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Patient Communications: Why Pharma Leaders Should Think Like Social Marketers


By exploring how social marketers think, pharma can unlock tried-and-tested ways to bring measurable value to their patients, writes Patrick Ladbury and Oliver Childs.

Pharma is well-versed in communicating with patients. From simple patient leaflets to full blown patient support programs and nationwide disease awareness campaigns, the industry has been directly serving up health messages to patients since the first days of aspirin marketing.

But there’s a parallel world that’s been going further than serving up health messages to patients. A world that pharma seldom dabbles in – despite there being huge cross over in aims when it comes to making people healthier – the world of social marketing.

By exploring how social marketers think, and why this is different to commercial marketing, pharma can unlock tried-and-tested ways to bring measurable value to their patients. In this article on outcomes-based patient engagement, we give you a short overview of the social marketing basics.

A new approach (for pharma at least)

First up, what is social marketing?

Social marketing is one of those disciplines you may have heard of but don’t quite know what it is. You’re not alone: social marketers often have to grapple with people thinking we ‘do Facebook’ and other social media marketing, for instance.

Social marketing combines marketing theory with social sciences like behavioral economics to systematically plan and develop programs that focus on achieving clearly defined behavioral goals for a social purpose. (Note a social marketing campaign can involve social media, it’s just that we don’t start our thinking with a particular channel in mind.)

The methodology has been successfully delivering regional, national and international public health behavior change campaigns for years, and has built up strong evidence on what works when it comes to influencing target audiences in improving their health and wellbeing.

Think smoking cessation (19% of 18-24 year olds smoke now compared to 26% in 2010[1]); cancer screening rates (an increase from 54.4% to 63.9% of men over 60 participating in a bowel cancer screening programme[2]); and breastfeeding (an increase in the number of women breastfeeding at 6 to 8 weeks in areas of deprivation and historically low breastfeeding rates from 31.7% to 37.9%[3]). All of these successes have involved the use of social marketing methods and campaigns.

Information and awareness aren’t enough

Social marketing understands that information provision alone doesn’t change behavior. People know that they shouldn’t smoke, should drink less, exercise more, complete their prescribed set of drugs and manage their long term medical condition better, but that knowledge doesn’t translate into behavior change.

Social marketing combines learning from marketing theory and social sciences to move beyond information provision to really understand what drives and influences patients behavior and what value or exchange patients require in order to be persuaded to change their behavior.

Often the exchange has nothing to do with the health benefits derived from changing a particular behavior and more to do with another more personal benefit valued by the target audience.

For example, research carried out by the NSMC with Pakistani mothers in Buckinghamshire in the UK highlighted that their motivation for taking exercise wasn’t about being healthier but more to do with being a better role model for their daughters. This insight was used on campaign materials and with local service providers to provide culturally sensitive activity opportunities for groups of Pakistani women.  

Yet how often is this type of approach considered for patient-facing communications in pharma? Taking a leaf out of the social marketing playbook, pharma could be doing a lot more to explore and leverage the behavioral influences behind medication adherence to better target specific behaviors and audiences, for instance.

Evaluation is key

This focus on behavior change also requires a different evaluation model, with campaign metrics, such as website views, downloads and opportunities to see being only part of the evaluation framework.

Social marketing uses these metrics, but goes further to evaluate the actual behavior change achieved by the targeted audience and the impact the behaviour change has had on the health challenge being addressed.

The Buckinghamshire project not only measured how many Pakistani women were reached by the campaign but also how often they participated in one of the promoted activities; whether they maintained their level of activity after 6 months; and the impact it had after 6 months on their physical and mental wellbeing.

This type of thinking is vital if pharma is to truly deliver on the outcomes-driven model of healthcare. No longer will ‘awareness’ – measured through clicks and message recall – be enough for a public-facing information campaign, for example. Measuring the effect on specific behaviors and the impact of that change is the route to truly demonstrating value, whether that’s increasing uptake of a specific ‘healthy’ behavior or something more subtle such as completing a course of medication.

Bringing outcome to the fore

In the age of patient centricity, there’s an opportunity for the pharmacuetical industry to look to the social marketing approach taken by their public health counterparts to create effective patient value and behavior change.

Yes, the message will always be important. But even more important, what’s the outcome you’re hoping to achieve with your campaign and how can you make it as easy as possible for your audience?

Once you develop an outcomes-first mindset, you are already halfway to thinking like a social marketer.


Patrick Ladbury is Director of the National Social Marketing Centre




Oliver Childs is Health Information Director at Anatomy Health.







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