“Do you conduct primary market research?” This is one of the inevitable questions I am asked by brand managers in pharmaceutical companies while advising them on how to position their brands digitally. Generally they mean traditional focus groups and one-to-one interviews. Their question is puzzling to me in a digital age, but it also reflects the buying behavior still firmly in place in the industry.
A successful business model erodes
Puzzling because to a brand manager in a pharmaceutical company, primary research should be digital, not traditional. Usually, you would invite some 8-10 people to a focus group and ask them a lot of questions but today, you have the opportunity to tap into naturally occurring conversations, sometimes with up to 200.000-300.000 participants and sometimes significantly more. In effect, today you have access to the world’s largest focus group online. Such engagement and detailed level of understanding patients and HCPs have never before been possible. Patients and HCPs are online as much as you and I are and every step they take leaves a digital footprint, revealing ultimately their attitudes towards diseases, treatments and products. Looking to understand patients and HCPs elsewhere but online is possible but far from as effective.
The question is also telling about the buying behavior in the pharmaceutical industry. Historically, large B2B companies, and especially those in the pharmaceutical industry, are avid buyers of analyses. These are often complex and extensive qualitative and quantitative reports, which take a long time to complete. They are generally very costly. Plus, they are difficult to comprehend in their entirety, and, most importantly, difficult to translate into actionable digital tactics. “What should I, as a brand manager, do with this report?” becomes a recurring question. Often, not knowing the answer is a step in the predictable pattern of purchasing more analysis.
The reason for this buying behavior is to be found in the pharmaceutical industry’s pre-digital legacy and golden age where the business model was characterized by blockbuster drugs delivered at HCPs’ front door by well-trained sales reps- and often prescribed by the HCPs. Back then, patients were not visible or audible and primary market research was therefore necessary.
It is of course old news that all of that has started to change, eroding the once successful business model. Pressed for change, many pharmaceutical companies have since made giants leaps to meet the digital challenge. Nevertheless, many pharmaceutical brand managers still have a certain reluctance to deal with digitally generated market research.
What patients want
The speed at which digital marketing develops does not leave space for lengthy deliberation before action. With all the occurrences of the last 15 years, the need to present the right message to the right target group, at the right time- and to do it repeatedly- is more keenly felt than ever before.
Newly-diagnosed patients, and/or patients who detect a change in their existing medical conditions, often start by going online and before consulting their physician. Their online behavior is complex and beyond the scope of the current text, but it can for now be classified in a few distinct stages. The first thing patients do is search for symptoms. In many disease areas, multiple treatment options exist, and once the initial information needs about symptoms have been satisfied, search focus shifts to treatments options.
We have a tendency to believe what our peers tell us, and it is no different when we are patients. Once enough information regarding symptoms and treatment options is acquired, search is often complemented by a social media effort where patients engage in peer reviews. At the final stage, patients (attempt to) get access to brand sites connecting the dots between symptoms, treatment options, peer reviews and brands. Only then are they ready to meet their physicians, coming to the consultation with substantial knowledge acquired online.
The information needs patients have is non-branded for much of the duration of their digital decision journey. Patients don’t initially want to hear about a brand from the company behind the brand. They want to hear about perceptions, concerns and preferences from others who experience the same condition as they do.
Sometimes a single insight is all it takes
As a brand manager, it is crucial to be able to initially abstract from one’s brand, tap into that non-branded digital patient decision journey and provide relevant content long before one’s brand is even a part of the discussion. Successful pharmaceutical brand managers either already possess the specialized set of skills which enables them to drill deep into patients’ search patterns and social media discussions or know exactly what they don’t know and where to find it.
Developing digital assets directed at patients– both for Rx and OTC drugs-- therefore requires more selective buying behavior regarding market research. It requires a market research purchase that is so specific and so to-the-point that, once acquired, it can actually be used to develop a digital tactic. In other words, the ability to develop successful digital assets directed at patients, and for HCPs, requires a shift in the behavior of brand managers- a shift from purchasing complex qualitative and quantitative analysis reports, parts of which may be relevant, to purchasing an insight. This represents a more autonomous piece of information that can be acted upon in an isolated instance, but one that can also be part of a larger whole.
Acquiring digital insights to base digital tactics on has a number of benefits over acquiring traditional market research analyses for the same purpose. Speed, availability, immediacy, unmediated, naturally occurring behavior, available volumes, and cost efficiency are only some of the most obvious ones.
Of course, purchasing insights and acting on them single-mindedly, without having a digital strategy linked to the overall business goals is not what is advocated here. A single insight can be the basis for a single digital tactic, but it can also be the basis for multiple tactics, some of which will be on strategy while others will be off strategy. In the latter cases, the ability to prioritize and select, inherently formalized in a digital strategy, becomes paramount.
See how digital is leveraged successfully for the Healthcare industry here: www.vertic.com/healthcare