Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is Pharma Really "Listening" to Patients on Social Media?

After criticizing Astrazeneca's @AZHelps Twitter account as being a poor model for use of social media by the pharmaceutical industry (see @AZHelps: Is This a Good Model for Pharma Use of Social Media?), I received several comments that made me think a bit more about how pharma marketers are trying to adopt a new communication paradigm without giving up their old model of communication. That old model is essentially "tone deaf" when it comes to "listening" to consumers.

Don't get me wrong. Pharma marketers "hear" what people are saying on social media sites such as Twitter. They just are not actually listening to what consumers are saying and understanding.

Let's look at @AZHelps as an example of this. It appears that @AZHelps seeks out Tweets that mention problems people are having affording Astrazeneca medications. Apparently, AZ monitors social media using tools such a V-Fluence (see comments to the post cited above). This is not the same as having a real person monitor social media, but it's a necessary tool to get an idea of what people are saying about your product out there. But just like any automated program, it lacks human intelligence -- it hears, but does not listen.

One post the @AZHelps bots pricked up was this one, which was posted by @busterwilson:

"Almost home. Pat drove most the way. Second day of the trip w/extensive migraine! NO Zomig cause Obamacare made insur. Not wiiling 2pay4 it!"

After a couple days delay, @AZHelps responded with:

"@busterwilson Saw your tweet about access to or the cost of ZOMIG® (zolmitriptan) AstraZeneca may be able to help. Call us @ 800-236-9933"

Did @AZHelps actually "listen" to what @busterwilson was really complaining about? No. They heard what they wanted to hear and responded with a "solution" to the problem they thought they heard. But they didn't really listen to @busterwilson's real gripe, which was about "Obamacare."

Let's use an analogy: How is social media like helping your wife deal with a problem?

A: It's been my experience that when my wife complains about something, she is not looking for me to give her a "solution," but for me to listen to her and understand her problem. The same may be true for helping patients who complain about products. Before you offer a solution --- ie call this number -- have a conversation and make sure you get to what the real problem is. In the case I cited here, @busterwilson was spouting off about "Obamacare" and no amount of free ZOMIG is going to put him at ease about that.

@AZHelps did not bother to learn more about @busterwilson and his Zomig problem, let alone about his problem with Obama. Turns out that @busterwilson is "a husband, father, grandfather, media personality, Sheriff's Chaplain, motorcycle rider, and lover of Jesus!" It sounds like he has an agenda much bigger than the price of Zomig.

Of course, @AZHelps is not going to get into a discussion about "Obamacare." AZ is more interested in getting IT'S message out about Zomig and making sure people call that 1-800 number.


  1. First, unless something changed recently, @azhelps is monitored by a real person, not a bot. There may be a filtering tool that searches for tweets that have keywords in them (like Nexium), but in the end, a person decides which to respond to and with what message. I got this from AZ directly, but that was a number of months ago, so it's possible something has changed, but I doubt it. Having a bot monitor and respond is a recipe for disaster.

    Regarding your second point about @redban, you suggest that AZ get to know him first to really understand his complaint. How do you suggest they do that via Twitter? Isn't it easier, faster, more personal, more meaningful, more effective, and more valuable to do this person to person? Since AZ can't fly to every person's house, they recommend doing it via phone. And since they don't have everyone's phone number, they have to ask people to call them. Imagine if you told your wife that you're willing to listen to her and better understand the problem, but she has to do it 140 characters at a time. Not good.

    Maybe @redban isn't looking for a solution and just want to bend someone's ear. If this is the case, then what harm does AZ's tweet do? This is also the reason why AZ wants you to call and talk to a real person instead of directing you to a website (like you suggested in your previous post). The person on the phone might find out that @redban doesn't need help paying for it, but could offer some suggestions on where to place some of that passion against "Obamacare" like some of the lobbying initiatives AZ has (for example, just hypothetical).

    @redban may have sent this tweet without even thinking that he really wanted help paying for it. But isn't is a nice unexpected surprise to have someone offer some help? If I tweet how annoyed I am about how an app isn't working on my phone, for example, and I just want to rant, am I annoyed when the developer responds offering to help? No, I'm pleasantly surprised.

    Dose of Digital

  2. This is one of many posts about V Fluence accusing a blogger of hacking. The blog author found a tracking page of V Fluence's on a stat meter and the page was clickable to all viewers. The V Fluence crew tracks, (secretly)for drug companies, and in this case it was (and still is)tracking for AstraZeneca and Seroquel.

    See here at Pharmalot.

    The blog author, of the humorous Low T post you linked to in the past.

    view the V Fluence page here.

    The page is shut down but still able to be scrolled through and see blogs such as mine and others (PharmaGossip too)being tracked.

    V Fluence, hired by AstraZeneca also tracks the daily activities of book author Robert Whitaker, author of 'Anatomy of an Epidemic', which highlights the lack of efficacy and long term postitive results using antipsychotics, such as AstraZeneca's Seroquel.

