Listen up, pharma marketers--to patients' social media posts, that is

Pharma companies are coming around on social media, however slowly. But how many are actually listening to what their patients say on social media platforms--and doing something with the feedback they get?

IMS Health's Siva Nadarajah

According to Siva Nadarajah, IMS Health's general manager of big data and compliance, too few. Only about 8% of 9% of all global brands--not companies--are engaging with patients, he said at a discussion hosted by Medical Marketing & Media. About 50% of them are monitoring patients' mentions, but 42% are doing nothing about it. And 40% aren't listening at all.

Why are pharma brand managers so hesitant to listen up? Some say they "don't know what actions they could take with the data," Nadarajah said. Others do know, but they don't have the engagement channels in place to help them take the next step. Some of them fall back on regulations, saying "'I don't want to deal with adverse events. It's a burden,'" he pointed out.

The way Michele Bennett, senior director of data science and analysis at Thomson Reuters, sees it, social media also represents an uncomfortable change for pharma. The industry is "used to being in control, driving the message, driving how they want their products to be perceived, within label. Social media takes the message over. You get no control," she said.

But whatever the reason for turning away, it's the wrong move, experts participating in the discussion agreed. While in the past, social listening may have been "something that was done on the side," these days, "it's not something you can ignore, not a vocal minority," Nadarajah said. Tim Armand, the cofounder and president of community engagement specialist Health Union, agreed, noting that "there are just way too many people participating and talking about their health, specific conditions and specific treatments on social media," and "there's a lot of downside of not listening when this conversation is happening."

Some companies already understand that. Back in 2013, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) used a text analytics model, grown by startup Luminoso, to analyze public discussion boards on and in an attempt to assess expecting and new parents' sentiment about vaccines--a core moneymaker for the company.

And Greg Cohen, the associate director of global strategic marketing at Belgium's UCB Pharma, told MM&M his company has had a "very progressive" digital pharmacovigilance group that has been on board from the beginning in "talking about why are we doing this, setting up the right parameters to handle the inflow and automating what we can."

For other companies that do decide they want to follow suit? Armand recommends trying "something small--quick wins."

"Get people comfortable" with social listening, he suggested. "Partner with your internal colleagues--legal, regulatory compliance etc.--early on, not after the fact." And--to avoid falling into that 42% of brand who listen but don't engage--"have a goal in mind with what you are going to do with it."

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