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In the healthcare and pharma industries, where lives are at stake and skepticism proliferates, consumers are even more apt to turn to peers for trusted information and advice about medical treatments.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a sampling of questions for which these conversational data can provide answers: Why do certain patients trust one brand and not another? In positioning your new drug, how did the market perceive your competition's launch six months prior? How are patients reacting to negative results of a recent clinical trial, or a full-blown black-box warning? Are there false or damaging buzz storms circulating about your brand? Which patients are most evangelical about your brand, and which ones are detractors?
Word-of-mouth research can give the industry great insight into strategic decisions surrounding drug launches, black-box warnings, patient feedback, and product development and positioning. But companies must take a strategic approach to obtaining this information.
Delivering content to the most engaged is a good start. Your most highly involved patients are the word-of-mouth igniters. They are thirsty for information and will become the agents of your message. To reach them, it's important to create separate Web sites or information centers with deeper information and exclusive features that can be accessed by influential customer segments, and then carried forward to a larger audience. These information centers should contain features such as expert opinions, deep technical content, "talkable" new ideas, community interaction, and attentive corporate ears to engage in deep dialogue.
For example, in late 2004 when AstraZeneca encountered backlash for the Crestor brand, it developed a Web site called CrestorFacts.com. Countering misinformation and a serious buzz storm, the site regularly delivers updated content about Crestor to patients and caregivers seeking deeper information than what is usually contained on a standard brand Web site. The site features information from a number of sources, including AstraZeneca, FDA, recent clinical trials, and expert opinions. All of the facts are presented in an easy-to-understand format and visitors are able to contact Astra Zeneca with further questions and can email the page to their personal contacts.
Another tactic to engage consumers and patients is to use special events to deliver messages. These can include webinars, live online chats, in-person meetings and facility tours to introduce new products, treatments, or ideas. Recruiting experts to participate in these events will lend credibility to your program. Participants should leave with new, "buzzworthy" ideas—ones they are excited to share with their peers.
WebMD provides a fantastic forum for pharmaceutical companies to talk to their key constituents. The healthcare Web site regularly moderates seminars between medical professionals and patients. The professionals who participate in these events are highly regarded experts within their particular field. Since these events are run through WebMD, they are not perceived as being biased, even though they are generally sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. Participants at these online seminars have an opportunity to ask questions that the experts answer.
Welcoming online commentators aboard can also prove beneficial. Online influencers, such as nurses, family members and patients themselves, often develop large audiences and are not limited by geographic barriers. Furthermore, their opinions and reporting are often trusted more than official news media.
It's also important to develop genuine, one-on-one relationships with leading medical bloggers, discussion group leaders and similar individuals who serve as filters and authority figures to their respective groups.
It can also be beneficial to insert word-of-mouth programs into your existing marketing infrastructure. Pharma marketing typically requires extensive and expensive scrutiny from the legal department, so latching onto existing programs lessens the administration and oversight typically required.
Inserting word-of-mouth tactics can also bring an additional level of effectiveness and freshness to them. One of the best examples of this principle is the recruitment of "best patients" into patient advisory boards. These individuals relate to their peers in a way that only an experienced patient can. Another example is to use existing physician relationships to recruit new doctors into your marketing programs via referrals. Word of mouth can also be tied into educational marketing. When it comes to health education, participants are usually eager to learn more about specific conditions, diseases risks, and treatments. Education marketing is also less restrictive than other tactics, so companies can execute more aggressive programs. Launching a disease-awareness initiative, for example, by developing individual relationships with the most influential members of key stakeholder groups, is a highly effective way to spread information.
While pharma was among the earliest industries to realize some of the strategic benefits of word of mouth, there is an even bigger opportunity to do more grassroots planning and outreach. This path will be challenging, largely because of the difficult marketing environment, but the good news is that pharma marketers don't have to take any drastic steps to start incorporating word of mouth in their outreach.
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Lydia Worthington is research director at BuzzMetrics, a research firm. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org