    The drug companies playing social media is just a way to watch over profits, nothing more. It has nothing to do with actually "helping" patients.

    I call BS on "AZhelps" and any other so-called "help" page from a drug company. Who are they kidding? $$$$ first!

  3. Jonathan,

    As always your comments are appreciated. Of course a real person sends out the tweets. But as you say a filtering tool is used. But who is this person? Is it someone who has been adequately trained as to which tweets in the list deserve response? Where's the personal touch that is supposed to be the hallmark of social media? If it looks like a bot, talks like a bot, then it might as well be a bot, IMHO.

    C'mon. I git to know a lot about @redban by just looking at his Twitter page and reading several of his other tweets. Did AZHelps do that? I doubt it because it is not the goal of @AZHelps to form relationships via Twitter. I've established quote a few relationships via twitter conversation BEFORE I asked anyone to CALL me or EMAIL me. Asking someone to call you right off the bat is not going to be too effective, IMHO. Even I had a hard time making the effort to pick up the phone and with expectations of having to confront another automated system. Luckily I was surprised by the personal response I did get, which is something that AZ needs to carry over into its Twitter account.

    If @redban is not really looking for a solution -- especially not a marketing msg solution -- then sending him a Tweet is equivalent to sending him a spam email. He did not request it and it was unsolicited.

    If @AZHelps really wants to generate goodwill and help people, forget about enrolling people like @redban in programs meant for poorer people who have no insurance (@redban clearly has insurance and would not qualify for AZ's programs). Send him a link to a coupon for a free sample. If Zomig works, I am sure @redban would find the money to pay for it!

  4. Anonymous12:02 PM

    In fact it not just about gathering information or reporting adverse effects, as evidenced by v-fluence monitoring activities for AstraZeneca related to monitoring of blogs and individuals.

    It is about rating/assessing potential risk and creating a response strategy to counter any negative message.




    This corporate activity is masked in covert secrecy not unlike an NSA or CIA message control operation.

    Shall we dare to udder the word "transparency" or have we come to a place and time when private corporations can and do keep secret hidden files on private citizens?

  5. As far as I know, the person is "trained." They're looking for tweets that mention AZ products (and yes, you do need a tool for this because you can't look through 50 million tweets everyday). It's actually not that tough. One of our drugs plus a mention of issues with cost...that's it. Doesn't take a lot of training.

    I don't think asking someone to call you is a bridge too far. If AZ called him unsolicited, then that's a problem, but putting the offer out isn't a problem in my opinion. Call or don't.

    Twitter isn't personal. Think about how much more personal of a relationship you would have formed if you "met" these people during a 20 minute phone call instead of scattered tweets. You can't compare the two. And the notion that you can get to know someone by going through their Twitter feed is a bit odd to me. You won't get to know me at all if you go through mine. I wouldn't know much about you if I went through yours either. I'd know something, but probably just enough to be dangerous.

    Dose of Digital

  6. Anonymous12:47 PM


    Based on the conservatism of most US based Big Pharma Medical Legal depts right now and the continued lack of guidance on FDA in regards social media we will be be looking at people taking baby steps for some time. Do I think @AZHelps could be doing a better job, even in the murky waters of social media? Sure I do. However like my doctor, they appear to subscribe to not doing harm principle, and value here is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. @redban was a few clicks on his phone to getting a coupon to Zomig within their IVR system. You need to only look at the differences between (@boehringer and @boehringerus) to see the havoc that the lack of clear regulatory guidelines causes here in the states.

    And from my POV his tweets are not protected so its not SPAM to tweet him some information that relates to what he said this is service; if he does not want people to comment he should not post things publicly.


  7. Jonathan,

    Well, yes, you and I have professional Twitter accounts and don't say much about our personal lives. But consumers are different than you or me, so you can't really use us as models.

    BTW, I keep on referring to @redban when I really mean @busterwilson (Buster Wilson) as the person who made the Zomig tweet. Sorry for the confusion.

    I contend that I have learned a lot -- more than I want to know -- about Buster Wilson by reading his tweets. At one instant in his Twitter life, he mentioned Zomig and for that he merits a response from @AZHelps.

    He also mentions other products in his tweets:

    "Ok. Time to car shop. I'm leaning towards a FORD: Resisted Governt' takeover and Stimulus $$! I'm super supportive of comp's like that!"

    "Chick-Fil-A is still a great place to eat. A good testimony of what a rest. Would look like when done for the glory of Christ."

    "Apple has the GREATEST products in the world, but terrible phone cust support (unless $ n ext. Warr.)But GREAT! reps in local Apple stores!!"

    Does that give Ford, Chick-Fil-A, and Apple a green light to send him a promotional tweet? Pretty soon his MENTION list would be full of Twitter spam messages!

  8. Hmmm, interesting debate chaps.

    At the risk of sounding like I'm sitting on the fence I think you both have a point.

