Pharma marketing research and Web 2.0

Andrew Tolve investigates the value of the Internet as a pharma marketing research medium

The mass emergence of online patient and physician communities has fundamentally altered the market research landscape. Granted, traditional methods of market research like in-person interviews, focus groups, and surveys are still valid, but no longer are they the only way to gain insights into patient and physician wants, needs, frustrations, and habits.

Want to know what patients don’t like about a competitor’s brand? Just find a patient social community online and see what its members are griping about. Want to figure out what would make physicians loyal to a new drug? Set up an alert and track their chatter.

“We need to start understanding the value of the Internet as a research medium,” says Brian Mondry, vice president of integrated strategies and digital solutions at Kantar Health. “People are talking to people about diseases, drugs and therapies. With the right Internet-based technologies, this conversation can generate powerful insights for the offline world.”

Of course, pharma is already attuned to the rise of social media and its impact on patients and physicians. However, Mondry contends that most pharma companies today are primarily concerned in the quantitative aspect of the Web. They want to know how much people are talking about their brands and what that indicates about brand voice and brand share. With that, they can then zero in on where the majority of conversation is and target those areas with online media.

This approach overlooks the qualitative value of online communities, says Mondry. “Patients and physicians aren’t just talking about brands,” says Mondry. “They’re talking about unmet patient needs, access to drugs, and other big topics that can help clients determine what pipeline drugs should be and how they should position them once they come to market.” (For more on online patient communities, see Special report: Pharma and social media.)

Qualitative data

When patients or physicians participate in focus groups, they are naturally aware of their participation. That is, they know they’re sitting in a room at a table often behind a one-way mirror, and they know that they’re being paid to be there. No matter the candor with which they answer questions, therefore, it’s hard to argue that a focus group is a completely native environment. Indeed, psychologists generally concur that setting, context, and the presence of authority exert profound influences on behavior and notions of truth telling.

Online communities by contrast form organically and provide participants a forum to contribute information in the absence of judgment or official research. Rather, people are there to learn from each other, share experiences, blow off steam, and form bonds. “This type of communication is raw and unbiased,” says Mondry. “When it comes to qualitative data, this is the most authentic you’re going to get.”

If companies want to steer online conversation toward specific talking points and glean insights about particular topics, they can form online research communities with virtual moderators. Those who join the communities are incentivized, but Mondry believes that these communities are still more natural than offline groups.

For one, online communities have the benefit of time. Often their conversations unfold over the course of weeks or months or even a year, which lends them more time to build comfort and probe their feelings on an array of topics. “If you have more time to think about and engage with the issues, you get a lot more in-depth feedback,” says Mondry. “Discussion also tends to be iterative, which means people can add on and lead the conversation in unexpected directions.”

Secondly, talking about disease and drugs is a sensitive matter, and privacy is often paramount for a candid, open conversation. If participants are in the comfort of their own homes participating when they feel like it, they may be more likely to share their feelings.

Oftentimes moderators can recede into the background overtime, and patients begin talking to patients just like in open social media platforms. “Members become more immersed, and people who may be intimidated or uncomfortable in focus groups or interviews have the chance to contribute more freely,” says Mondry.

Social media monitoring

Despite the promise of social media monitoring and controlled online forums, pharma has been reluctant to integrate Web 2.0 into its market research practices. The lack of FDA oversight on pharma’s relationship with social media helps color the conversation, with a particular concern focusing on adverse event reporting. After all, it’s unclear what pharma is or is not obligated to do if it comes across a report of an adverse event in a social media forum. (For more on adverse event reporting, see Adherence Arena: Overcoming the fear of adverse events.)

“Research goes to show that a fraction of one percent of social media conversations mention adverse events or off label usage,” Mondry reminds, but nonetheless it frames the debate.

A second concern specifically directed at social media monitoring is that people on the Web are by and large anonymous. If researchers don’t know who they are, it’s hard to guarantee that they’re representative of the overall patient population.

In some respects, these concerns are warranted. Kantar Health has conducted research that indicates that control groups are often less gung ho about a concept than what Mondry calls “the vocal minority” would suggest online. As with politics, those that are most passionate and sometimes radical can easily frame a debate online, even if they are not representative of the moderate majority.

“Sometimes with social media monitoring we end up hearing the vocal minority, and it’s very important that you don’t devise an entire strategy around an extreme,” says Mondry.

Mixing methodologies

Lack of FDA regulation, anonymity, and the vocal minority shouldn’t deter companies from probing the Web for market research insights. Rather, it’s an argument for mixing methodologies. Will straight up social media monitoring provide a full overview of the market and comprehensive insights into all the different issues that will determine a brand and its market placement? Probably not.

But social media monitoring is still valuable. A vocal minority may dominate conversation, but more moderate patients and physicians, even if they’re not active contributors, still go to communities and use them as sources of information and networking. “It’s important for clients to understand what potential patients are being exposed to independent of companies’ paid advertising and the messages they control,” says Mondry.

Additionallysome of the conversation is moderate, especially that which relates to cost, which can be valuable for pricing insights. “Middle of the road comments and conversations around cost can be very insightful,” says Mondry.

But he’s quick to remind that it’s equally important to combine social media monitoring with other forms of market research. “When you’re talking about major business decisions during drug development, you never pursue a standalone methodology,” he contends.

In-person interviews and focus groups can supply valuable insights, as can controlled online communities. “In the end,” he says, “it’s about integrating insights from each method with other datasets until you have a complete grasp on the situation.”

For more on pharma and Web 2.0 marketing, join the sector's other key players at SFE USA on June 12-14 in Somerset, NJ and 6th Annual Sales & Marketing Excellence Latam Congress on June 28-29 in Miami.

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