Pharma companies can’t ignore social listening anymore

Jyoti Bhowmick, Product Manager, Medsocial, gives an insight on how pharma companies can understand consumer sentiments better with the help of online conversations

Listening is the first step towards effective communication. Healthcare companies can feel the pulse of their consumers by monitoring and analysing social media conversations. The insights generated from online conversations between healthcare professionals, patients, and caregivers, can help these companies to understand their consumer interests better.

Study the initial touchpoints

An effective approach to social listening for pharmaceutical companies begins by analysing the initial touchpoints of patients’ online journeys, i.e., to identify what they are searching online. According to The Telegraph, Google receives more than a billion health-related questions each day. This implies that more and more people are seeking medical advice online with millennials leading the brigade. A study conducted by Price Water Coopers states that about 80 per cent of millennials are likely to share health information on social media.

These initial touchpoints then lead people to various web forums, social platforms , and specialised health information websites. Talkwalker found out that specialised support forums and blogs focussing on specific diseases are where you find deeper patient insights and prolonged discussions on medications or symptoms. Particularly, patients of a specific chronic disease search for specialised forums such as the Voice of Cancer Patients to post their queries and get replies from an expert or an older patient.

As more and more people seek health-related information online, their digital footprint also expands. Healthcare companies can tap into the insights generated by consumer interactions on social media, to evaluate their brand health, customer experience, sentiment research, and competitive benchmarking.

However, healthcare brands often miss out on these valuable insights and fail to identify the opportunities by not listening to the concerns of their consumers. A Sprout Social report states, “Healthcare brands end up ignoring more than 45 per cent of messages on social media that require a response. With an average response rate of mere 8.6 per cent, healthcare brands take more than 10 hours to respond to communication enabled through social channels”. The report also highlights that people expect brands to respond within four hours. Delayed responses cause most people to disengage with the brand and chances are they might even switch to a competitor.

What is holding pharma back?

Pharma companies first need to accept the importance of social listening in order to leverage its benefits. According to industry experts, brands don’t know where to fit in social listening in their organisational structure, and they fear that would digress from the proven methods of the past. There is a lack of ownership about it, and brands aren’t sure if the purview of social media monitoring falls under R&D or marketing.

Another factor that hinders the adoption of social listening is compliance. Pharma brands fear legal risks that could arise due to adverse event reporting (AER). According to a whitepaper by Brandwatch titled ‘Social Media Listening for Pharmaceutical Companies’, companies fear that social healthcare conversations will increase adverse drug experience reporting and will drag them into costly lawsuits. Lack of clear regulations and guidelines by the FDA further augments their fear about AER identified on social platforms.

FDA guidelines require pharma companies to identify the identifiable reporter, identifiable patient, suspect drug or biological product, and the specific adverse experience before filing an AER report. However, on social media platforms, these reports often lack the details required for the proper AER evaluation. A research study that analysed more than 257,000 social media posts for 224 pharma brands over 30 days found that only 0.3 per cent posts contained an AE experience. Another report suggests an average of 2 AE reports per week on analysing 24 most frequently used diabetes drug brands. These numbers indicate the opportunities that are available for pharma brands far outweigh AE’s negatives.

Social listening allows brands to be aware of adverse events and formulate responsible action steps. Reporting adverse events is necessary because it has a significant impact on patient morbidity and mortality. Through social listening, healthcare companies can identify these points along the patients’ journey and address them even before they escalate.

Benefits of social media listening

Despite the apprehensions, pharma companies are slowly adopting social media to develop their consumer-centric market strategies. Brands are now leveraging social media listening tools to enhance sales and marketing initiatives, understand issues before they escalate, identify unmet patient needs, pick up initial trends for disease discovery, and gather product feedback.

Here are a few benefits that pharma and healthcare brands can realise by social media listening:

  • Identify drug switchovers: Social listening provides an opportunity for pharma brands to track conversations about drug switches. This allows brands to dive deeper and analyse the reasons that lead to such switchovers. For example, Pfizer was able to identify that 27 per cent patient population switched over from Afinitor to their drug Ibrance through listening.
Graph 1 – Social conversation trends observed among brands of glucose monitoring devices
  • Competitor analysis: Through listening, companies can monitor their share of voice, which could be used as a measure of reach for identifying who is generating the most mentions among industry peers. For example, Medsocial’s Glucose Monitoring Devices Report revealed the conversation trends between four major brands—Dexcom, Medtronic, Abbott, and Roche. These trends provide a picture of a brand’s exposure online and tell how much people are talking about the competitors.
  • Sentiments about drug effectiveness: Using social listening to generate sentiment analysis gives brands a chance to find the leading indicators that impact their sales and acceptability of their products. For example, sentiment analysis of PARP inhibitors, a new class of oncology drugs, revealed that 76 per cent of patients were positive, 16 per cent were negative, and 8 per cent of users were neutral about their use of PARP inhibitors. These insights tell how the drug was received by patients, but there is a need to identify the lead indicators that highlight the reasons behind those sentiments. To analyse the emotions behind the sentiments, brands need to monitor consumer perceptions at a granular level.
  • For example, the below graph shows the results of the sentiment analysis conducted by Medsocial for a glucose monitoring device.

Graph 2 – Emotional analysis of social media trends

Graph 1 from the Medsocial’s report shows the breakdown of sentiments, while graph 2 shows the emotional analysis. Through this detailed emotional analysis, brands can easily demarcate the areas of intervention that would be otherwise difficult to identify by a mere analysis of the sentiment. In this case, the brand could identify that 77 per cent of the negative responses were generated due to the problems with the device and not due to poor customer service. Social listening allows brands to decipher granular emotions, which could be key contributors to the success or failure of the product.

  • Improve ROI by using online surveys: Social listening helps brands improve their return on investment by analysing market trends and focus on cost-reducing strategies. Through social listening, brands can develop better engagement strategies that make use of targeted online surveys, quizzes, etc., which are highly cost-effective ways of generating quality feedback. Brands can target consumers not just based on their demographics, but also based on their behaviour and interests. This allows for better respondent selection. For example, Bayer uses Instagram to conduct market surveys, giving it a chance to cut down on the costs of surveying.
  • Track disease outbreaks: More than 60 per cent of initial disease outbreak reports come from informal sources such as online discussion groups and electronic media, says the WHO. Social media provides an edge in terms of speed when compared to traditional disease surveillance methods. By analysing social interactions, companies can spot new trends and data anomalies, which can help in faster detection of diseases. For example, HealthMap, a software mining software, was able to provide an alert for a mystery haemorrhagic fever nine days before the WHO announced the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
  • By tracking these disease outbreaks, healthcare and pharma companies can better align their sales and marketing initiatives. For example, by having prior information about a flu outbreak in certain demography, healthcare brands can plan outreach for supplies and support.

Healthcare companies can also use social media listening to:

Evaluate the effectiveness of media campaigns

Identify influencers

Combat misinformation

Track how patients are managing their diseases

Uncover new product ideas

Address the queries and concerns of their customers


In the past, terms such as liking, following, tagging, sharing, upvote, etc., would have meant different things to different people. In today’s social media era, they offer valuable insights to businesses that could lead to quality customer care, loyal customers, higher revenues, and innovative products. Social listening allows pharma and healthcare companies to effectively integrate information from social media conversations and build value for their customers. It is a tool that enables brands to get feedback straight from the source.

The bottom line is by social listening, healthcare companies can identify problems of patients, stop the spread of misinformation, develop better-targeted marketing messages, and improve product offerings. This can eventually work as a guide to enhance products and create new products.

HealthcareJyoti BhowmickMedsocialonlinepharmasocial media
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