settings starts to improve), social media will remain an important platform for patients moving forward.
For me, this study demonstrated the importance of social media to pharma for two key reasons:
In this article, I am going to explore these areas further and discuss how market research can optimise the value of social media marketing to pharma and its stakeholders.
Social media listening
Social media listening is the means of gathering and analysing publically available content from social media platforms, chat forums, blogs etc. on a given topic, in order to guide strategy for the end-user.
Findings from The Oncologist
Researchers at The Oncologist used a validated artificial intelligence framework called PRIME (Patient‐Reported Information Multidimensional Exploration) to conduct a comprehensive real-time analysis of 2 online data sets - 2,469,822 tweets and 21,800 online conversations had by cancer patients during the first wave of the pandemic (from 1st February 2020 – 30th April 2020).
Analysis of the tweets and online conversations had by cancer patients during this time period identified that content primarily related to concerns around delayed diagnosis, cancelled appointments, missed treatments and weakened immunity; concerns around mental health were also expressed.
In terms of sentiment, the analysis identified that the content of the tweets and conversations was typically negative, with fear being the predominant emotion expressed; however occasional spikes of positivity in conversation were observed, that correlated to press releases about the development of COVID-19 treatments.
Positive sentiment dropped significantly when the pandemic was formally declared by the world health organisation (WHO) on the 11th March 2020; at this time there was also a 3-fold increase in the number of tweets generated by cancer patients.
The findings from this study clearly demonstrate the increased importance of social media as a means of support for patients throughout the pandemic, and clearly highlight the key ‘pain points’ felt by patients, where further support (from healthcare professionals and Pharma) is required.
Social media platform development
The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) published an article in 2018 outlining the key benefits (and drawbacks) of social media platforms for cancer patients. It concluded that social media touch-points can benefit patients by providing an avenue for patient engagement and empowerment, increasing psychosocial and informational support, strengthening patient – physician relationships and relaying opportunities for clinical and research study participation.
However it did also highlight a number of areas of concern relating to misinformation, overwhelming volumes of information, potential violations of privacy, and potential exposure of users to financial exploitation.
Clearly there is opportunity for pharma to engage (and support patients) using social media platforms; but to be a valued tool, such platforms need to harness the benefits and mitigate the potential drawbacks for the user.
A number of Pharma companies are in the process of developing social media platforms to engage with, and better support their target customers; others have already launched such platforms.
Market research is often a fundamental component of the development process to ensure that the platforms developed meet the needs of target customers.
To support the development of their social media strategy, the client first needed to understand the extent to which their target customers were already engaged with social media, and the types of content that were having the most positive impact (and how this content was being delivered).
This approach enabled us to provide our client with clear guidance on the types of content they should develop (and frequency and format in which they should deliver it) to engage their target audience with their social media platform.
Additional phases of market research may be required depending on the stage of development of the social media platform. For example, if the platform is in early stages of development, content optimisation may be required; if the platform is in later stages of development, or has already launched, user experience may need to be understood.
Once social media platforms are live, research is often required to better understand the needs and behaviours of those customers who actually engage with the platform, specifically with regards to the social media offering provided, to ensure that customers remain engaged.
By partnering with social media monitoring experts we’re able to monitor our client’s platforms and provide guidance around how platforms can be enhanced to better meet customer needs and ensure a good reputation.
Social media has changed the way in which patients interact with individuals as well as companies. The benefits of social media touch-points for patients are already well established, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only further emphasised and accelerated the adoption of these channels within healthcare.
Many Pharma companies already recognise the importance of social media, and are investing in market research to both enhance their knowledge of the patient experience and support the development of social media platforms.
If you’re looking to enhance your social media offering, or to use social media as a means to better understand your target patient customer, please contact Danielle Christmas at Research Partnership for further information.