Social media as a healthcare research tool

By Susi ONeill

Social media is increasingly being used as a test-bed for conducting research with users, bringing them into the product development process as active participants and monitoring trends in user or client behaviour.

If you’re operating in a regulated healthcare environment, your social media participation might start as an information collation or broadcast tool rather than for direct engagement. There are numerous tools which can enable you to keep track of your competitors and measure user behaviour to inform your own marketing, engagement and product development strategies.

1.     Product and brand tracking tools

As a marketer, keeping abreast of the competition is an essential part of your job. They days of scouring press releases in trade journals, awaiting annual reports and attending far-flung conferences are in the past: today, more information than ever before is online and accessible about you and your competition and can be delivered direct to your desktop.

Ensuring you sign up for the relevant e-newsletters, Twitter feeds and Google Alerts for your competitors is an effective and immediate means of benchmarking how your own activity and profile compares with your competitors.  This previous article in Engagement Strategy takes you through the process of setting up alerts and information feeds. Users of social media can be quick to respond critically and publicly to situations and experiences, so tracking formal press along with conversational mentions allows you to monitor more effectively how your own and competitors’ brands are being discussed.

With the recent news that Google will be including social media in its search results, following on from the recent integration of Google and Microsoft’s Bing engine with Twitter into search results, considered management of brands and corporate profiles in online conversations and measuring responses will become increasingly significant in the development of the semantic web as user-recommendation interlinks with search engine functionality.

2.      Accessing research

Many search tools now make it easier to access research, articles and links to online resources archived by other users:

Academic research:

Google Scholar

searches published academic research using weightings to rank publications based on how often they have been cited in other publications.

Mendeley, which describes itself as the iTunes for research papers, is a new service from Stefan Glänzer, the former Chairman of music search service Last fm.  It allows researchers to store together, search and cite easily all their research and connect with other researchers. Funded by the backers of Skype and Warner Music, this technology is not exclusively for the hallowed corridors of academia but is intended for wider roll-out to other research and enterprise sectors.

Enterprise search:

It’s likely that historic data you need to map longer-term trends may already exist in another department or site within your organisation. Enterprise search is a software solution to provide in-depth analysis to information within the enterprise, sourcing information from a range of internal sources including email, databases and intranets. It is a technical form of knowledge management for larger organisations, relying less on human cataloguing and gatekeepers and more on search parameters.  Enterprise Search is typically a high-budget, high-tech solution for large enterprises and knowledge institutes, however, lower-cost solutions using the easy usability and functionality of search engines are growing in popularity like Google’s Enterprise Search solution.

3. Bookmarking

Popular social bookmarking sites such as Digg, Technorati and Delicious allow professionals to catalogue their reading; these results can be made accessible to others or even integrated as feeds into a website or blog.  Social Mention allows search by keywords within bookmarking sites in addition to other social media tools such as blogs, microblogs and networks.  By storing research results as separate CSV/Excel files, you can perform analysis comparing responses from different platforms and also identify the key ‘thought leaders’ and influencers in your field.

Social Mention

4.     Tracking and measuring user engagement

Sentiment analysis:

As the web becomes more focused on person-to-person interactions, sentiment analysis has become a growing trend to analyse the quality of users responses rather than just tracking the volume of engagement through links or webpage views.  The Social Mention page above, left, shows how sentiment can be rated as positive, neutral or negative by analysing reviews, recommendations and a database of emotive keywords to determine the attitude conveyed in any communication.

Trending tools:

Many bespoke social media engagement platforms now provide sophisticated trend analysis tools which track the less easily measurable outputs of online engagement.  Free tools like Nielsen’s Blog Pulse allows you to measure blog trending topics in quantitative terms.  Likewise, Trendpedia allows the same with comparison charts of competitive terms, showing the market awareness and profile from online editorial and comment the brand or company is attracting, which can be converse to its actual market position:


In addition to social media, measuring queries with search engines can reveal how users are responding to or using your product.  Running a search on users questions relating to a medical condition shows a range of results:

Questions being asked

Knowing patients concerns and how they choose to phrase them presents an opportunity, allowing the marketer to respond to these search terms with timely consumer information in the form of well optimised pages on your own website, driving traffic and increasing consumer confidence.

Telligent is a specialist social media platform which aligns consumer engagement with brand management.  It provides extensive analytics to track ‘soft’ measurement of engagement to prove ‘hard’ results from social engagement including measuring sentiment, levels of connectivity, productivity in internal groups and ‘hot topics’.

Partnering with other professional groups or sponsoring social media sites and services may provide access to a rich mine of engagement data.  Telligent’s current clients include the American College of Healthcare Executives, the American Psychiatric Association and the British Dental Association.

5.    Crowdsourcing research and open innovation

Crowdsourcing, engaging a community of people in a task through an open call, was a term first coined by Jeff Howe in a 2006 Wired magazine article.  Howe described how the National Health Museum in Washington, DC, sourced photos of pandemic victims from an exhibition from istockphoto using the ‘wisdom’ (or frequently just the footfall) of crowds to access and deliver affordable services.

Crowdsourcing also links closely with the idea of open innovation, a term coined by Berkley Professor Henry Chesbrough to describe how big corporations need to look outwards to buy in the latest innovations from smaller or more specialist businesses, a model now used by many technology companies including IBM and Google.

Some businesses are developing open innovation in the pharmaceutical industry through galvanising and organising crowds of specialists. Edison Innovations have a web portal to identify new markets and innovations by tapping into ‘scopers’, the thorn-in-the-side of industry who always point out what could be done better.  The system stems from the belief that most market research is flawed and produces only constant ‘yes’ answers. It exploits the frustration of scopers and benefits from the wisdom of crowds (many who will participate just for the fun of it) which online technologies can harness.  From this pool Edison Innovations develop the idea and sells it to an established business or start-up on a royalty basis.

In a controlled DTC market, your crowdsourcing may be based around inter-sector exchange, connecting and learning from medical practitioners, journalists, researchers or other thought leaders in your field, tapping into both open and closed networks.

Open networks:

Linked In Answers

is an open, global forum to pose questions to the world’s largest business network and to stimulate discussion and debate.  By searching against keywords specific to your specialist area and contributing to the discussion, this could help to diffuse criticism or influence opinion about your brand whilst supporting the industry.  It’s a perfect way of flexing your muscle as a thought-leader, in conjunction with a blog or other engagement strategy.

Don’t forget the deceptively simple Twitter Search tool for engaging with, and monitoring the comments of, other thought leaders or influencers in your field.

Closed networks:

You can conduct research with specific users through closed groups using social media networking sites such as Doctors Hangout, but avoid the temptation to hard sell: observe and interact but respect the informality and ethos of the network, as those engaged in conversations through specialist networks or in groups within social-based networks like Facebook are not going there to be sold to in the first instance.

If you are conducting research, online survey tools such as Survey Monkey and Survey Gizmo allow you to create a quick and simple online survey which can be easily analysed and segmented.  For closed groups, password protection is a feature of Question Pro.  Participation levels and quotas are hard to achieve for robust research but it can allow for a quicker frame of response to single-topic, immediate issues, and you may be surprised to find out how many people are interested in taking part. People are more likely to respond if they feel their views are being taken into account to progress innovation and development, and they can access the results at the end of the survey to benchmark their own experiences with their peers.

There are many online tools to conduct market research, but the measurement and analysis can be time consuming even when the tools themselves are free or low-cost so usage requires a strategic approach.  If you would like to talk with a digital strategist you can contact us to find out more about how to effectively use these tools and services.

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Meet the Author

Susi ONeill