A New Year and a New Approach to Patient Connection

January 2022
Reaching HCPs in a post-COVID world

New Approach to Patient Connection

The experience of the patient has come into increasing focus as we have worked with thought leaders to identify ways digital innovation can improve patient health outcomes. Whether it be the patient’s digital journey or identifying new ways to provide help and education, marketers we speak to are passionate about patient support. To kick off the new year, I spoke with Tracy Rosencrans to unpack some new trends happening on Healthline’s patient communities, Bezzy (think your best friend across the pond). Organized by chronic condition, these online social villages are giving patients a place to encourage, ask questions, and build support. What follows is my conversation with Tracy, Healthline Media’s EVP of Media.

– Christine Franklin, Executive Director, The DHC Group

Q: One of the first — if not THE first — social networks launched 19 years ago, almost two decades. Myspace brought people together for a wide range of reasons, including music. If we fast-forward to 2022, how have communities, and especially health communities, evolved over that time? What was the primary driver in the early days — and today?

Then and now, what people really want is to connect. Of course, that looked different in the early, experimental days. For instance, lots of people were trying out a new kind of connection based on anonymous interaction, though they might connect with IRL friends in chat rooms, too. Social media changed everything. Today, people are more likely to want to bring their authentic selves with them into online spaces, and they are often hoping to build real connections with people who are otherwise strangers.

Early on, subject-specific web communities were actually a common choice for online interaction before the rise of social networks. We’ve come full circle — today, more people are choosing to supplement social media with specific communities, like chronic condition communities, because of the unique opportunity to find people who understand. People want to talk with others who share their experiences. They also go to these spaces to read personal narratives that reflect their own experiences back to them, further contributing to that sense of shared understanding.

Q: In the latter part of 2021, we began talking about behavioral science and the role in understanding factors that go beyond direct data points. As the conversation has evolved, it’s apparent there are emotional components to patient communication that are crucial to driving action. In your research in developing Bezzy, what have you learned about the role of communities in addressing patient needs?

Third-party research demonstrates that when people have the right support system in their life, they are more likely to adhere to healthy behaviors. We know from our audience insights that nearly half of people with chronic conditions simply don’t feel understood by those around them. We were inspired to launch our communities based on the insight that there isn’t a clear destination that provides a curated, safe, engaging environment for people living with a chronic disease. There are many communities that offer anonymous, scaled validation, but very few that offer safe spaces with fewer people to allow for meaningful interactions.

Communities can best address members’ needs by offering opportunities for meaningful connection between people who share experiences. That could come in various forms — chats, forums, virtual events, and so on — but it remains the most valuable thing communities can offer. That sense of belonging is also what drives people to spend time on the platform chatting, clicking on articles, watching videos, etc.

We’ve also found that bringing content creators on board is a powerful way to kick-start community engagement. Creators bring authenticity to the table right away, sharing the kinds of emotions and experiences that people are hoping to access. They are experts at building followings and getting people to share their own stories, too. When communities let creators take the lead, it can really set the right tone and help give members what they need.

Q: When looking at digital influencer efforts with pharma, the need to let content creators be authentic is often in tension with the desire to carefully craft a message and control the conversation stream. Any learnings from either successes or failures to date?

One productive path forward is to bring content creators onto our channels. There we can serve as an informed facilitator because of our insights, while allowing the authenticity of our content creators to shine. I want content creators to bring their real selves, imperfections and all! Where we can’t compromise is upholding standards that really matter — like ensuring health information is accurate and language is used consciously so that everyone feels welcome.

And it’s not just about content creators. The same standards should be upheld for all community content, from articles to discussion boards. It’s about creating a safe environment where members can trust each other, believe what they read, and therefore engage more fully.

Q: “If you build it, they will come” isn’t enough for a successful patient community. What is top of your must-do list to help members engage with confidence?

At the top of the list is ensuring that we are rigorous in understanding what audiences want, and evolving our platform and approach as those preferences change over time. We can’t take a “set it and forget it” approach. For a community to have the biggest positive impact on people’s lives, it should have features and capabilities that continually raise the bar on engagement.

For instance, we know that for different types of chronic conditions, people are interested in different types of community capabilities. This makes sense if you think about the typical health journey for any given condition. For example, people living with breast cancer might value personal narratives, stories that uplift while keeping it real. On the other hand, those living with chronic migraine are focused on strategies for relieving the symptoms. I’m not talking about relying on assumptions — I mean taking a rigorous approach to understand what community members actually prefer and use.

Q: What are some best practices with regard to how pharma can work with health communities? It seems like it’s a blend of working with key influencers (or paid spokespeople) and targeted advertising for brands on a demographic or disease state basis. What’s working today with brands and communities in health and pharma?

Online communities offer exciting opportunities for pharma to reach specific, targeted audiences that are highly engaged in their environment. These high quality audiences spend more time in their online communities and return often. Pharma marketers should look for communities that show higher levels of engagement.

In addition, each community group has unique characteristics. Having insight into these characteristics is an opportunity for marketers to align with the communities that are best-suited to their messaging and approach, whether that means leading with empathy and narratives or front-loading solutions. When marketing really resonates with a community’s needs, it can lead to great results.

An interview with
Tracy Rosecrans
Tracy Rosecrans

Tracy is the EVP of Media at Healthline Media. You can learn more about her on Linkedin.

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