Listening: A Bitter Pill?

When the tide of public opinion threatens your enterprise, perhaps it’s time to acquire some deeper consumer understanding.

2004 was a tough year for drug marketers, with the seemingly unstoppable momentum of media and regulatory scrutiny for being a step or two removed from the full effect of their products.

Despite an explosion of direct-to-consumer advertising (well over a billion dollars in 2004), drug marketers remained tepid at best to leveraging the Web — arguably the world’s most potent consumer expression vehicle — as a direct-to-company listening vehicle. Some would argue they go out of their way to avoid consumer feedback.

Mind you, I have no axe to grind with the drug industry. Not a day goes by when I’m not hoping — nay, praying — for some miracle drug to arrest the painfully sobering advance of my 75-year-old mother’s early-stage Alzheimer’s condition. I would probably even advocate her taking an unapproved drug. Some hope is better than none.

That said, in the course of my marketing career I’ve analyzed the DNA of thousands of brands and company Web sites. What continues to surprise me is drug marketers, merchants of hope who probably have the most to gain from proactive listening and sensing, do the least to invite or encourage direct consumer feedback.

When’s the last time you saw a real “contact us” or feedback form on a pharmaceutical Web site? Take a stroll around Merck’s Web site, for instance, and try to find a venue for sharing your opinion – any opinion, even about its latest ad campaign.

In stark contrast to thousands of other brands with an online presence, you won’t find an email link or online feedback form. If you look really hard, you might find an address for mailing a letter and even a telephone number. But the number isn’t toll-free, and you can only call between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., EST.

In fairness, Merck’s site does note:

If you have questions related to Merck prescription products, your medical condition or personal health matters, please contact your physician or healthcare provider since he or she is most familiar with your medical condition.

It makes sense to involve the physician, but limiting “feedback moments” to the doctor seems odd, given the almost-overwhelming shift by drug manufacturers to direct-to-consumer advertising. Drug brands can now talk directly to consumers, but if consumers wants to talk back, they must go through an intermediary? What if the doctor gives short shrift to an alleged “adverse event,” leaving the drug manufacturer in the dark?

If You Listen, You’re Liable!

It’s not that drug marketers don’t want to know, but FDA reporting requirements, despite good intentions, have de facto prohibited drug manufacturers from genuine consumer-to-company listening. Even a one-sentence consumer complaint attributable to a specific drug about an alleged hiccup can kick the “adverse event” disclosure process in full gear.

Put another way, if you listen, you’re liable. So, why listen? There’s an obvious reason for disclosure, but in its current form the requirements seem to have created a chilling “why bother” effect. Inevitably, “play it safe” conservatism, led by in-house lawyers, creeps into the system. Basic communication tools such as Web sites consequently remain in the Stone Age.

With a high dosage of paranoia in the system, how does the truth emerge? Are outsourced clinical studies or rerouted physician assessments sufficient? How do you make a smart marketing or business decision when only half the data are on the table? As marketers, we’re taught to be analytical and data driven, so partial data, or “half-listening,” can only get us so far.

The reality is this: Whether you are Merck or McDonald’s, you need to listen to the consumer, and you need to do so using the tools consumers so readily embrace in their daily routines. In the end, proactive listening — even with strings attached (e.g., FDA reporting) — can inform judgment, improve vision, reduce guessing, and provide critical early warning to what may be coming around the corner, including regulatory policy. Yes, you’ll have to endure a few bogus, unsubstantiated complaints. But just consider all the ad garbage consumers must tolerate to receive legitimate marketing messages.

Remember: Consumers who bitch, rant, or publicly complain on message boards or blogs are often taking revenge on companies that ignore, shun, or silence them. So they publicly spew their anger, often within easy earshot of insurance companies and litigation-hungry class-action lawyers looking for consumer cartels of discontent. Healthcare and wellness is one category in which consumers create lots of consumer-generated media.

Believe me, the lawyers are listening — better than the drug companies themselves. Just type Vioxx or Celebrex into Google. See the parade of $20-per-click lawyer-sponsored ads in the right corner? Indeed, today’s class-action lawyer can skim bad consumer experiences off the Web as easily as fishing at a trout farm.

Pete’s Prescription

My advice to drug marketers: Revisit your feedback loop. Interactivity brings new rules. There’s a real risk of what lawyers dub “intentional ignorance” if you keep the feedback door closed. The fact that you’re going directly to consumers brings new expectations. Consumers expect a degree of reciprocity.

The worst that could happen? Regulatory requirements would become more onerous, bureaucratic, and stifling. If that happens, everyone loses — including the consumer.

Keep hope alive.

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