    It is possible to build personal relationships through Twitter to a certain degree, because I've also done it. However, to really then escalate that relationship you can't beat picking up the phone / skyping etc.

    However, I think establishing a peer to peer relationship through Twitter is a lot easier than a patient to pharma one. As a patient, I wouldn't feel comfortable engaging with a potentially faceless person at a big pharma through Twitter and sharing personal information, a phone call would "feel" much better.

    Horses for courses maybe and another example of the "one size fits all" approach never works in social media.

  9. It's not my idea that pharma SHOULD or COULD form personal relations via social media. I do resent, however, co-opting social media for their own purposes and inserting themselves in the conversation without being personal. It's a new kind of spam. As I mentioned above, what if every brand searched out comments and sent canned tweets to ppl via Twitter? Is Ford sending @busterwilson a tweet right now about a sweet deal at his local Ford dealer?

  10. soulflsepulcher how will AZhelps think public will trust them via soc media when they secretly data mine their information? @jonmrich @pharmaguy

    soulflsepulcher is the public trust of drug companies & transparency key to the success of pharma social media? @jonmrich @pharmaguy @jackbilson3

    And, what do you all think about @TonyJewell who is AZ's PR spokesman, using Twitter who used to have a bio stating what he does, then removed it and talks only baseball now? uses the acct to keep track of Seroquel blogs?

    How far does transparency go when wanting the public trust gained for these companies. Secret tracking by hired guns such as v Fluence, is an example of why I would never utilize "AZhelps".

  11. Anonymous2:43 PM

    One of the things in the center of this (for me) is the fact that @busterwilson used Twitter which asks 'What are you doing" and now even lets you geo locate yourself. Twitter allows you to protect your tweets, and thus avoid people like myself and @pharmaguy from seeing what he says.

    @busterwilson went into a movie theater (aka the Internet) and shouted at the top of his lungs (aka Twitter) about Zomig and Obamacare. It appears that only the corporate manufacture of his migraine medication choose to respond to his shout; however lets be clear it could have been the Mississippi GOP letting him know where his local polling places are during the next mid term election day.

    Did he point his tweet to @AZhelps no; but he did mention an AZ product by name and indicate that he had issues getting it. Some would argue that AZ has no right to respond to him; I argue (and others) argue that they almost have a responsibility to help people who publicly tell the world they could use help.

    This is not a facebook wall post, an email to a loved one, an anonymous post on a blog, it was a public shout out using a tool that would allow him to make his shout private to non 'friends'. Pharma gets a bad wrap for not helping its patients; here is an example where they were listening for no other reason to help people who use their products.

    Could AZ do even a better job helping him, perhaps, but at least they are trying and have placed someone in the movie theater to help people who seem to need help.

    I get people who are concerned that pharma is the movie theater watching what people say AND than following them home. However I don't see this as the case in the specific example.

    Privacy is a touchy subject look at the Facebook issues on transparency and clarity. But with Twitter let us be clear the Library of Congress index's every public tweet ever made.


  12. Jack,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I see your point. But WHY didn't Ford or the Mississippi GOP, etc contact him? Is pharma more consumer-friendly?

    In any case, I hope Buster sees MY tweet out to him and provides his comments.

  13. Anonymous3:59 PM

    In this case it would appear pharma is more consumer friendly. Wow we don't say that often enough.

    But also remember the GOP and Ford while national 'brands' are really regional (msgop.org) or local (Stegall Ford Sales Co) organizations when it comes to 'customer' service. AZ is the same in all 50 states so it has more budget and central authority to help people. How much staff could a Ford dealership really have? We should also ask why the Walmart Supercenter on 100 McCord Rd did not offer him generic Imitrex(sumatriptan). After all Walmart runs paid text ads on AdSence; maybe he gets to look forward to that shortly.

    I also hope Buster responds back.


  14. John as always I enjoy your passionate postings. Just curious about your conclusion in this one. Why would a pharmaceutical company want to tweet with a customer about "Obamacare?" Credit AZ for using the medium within its limitations. Maybe @busterwilson will call the AZ number and find an actual solution to his financial issue. Or maybe he'll ignore it and return to tweeting about more interesting topics. Either way, AZ extended an olive branch. Given where pharma is with social media right now, they deserve some credit.

  15. Jeff,

    I was just saying that AZ is hearing only what it wants to hear and not listening to what the person is actually saying. Then it just provides a canned response that probably will have no effect whatsoever. A complete waste of effort. But I guess it can be counted as a response when it comes time to determine ROI -- like how many clicks you get on an ad. Useless exercise except for the vendor who gets paid by how many of these notices they discover that they deem to be worthy of response by AZ.

  16. Well ... I think it depends on whether AZ tracks calls to its 800 number, and the cost of Zomig. If AZ determines that even 1 person gets back on medication after receiving a tweet, there could be a significant ROI. (I don't know what the typical customer lifetime value is for Zomig so I couldn't speculate on the ROI.)


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