As COVID-19 continues its choke hold on our global society, pharmaceutical companies around the world are doing their utmost to respond to the crisis, whether through expedited vaccine or treatment trials, providing medical expertise or taking extra measures to support at-risk patient groups. Meanwhile, their critical business questions need answering, and many new and tough questions have emerged for them as we see clinical trials halted, sales forces grounded, and new patient and physician concerns emerging daily.


Despite the evolving pandemic, a lot of primary market research around the world is proceeding. However, a subset of market research with healthcare professionals is currently being reevaluated, and in some cases postponed. The situation is most acute for research with HCPs at the front lines of the pandemic, or whose day-to-day patient care has become unexpectedly complex. Other studies that are being disrupted are those whose results risk being significantly skewed or biased by the current interruptions to daily life.


When we do interact with our customers through market research, we need to be agile and flexible in our approach to minimize burden and minimize biases. This will involve changing the way we ask for information (length of engagement, length of recruiting) and gaining additional perspective on how dynamic or static their perceptions are. How have their beliefs about the topic changed since the pandemic started? How might they change going forward if it improves? As we get closer and closer to our new normal, it becomes more important to understand our customers’ perceptions of our products and services in this new normal.


Of course in some cases there may be the potential to delay the research entirely. What can we do when we cannot engage with our customers to gain insights in our typical fashion? Here are six powerful, creative sources of customer insights that you might not have considered before but could be invaluable in the short term:


1. Turn to online panels with shorter, more frequent engagement. App-based research forums recruit an “always on” panel for a particular study and elicit bite-sized pieces of information over a period of time. For example, rather than asking a physician to participate in a 45-minute online survey on a computer, the physician can share feedback in five- or 10-minute increments over the course of a week. The questions asked are engaging and are often completed closer to the moment in time that we are asking about, thus reducing burden and bias.


2. Leverage social media analytics. Social media analytics is the process of tracking online conversations around specific themes, phrases, words or brands, and using that data to better understand customer beliefs and behaviors. These insights can allow us to discover opportunities for product development, brand positioning strategy reputation management, competitive insights and more. Social data can also be used qualitatively to get a read on what’s happening from our customers’ own voices—basically using it to fill a temporary gap in qualitative interviews. Powered by advanced analytical techniques, such as natural language processing and machine learning, social media analytics enables us to recognize patterns and detect meaningful differences, as well as accounting for alarmist or fake news. Actionable insights can be drawn by looking out for these patterns, tracking sentiment and drawing conclusions based on where and when conversations happen.


3. Infer customer perspectives from your field teams. In the past, we often hesitated to “bother” our customer-facing teams, not wanting to take them away from time in the field. Now that they are not in the field, what questions can we ask them based on their deep customer relationships and knowledge about their customer’s beliefs and behaviors? One-on-one phone or video interviews would allow us to go deep with individuals in their area of expertise. Focus groups with field teams can also be very insightful during this time. These can easily be set up as video sessions, and we can leverage breakout groups and interactive exercises to help participants surface issues and co-creation solutions. In the good old days, this was a seldom-used approach since it would take our field team members out of the field.


Thinking about potential field personnel to tap into, we should think broadly: Tapping sales reps and their managers is an obvious potential route, as are medical field resources. Many companies also have other individuals who work in customer-facing roles—such as nurse ambassadors, patient ambassadors or individuals supporting patient support programs—who may also serve as a source of customer insight.


Building on this theme, I invite you to consider this: Are there systems and processes that we can put in place with our field teams now to help them regularly share customer feedback, objections and behaviors now and in the future?


4. Tap into the collective knowledge of your organization. When we consider the collective medical expertise across a pharma company, it can be overwhelming. Medical or clinical team members may be particularly relevant to engage with to better understand things like a patient journey, or potential patient types for a pipeline asset. Sales and marketing colleagues often have deep, untapped perspectives. Further, they may have recent relevant insights from working across different therapeutic areas and assets. Depending on the business question, we should look broadly for the right internal experts, whether that means across business units, teams or even markets. Times like this call for us to rally together and share whatever useful knowledge we have internally.


5. Mine past market research. It’s rare that a custom primary market research study only asks and answers the key business questions that led to the study being commissioned. Most studies dig much deeper and stretch much broader, laying down foundational understanding and context, and exploring interesting and unexpected avenues of customer behavior. It’s highly possible that there are some insights buried in qualitative research transcripts or deliverables that could help the team make a critical decision now. Prior quantitative research can also often be cut in new ways. A tracking study may provide foundational insights to develop an initial customer segmentation. Perhaps to understand how to overcome the barriers to use of a product, you drill into the raw data from a recent segmentation study, synthesizing a new picture of what we know about the relevant customer beliefs and behaviors, and what we can infer about how to overcome that challenge.


6. Listen to internal sources of customer voices. Our customers’ voices come through to us through many different channels, and perhaps we could start listening in new ways. For example, many medical affairs organizations may have recordings of phone calls that they are getting from patients, which can be mined using natural language processing and AI algorithms to understand key reasons for product discontinuation and gaps in patient management, while respecting all the requirements for patient data protection and confidentiality. Similarly, your organization may have access to data from partners, such as recordings or transcripts of specialty pharmacy conversations, which can also be analyzed to understand current customer issues and behaviors. In typical times, such data is often more cumbersome to interpret than going direct to healthcare professionals to answer a business question. However, when primary research is not possible, with a bit of massaging, these untapped, typically unstructured sources of data may offer a useful source of insights.


The above solutions should also not be considered in isolation as they are more powerful when brought together to help fill in the gaps of understanding. None of these alternative sources of customer insight, even in totality, will be as good as customized primary market research. However, where primary market research is deemed infeasible in the short term, they will certainly help fill the gap and are worthy of exploring.