Pharma Marketing USA

Nov 9, 2021 - Nov 11, 2021, Digital Conference, Exhibition & Networking

Create unprecedented customer value. Forge new data insights and digital standards.

Fixing the broken patient search experience

There’s opportunity as well as danger in the billion healthcare searches made every day. Why isn’t pharma tuning in?



Try the following exercise: Google ‘My cancer story rocks’ and read about how dog worming medicine is being enthusiastically discussed on YouTube and Facebook as a cancer cure. 
 
Now imagine what else might be popping up in the billion daily healthcare search engine results, which is the first place most people turn the moment they experience symptoms, long before they contact their doctor.
 
The haphazard nature of many searches may prevent patients seeking the right care, induce them to embrace quackery or reject the very medicines which offer the best treatment. “The results patients are getting are woeful,” says Julia Walsh CEO, of medical search listening business Brand Medicine International.
 
It’s not overstating things to say that the patient search experience is broken and everyone is the loser as a result. But this is not just a patient safety issue. It is also a massive missed opportunity for pharma. 
 
This, after all, is the richest data set ever collected on the human psyche, as data scientist and author of Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, Seth Stephens‑Davidowitz puts it.
 
What is pharma doing with this mine of potential insights?
 
‘Nothing’ is the likely answer. According to Walsh, there is so far very little pharma take up of this powerful tool for cultivating a far deeper understanding of patients and changing outcomes for the better.  “We are not listening to the questions people are asking and so we are not creating patient responsive content.”
 
Exploring search by examining the long-form questions real patients ask has vast commercial potential, says Walsh. “There are 70,000 health-related questions every minute. That’s a massive data set,” says Walsh. “It’s a way to keep your fingers on the pulse of information about the things key stakeholders - patients and HCPs - are seeing online about disease states and products.”
 
If you doubt the power of search listening, do as Sophie Coley, Director of Strategy, at search agency Propellernet invites her clients to do: look at your own recent search history and the fullness of the picture it paints about your life and innermost concerns. “People tell Google things they don’t tell their best friend or partner or their doctor,” says Colley.
 
The person behind the keyword
Despite this, search listening remains unexplored territory not just in pharma but more widely across industries. In part this is because there is often an emphasis on social listening as the way to understand how people tick when in fact the less publicly curated search engine terms, free of self-censorship, offer deeper insights. “Social listening is so mature that people can’t comprehend that there might be a better source of data,” says Colley. 
 
The emphasis on key words in search is another factor, she adds. Search terms may be widely analysed for narrow commercial applications, notably for search engine optimisation and for making online ads more relevant, but not for the far richer insights that long-form search questions can reveal. “People get bogged down on the keywords but they seem to forget there is a person behind the keyword. There is so much more you can learn about people.”
 
Pharma can do a lot with these ‘long-form’ insights. They can help inform the creation of responsive content, or bots capable of answering the questions that matter. Search listening insights can also help to address sources of misinformation, says Walsh. “If you find really terrible misinformation you can have it deprioritised in the search results.”
 
By acting on these insights pharma companies can also make better use of their own domain authority that can give them a much more representative presence in search, says Sam Gilbert, data-driven marketing expert, academic and author of the book Good Data: An Optimist's Guide to Our Digital Future.
 
“Assuming that the pharma company in question wants to establish a presence on Google and be part of that conversion, then it should develop high-quality expert content that speaks directly to the questions that people are asking,” says Gilbert. “Pharma have high domain authority and could rank quite quickly on page one of search.”
 
Better intelligence from search listening can also help identify how to make earlier interventions, leading to more timely and longer treatment, and so better outcomes for all, says Walsh. “We can intercept that patient journey much earlier.” 
 
And there further benefits to search listening, such as being able to create more useful and meaningful engagements with HCPs by helping them understand how patients experience symptoms, says Walsh. “It can change the conversation you are having with HCPs because you can offer them unique insights. It’s a richer exchange of information between rep and doctor. It can help the doctor have sensitive conversations where the cost of not having that conversation probably is that the patient doesn’t get diagnosed.”
 
