Social Media Listening: An Introduction (I)

Digital is an integrated part of our everyday lives: we shop, we interact with services, socialize with our family and friends using the online world. A consequence of this shift is the fact that we are generating huge volumes of personal data across all aspects of our lives. The good news for companies across all industries is that this data can be captured through digital channels or devices.

There are two types of online research that can be used to answer the specific business questions: quantitative (measure data and statistics which will reveal a numerical value) and qualitative (leaves the numbers aside and focuses on the “what”).

This series of articles will explore the qualitative part of online research, focusing on Social Media Listening. Taking into account the rise of the empowered patient era, Pharma companies have started to adopt this technique and finally see its’ benefits on the long run.

What is Social Media Listening?

Patients and healthcare professionals alike are producing millions of online conversations everyday.

On one hand, patients are looking to interact with other patients that have similar disease symptoms; seek support groups where they can discuss their unmet needs, frustrations or discoveries; as well as review existing medical treatments.

On the other hand, healthcare professionals want to connect with peers and keep themselves updated with the latest medical discoveries.

For example, on Twitter there are approximately 600 posts per second across its’ 190 million users, and on Facebook there are 60 million status updates per day.¹ These conversations can be captured and analyzed in order to better understand how to serve the needs of different customer groups.

Key considerations: Social Media Listening can give you the “what”, but it cannot answer the “why”. In order to understand the complete picture and make the insights more actionable, the best is to complement it with Primary and Secondary Market Research.

What are the benefits of Social Media Listening?

  1. Availability and accessibility of a big amount of data from the rapidly growing volume of public online conversations. These conversations can be accessed up to a few years back, so they are also an important source of historical data. 

  2. A bigger population sample, as the internet and more specifically social media channels are widely used around the world.

  3. A more cost and time effective research method. Reports can be produced at a fraction of the cost of conventional research methods and in only 10 to 12 weeks (depending on the research scope).

  4. Bigger chances of obtaining honest and unbiased data, as the method is only based on observation and does not include interaction of any kind. This methodology also allows other important topics to surface naturally, so the data analysis does not only provide the answer to the business question, but it can also point at other variables that could prove important for the company.

Challenges for Pharma companies

Besides the above-named benefits, the amount of data available on social media can also be a valuable source of Adverse Events related information, and Pharma companies must find a way to appropriately deal with it.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued some guidelines² for posting information on social media channels, there are no clear answers to the questions that are addressing Adverse Events reporting.

  • Should the company proactively monitor Adverse Events when engaged in a Social Media listening research?
  • Shall the company contact the post owner, if the post mentions a generic drug name that is manufactured and distributed by many other companies?
  • If the post owner has not mentioned enough information for the event to be reported, should the company contact she/he for more information?
  • What are the timelines of reporting such an incident? What if the post is a few month old?

The FDA refers to Adverse Events situations as anything matching these criteria³:

  • Identifiable patient
  • Identifiable reporter
  • Medication identification
  • An adverse effect / event

The lack of clear regulations can be a challenge, but can also be seen as an opportunity, as these circumstances allow for more experimentation. Some key considerations for the Pharma companies that try to navigate this space:

  1. If a potential Adverse Event is encountered on a social media outlet during the research, the company must report it. The company is not forced to actively monitor and search for events. What is more, it is not possible to actually capture all the existing Adverse Events from the web, as according to the “Mining Social Media for Adverse Event Surveillance“⁴ project conducted by Epidemico, LLC for FDA, the analysis “has specific limitations in monitoring safety drug concerns”.

  2. Not all the social media reports match the criteria cited by FDA, so the actual number of reportable incidents is not as high as companies imagine. Furthermore, research has uncovered that the post reports tend to come from the younger generation and are more focused on mild events, that affect the quality of life,  rather than on serious Adverse Events episodes.⁵

  3. Last but not least, it is always good to consult the company’s compliance team for further advice and guidance on the local rules and regulations.

COMING NEXT: Social Media Listening: Uncovering Its’ Potential (II)


  1. Ernst & Young: Digital data opportunities – Using insight to drive relevance in the digital world
  2. FDA: Using Social Media 
  3. FDA: Postmarketing Safety Reporting for Human Drug and Biological Products Including Vaccines 2001
  4. FDA: Mining Social Media for Adverse Event Surveillance
  5. Mei Sheng Duh, Brian Ellman, Marc Van Audenrode, Paul E. Greenberg and Pierre Y. Cremieux; Analysis Group, Inc: Learning From Social Media For Adverse Event Reporting


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