Originally appeared in PM360 on April 7, 2020

by Phil Storer & Jon Irvine

As marketers, we’ve been taught for decades to sugarcoat and photoshop an ideal image, often masking the stark reality of what it means to be inflicted by a disease. Meanwhile, those who seek the help of modern medicine are left to sift through the mess of marketing messages when all they want are real answers. Digital is an opportunity to allow patients access to our industry in a more immediate, compelling, and honest way. It’s neither a cost-cutting exercise nor, in the era of COVID-19, an excuse to avoid physically meeting with any other human being.

There was a time when executives viewed digital as some secondary artificial space for people to spend a marginal amount of time, as opposed to real life (which even had its shorthand—RL). It was welcome as a method to cut costs by doing away with traditional advertising and go for free or dirt-cheap online activities. Some also praised the potential of telecommuting, which, in times of COVID-19, enjoys a renaissance.

However, all of these digital benefits miss the larger point: For better or for worse, all of us spend much of our lives in the world of digital and social media. It’s in this place we’ve come to resent the polished advertisements of simpler times; where we’ve become so savvy to the false promises of perfectly curated actors and far-fetched lifestyles that do little but interrupt our own digital life. Instead, we turn to shaky iPhone videos and lesser-known content creators to get the real stories. And when it comes to pharma, patients are looking for real living proof that a treatment can do what it says it can do. The power is now with the patient, and rightfully so.

Belief Through Empathy

The voice of real patients rings true and reaches far beyond fancy copywriting. The patient voice gives rise to belief, a level of trust, and confidence never achieved by marketing messages. Belief is created through empathy—the intuitive certainty that the other person’s experience has significant bearing on one’s own life.

Empathy demands listening. Fortunately, for those in pharmaceuticals who desire to communicate with empathy for their patients, the digital age has presented the opportunity to listen, engage, and react to patients like never before. Every brand now conducts social listening, monitors social channels, and optimizes their messaging based on that feedback. In our era, social media is really the natural habitat of the patient voice.

Patient Input Along the Milestones

Where pharma can improve on this process is to move this listening exercise forward in the lifecycle of the development of their communications. That is to say, pharma should go beyond patient input on big creative ideas during concept testing. Patient input should be built into every aspect of digital content creation. For instance, how many of your most recent projects asked for a patient to weigh in on your creative brief? How many of your web development projects have a milestone for a patient touch base before the site goes to development? How much of your social content features the voice of a patient where that patient had a hand in writing their own story?

These are important principles for a thoughtful digital strategy. On top of authentic patient involvement, of course, comes expert execution: For branded communications, expectations are naturally high. The social channel has so much to offer in terms of richness and directness. On the flip side, it is also really demanding in terms of regulatory compliance and adverse event reporting. It’s a channel that has incredible potential, as long as we give it the attention to detail that it deserves.

Powered by People

As brands embark on digital-first strategies, it can be tempting to automate and streamline patient interactions at all touchpoints. There is definitely potential in exploring these options, but at the end of the day, any successful brand, pharma or otherwise, is powered by people. Gentle automation that smooths interactions between humans is a great way to enhance relationships. And to some level, some of us may even be building “relationships” with our phones and voice devices. But it’s a completely different kind of relationship that gets us to open about up our innermost humanity, our story, the things that are important to us: It’s knowing that you’re dealing with a real person that will change the way you feel about something.

So this is where we are. Digital has powered our ability to listen better. Now, it is time for us to listen earlier and listen with purpose. That’s how we generate empathy, which gives people a reason to believe. Social media defines, one way or another, what people believe. This can be either a painful lesson to learn or an opportunity to embrace. We think it’s prime time for real patients to tell their stories and make believers of their own. The only question now is: “Do you believe?”