Scaling for strategic insights
Beyond these tactical applications of search insights, lie potentially larger strategic ones. Conducting search analysis on very large data sets in partnership with big data partners such as Kaiasm using automated data mining, can reveal large unmet needs and even potential for new products, says Gilbert. 
 
An example of the potentially valuable signals in sifting search terms at scale was anosmia as a symptom that could have helped track the COVID-19 pandemic spread, says Gilbert. “What are the gaps in search where people can’t find an answer? That might lead you to new product opportunities. It’s highly likely that if you do a big data analysis of searches for medical conditions you will find these patterns you can address.”
 
So despite such evident value, why isn’t pharma engaging in search listening?
 
It could be down to an assumption that such tasks are already being undertaken, adds Colley. “People sometimes think their search team has it all covered but they are often narrowly focused on performance and optimising sales rather than a deeper view of the context in which people buy or use a product.” 
 
Other reasons relate to a historical reluctance to be seen to be engaging with patients, or to examine off-label related searches owing to regulatory restrictions as well as the fear such work will trigger safety reporting responsibilities. “My understanding of pharma is that they feel hamstrung by regulations but burying your head in the sand is not the right response,” says Walsh.
 
Changing the conversation
Another misconception among pharma leaders may be that they think good content and search engine optimisation alone can create the experience they want patients to have online, says Walsh.
 
“Everyone thinks that by doing all these other things you are fixing the problem. They create this great website, spend $200,000 on it, calibrate it with SEO and made sure the website loads quickly but they have not done search listening, which will reveal questions you might not have imagined you needed to answer.”
 
There may also be a fear that search listening is a complex and resource-heavy activity, says Walsh. “The people I speak to feel overwhelmed with where to start. They are scared that if I do a search listening report for them, I am opening a can of worms and they worry they don’t have the time and money to fix it.”
 
Getting started in search listening
Carrying out some simple searches on the kinds of questions being asked in your own category is an easy way to get a feel for the potential of search listening.
 
A good place to start, says Colley, is to tap in some terms of interest to answerthepublic.com, which returns easy to digest graphical representations of what questions people are asking relating to a particular term. The site permits several free daily searches as well as paid-for tracking and search behaviour services.
 
The skills and capabilities needed to carry out search listening are not radically different to the skills social listening teams already use, so these can easily be adapted, adds Colley. And it can offer a faster return on the time and money invested than a website that gets no traction because it is not designed around the patient experience, she adds. 
 
“You can spend all the money you want on a whizz-bang website with a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy but no one is turning up. This is a better way to tighten your digital strategy so that you are interacting with the hot topics and the pressing questions that people want to know”
 
Building the bigger picture
Further work might include using search listening to help build insights into different kinds of patient journeys, says Colley. “People will search in different ways from pre-diagnosis to living with the condition and this approach allows you to apply more strategic frameworks to the search terms.”
 
Colley’s final advice is to pick external agencies carefully if the plan is to outsource search listening. “There are some brilliant search agencies out there, but a lot are very performance focused and not able to see bigger picture applications. Don’t expect your agency to be up to speed.”
 
Above all else, getting started is the most important step, says Walsh, and doing so will put you ahead in an industry that is not yet even scratching the surface of search listening. “A lot of people [in pharma] say, ‘I am embarrassed to admit I have never given this consideration. I have never even thought of it that way’. 
 
“These are top people in roles with titles like ‘innovator’. But once you start thinking about it you can’t unsee it. It becomes blindingly obvious that this is something that not only offers enormous commercial potential to increase return on investment in information, but that we also have a responsibility to address as an industry.”

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Pharma Marketing USA

Nov 9, 2021 - Nov 11, 2021, Digital Conference, Exhibition & Networking

Create unprecedented customer value. Forge new data insights and digital standards.