The Consumer Intelligence Blog - Infegy

Social listening for pharmaceutical and healthcare companies

Competition is fierce in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry. With dozens of companies competing to catch the attention of both patients and healthcare providers, it can be a challenge to differentiate your brand.

How can you ensure your pharmaceutical or healthcare company is implementing effective marketing strategies that resonate with your target audience? It all starts with gaining a better understanding of who that audience is and what solutions it is seeking, even in pharmaceuticals and healthcare. Social listening data can help.

In this blog post, we use the example of multiple sclerosis (MS) to highlight how social listening insights can help healthcare-related companies better understand and target consumers.

Using social listening to better understand the patient experience

The data available on social media platforms and online forums can provide valuable insight into patients’ unmet medical needs and health-related concerns. When properly employed, these insights can be used to inform both the early stages of drug development and the thematic focus of disease awareness campaigns.

Related: Check out our case study from Lumanity who employed social listening data to understand metastatic breast cancer suffers real experiences.

For patient data related to specific diseases, we have found that Reddit provides a particularly valuable source of data, for several reasons:

  1. Sub-Reddit datasets are smaller and more narrowly focused on specific disease-related topics.
  2. Posts are hyper-focused on a specific topic of interest.
  3. Posters are self-identified individuals who have a certain condition. This makes it easier to isolate a specific condition or disease compared to a general social media search.
  4. Individuals are typically very vocal about issues related to the disease and often mention specific drugs/treatments that we don’t hear about on other channels.

These insights allow companies to employ a “pull” strategy to reach down to patients and pull them toward a particular healthcare provider or product.

Let’s consider multiple sclerosis (MS) as a real-life example.

MS is a disease of the central nervous system that occurs when the immune system attacks the myelin sheath, which functions as a protective cover of nerve fibers. This results in communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. Over time, the disease can cause permanent damage or deterioration of nerve fibers.

Figure 1-1
Figure 1: Topics colored by sentiment associated with multiple sclerosis; Custom data collection, November 2023 through April 2024.

Figure 1 shows that Sentiment associated with MS-related topics is overwhelmingly negative, as indicated by the red and orange words. That’s to be expected since this is a disease-related discussion, but we’re interested in learning the specific reasons for the negative sentiment.

Figure 1’s cluster shows us that most negative topics, those which are “redder” on the spectrum, relate to the pain and stress of living with the disease. Words such as “symptoms,” “stress,” “trauma,” “diagnosed,” “heat,” “lesions,” “neurologist,” etc. provide some insight into the challenges faced by those battling MS.

Figure 2-1
Figure 2: Positive sentiment topics associated with multiple sclerosis; Custom data collection, November 2023 through April 2024.

As we continue our topic analysis, we also find more positive sentiment in certain MS-related conversations, as illustrated in Figure 2. Most of the positive Sentiment surrounds MS research and treatments, as indicated by topics such as “research,” “health,” “medical,” and “options.” These words convey a sense of hope surrounding treatment and future outlooks for those living with MS.

Also of interesting note is the positive sentiment related to words such as “Rituximab” and “Gabor.”

Rituximab is a cancer drug used to treat certain types of lymphoma and leukemia. As we dig deeper into MS and Rituximab-related conversations, we find that patients are talking about this drug as an alternative treatment for MS.

“Gabor” refers to Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician focused on holistic healing through a focus on the mind-body connection.

The occurrence of Rituximab and Gabor in positive-Sentiment MS-related conversations tells us that patients are open to, and potentially actively seeking, alternative sources of treatment.

This can be valuable insight for pharmaceutical companies developing treatment options for MS patients.

Figure 3-1
Figure 3: Content subjects associated with multiple sclerosis; Custom data collection, November 2023 through April 2024.

Let’s take a look at the most frequent subjects discussed by our MS target audience. Figure 3 shows us that the top three MS-related subjects include “medical tests,” “mental health,” and “brain and nervous system disorders,” which we may expect, as these are common concerns among MS patients.

What may be surprising, however, is that “bath and shower” appears as the fourth most frequent subject of conversation. What does this have to do with MS? As we gain an understanding of MS-related symptoms, we find that many patients face heat sensitivity, which can make warm baths and showers an uncomfortable experience.

When crafting marketing messages and educational campaigns, this insight into heat sensitivity can be incredibly valuable in helping a pharmaceutical company target specific patient needs/pain points and articulate how a specific medication or treatment can help.

As you can see, social listening data can provide valuable insight to help pharmaceutical and healthcare companies better target and articulate their value to patients.

Using social listening to identify influential physicians

Now, let’s consider how social listening can help pharmaceutical companies better understand the needs of physicians.

