Alternative Media: Mouthing Off

Word-of-mouth marketing provides insight into patients' attitudes on drugs and treatments.
Sep 01, 2005

Lydia Worthington
Pharmaceutical Marketers face complex challenges in their attempts to responsibly promote products, solicit patient feedback, manage relationships, and ultimately, close the entire marketing and information loop. But these challenges, surprisingly, are what have prompted pharma to become one of the most advanced industries in leveraging the ancient phenomenon that many refer to as "word of mouth."

Unlike some other research tools, word of mouth allows pharmas to collect vast insights about patient attitudes and behaviors, and to better understand their relationship with treatments and drug brands. This can be executed by tracking and analyzing patients' public group conversations as they occur on the Internet and elsewhere. Not only does this marketing tactic influence a patient's treatment decision process, but it also guides pharmas' overall market strategies and helps them navigate through turbulent market conditions.

Patient Outreach

However, some pharmas are reluctant to deliberately execute word-of-mouth campaigns, or directly reach out to patients and other influencers who actively talk about drug brands and treatments. While intense industry regulation understandably triggers risk-aversion, pharmas who have not yet bought into this method are missing an opportunity to engage patients and other key stakeholders, and to market more effectively. Fortunately, there are subtle and safe ways to incorporate word-of-mouth outreach strategies into the existing marketing infrastructure.

Redeeming Zocor
Undeniably, word of mouth is becoming an increasingly important tool for companies seeking to understand the customer psyche and stay competitive. According to NOP World, 92 percent of US consumers in 2005 said word of mouth represents the best source of ideas and information compared with only 67 percent in 1977.

In the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries—where lives are at stake and skepticism proliferates—consumers are even more apt to turn to peers for information and advice. Consider the millions of people who participate in online forums on such sites as iVillage Health, WebMD, and Healthboards—as well as traditional offline support groups and informal social networks. People turn to their peers for all kinds of information—to learn how to maintain the health and well being of themselves or of their loved ones, to share the news that a particular drug has significantly helped them, or to find out why a major pharma manufacturer plans to stop research on a promising treatment.

Conversation Stimulant

While the concept of word of mouth has been around since humans began talking, mainstream adoption of the Internet has enabled word of mouth to become a powerful and pervasive marketing tool. It has stripped the barriers of time and geography, and has brought consumer patients together in digital communities with similar interests. Jupiter Research reported earlier this year that one in five online consumers now turn to other online consumers for advice about health and medical treatment.

Catering to virtually every medical topic from heart-health to impotence to oncology to obesity, thousands of digitally networked communities have emerged via Internet message boards, e-mail groups, patient Web sites, and blogs. Not only are these communities thriving, but effective search technologies like Google are also enabling consumers to find and connect with one another easily, and discover patient-created content.

While the sharing of information in online discussion forums is a tremendous benefit for patients, there is a byproduct that no pharma marketer can afford to ignore: the billions of archived conversations among patients and experts, and the insights that can be revealed by studying how people spread information, share their experience, and give advice to others—all in real time. The Internet leaves behind a digital footprint that represents the world's largest patient focus group. It occurs continuously, and it is natural. It is devoid of many of the constraints of traditional market research, including participant bias, cost, lag time, and strict regulation.

Studying online word of mouth also enables pharma companies to identify patient attitudes and predispositions, create better products, improve customer relations, and market their brands more effectively.

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