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Article: The importance of social media for Pharma

Danielle Christmas, April 2021

Social media imageFindings 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:

  1. The value of mining social media-generated content to gain a more complete understanding of the patient experience, and insight into further patient support required
  2. The ever-increasing importance of providing customers with an online, social touch-point, where their voice can be heard, and they can engage with others

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 (PatientReported 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.

Case study
At Research Partnership, we partner with specialists in social media analysis, enabling us to mine online content relating to specific conditions or brands etc. in order to provide our clients with actionable intelligence around online conversations being had that can support strategic decisions.
We recently completed a project aimed at understanding the impact of a long-term skin condition on the lives of patients.

Our client wanted to explore the journey that patients go through in order to identify opportunities to improve the patient experience, and inform the brand strategy for their product going forwards.

To address this objective, we conducted an initial phase of exploratory research using social media listening to gain an uncontaminated understanding of the online conversation being had by patients (and their caregivers) living with this skin condition.

By partnering with a social media specialist, we were able to harvest more than 100,000 online / social media references related to the condition.

By taking a sample of this data, coding and filtering it into different topics and subtopics, we were able to identify:

article pic

The findings from this exploratory phase of research were then used to inform the design of a second, qualitative phase of research with patients, caregivers and physicians, aimed at validating and uncovering further insights into the patient journey.

By combining the data from both phases of the research, we were able to map the patient journey and identify key leverage points for our client to improve it. We identified specific knowledge gaps, information needs and potential solutions to current challenges, providing our client with in-depth & rich insight that informed the brand strategy for their product.


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.

Case study
Research Partnership recently worked with a client who recognised the significant opportunity to embrace social media as part of their marketing approach.

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).

Social media listening was used to understand the platforms that the target audience were already engaging with, the topics of conversation being had (e.g. sharing information, sharing news, seeking advice, sharing opinions etc.), and how this varied over time Case study pic

The behavioral analysis element focussed on monitoring 2 of the key social media platforms within the therapy area, to identify the type of content shared, when it’s shared (e.g. day of week, time of day etc.), frequency, and audience engagement (e.g. likes, comments, re-shares etc.)


Based on the specific needs of the project, we used a mixed methodology approach that used an element of social media listening and behavioral analysis.

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.

Conclusions
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.

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