It can sometimes be difficult to effectively craft drug development and research initiatives that meet the needs of doctors in the field. However, social listening data can provide valuable insight into the thoughts and needs of physicians treating a particular condition or disease. This can help pharmaceutical companies design clinical trials, develop relevant drugs, and remain informed about changes and developments among key influencers.

As an example, we turn to #MedTwitter, a thriving community of researchers and clinicians talking about various medical breakthroughs.

Figure 4-1
Figure 4: Narrative cluster associated with #MedTwitter; Infegy Social Dataset, November 2023 through April 2024.

As you can see in Figure 4, #MedTwitter offers millions of posts across a very diverse dataset. We can start by looking at very broad topics, then filter down into the specific medical topic we’re interested in learning more about.

Figure 5-1
Figure 5: Top source interests associated with #MedTwitter; Infegy Social Dataset, November 2023 through April 2024.

Figure 5 provides additional insight into the top content subjects people talk about when using #MedTwitter. As you can see, the subjects are incredibly diverse, including everything from “surgery,” to “lung and respiratory health,” to “eldercare.”

With this broad dataset as a starting point, we can narrow down our focus to MS-related topics.

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Figure 6: Top source interests associated with #MedTwitter; Infegy Social Dataset, November 2023 through April 2024.

Figure 6 shows us the most common MS-related hashtags associated with #MedTwitter. Notice the wide variance in sentiment between hashtags such as “#MedEd” (overwhelmingly positive) and “#MultipleSclerosis” (overwhelmingly negative).

Using these hashtags, we can identify topics that are most relevant to MS physicians and other healthcare providers.

Perhaps more valuable to pharmaceutical companies, however, is the ability to use these hashtags to identify professional influencers. In other words, this information can help identify physicians and researchers who are well respected in the MS community. These professionals may be ideal partners to assist with a brand’s marketing and patient outreach efforts.

Using social listening to understand the needs of patients and physicians

Now that we understand how social listening can help us gain insight into the needs of patients and physicians, let’s take a look at how continuous monitoring of patient feedback and experiences can help pharmaceutical and healthcare companies understand how patients are using their medications.

Consider again the example of Rituximab, the drug intended to treat lymphoma and leukemia that we discovered earlier is also being used by some MS patients as an alternative treatment.

Wikipedia notes that, “There is some evidence for efficacy, but not necessarily safety, in a range of other autoimmune diseases, and rituximab is widely used off-label to treat difficult cases of multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy and autoimmune anemias.”

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Figure 7: Post volume associated with Rituximab; Infegy Social Dataset, April 2014 through April 2024.

A look at post volume related to Rituximab (Figure 7) shows a fairly high occurrence of discussions surrounding the drug over the last 10 years.

What could be driving this post volume? To find out, let’s look at other subjects of interest to the people talking about this drug.

Figure 8-1
Figure 8: Source interests associated with Rituximab; Infegy Social Dataset, November 2023 through April 2024.

Notice that people who post about Rituximab are 27 times more likely to also post about topics related to brain and nervous system disorders. Even more interestingly, the Sentiment surrounding these posts is 58% positive!

Given that MS is a chronic autoimmune disease that impacts the central nervous system, particularly the brain and spinal cord, could this positive sentiment indicate that Rituximab can help reduce related symptoms in MS patients?

While additional research is necessary to answer that question, it is an important data point to note, especially for pharmaceutical companies looking to expand the usage and application of current medications. And, without social listening insights, this unexpected use of the drug would have been difficult, if not impossible, to identify.

Using social listening to better understand pharmaceutical target audiences

Social listening strategies can help pharmaceutical companies more effectively identify target audiences across various social media platforms.

Figure 9-1
Figure 9: Source bios keywords associated with Rituximab; Infegy Social Dataset, November 2023 through April 2024.

For example, if we look at the source bios of the people posting about Rituximab (Figure 9), we see that it’s mostly medical professionals who are talking about the drug. We seldom see patients referring to Rituximab on non-Reddit social media platforms, such as X and Instagram.

As noted earlier, patients frequently post about the medication on MS-specific Reddit groups. However, if a pharmaceutical company had posted patient-related content to the general social media platforms, it probably would have missed the mark. Instead, our data tells us that general social media messaging should target physicians, researchers, and other healthcare providers.

Social listening provides the edge you need to compete in a dynamic industry

In competitive industries such as healthcare and pharmaceuticals, social listening insights can provide the advantage you need to identify and connect with target audiences, address specific patient needs, and differentiate your products in a crowded sea of competitors.

Social listening platforms, such as the Infegy product suite, provide real-time data and valuable insights to help your brand succeed in a rapidly changing competitive landscape.

To learn more about how Infegy’s social listening platform can help your pharmaceutical or healthcare-related business both grow and excel, request a custom demo.