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GlaxoSmithKline 'listened' to social media chatter about vaccine worries

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To understand why parents balk at routine vaccinations for their kids, London-based drug giant GlaxoSmithKline undertook a project to mine parent websites with text analytics software from an MIT spinoff. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the project has led the drugmaker to reconsider how it helps physicians communicate with parents about inoculating their children.

Glaxo ($GSK) and other vaccinemakers face a major hurdle in overcoming deeply ingrained beliefs about the potential harms of vaccinations. The Internet is full of theories about the dangers of vaccines, including the persistent belief that the shots increase the risk of or cause autism, despite scientific studies that have shown otherwise. Failure to vaccinate kids has been linked to spikes in diseases such as measles.

As the WSJ reported, GSK tapped Luminoso to drill into online conversations from BabyCenter.com and WhattoExpect.com with text-mining software to get to the truth about why parents delay vaccines for such diseases as measles and mumps. The startup's text analytics picked up on patterns regarding the safety, timing and comfort of the shots from thousands of posts.   

"When you go into the public forums, that's where this conversation is taking place," Dominic Hein, a member of GSK's vaccine group, told the business newspaper. "And by listening to what our customers say to each other we can better understand their needs."

Glaxo gathered the information about parents' concerns without the people knowing about the project. While GSK is allowed to analyze data from the public Internet, a "mommy blogger" told the WSJ she viewed the project as a bit "intrusive." Nevertheless, Luminoso, an MIT Media Lab spinoff, and other analytics providers have found more business from pharma. IMS Health scooped up one such software outfit, Semantelli, to capitalize on the demand.

Like it or not, pharma companies are listening closely to social media sites for information about patients and physicians as they strive to understand their target customers. In GSK's case, the insights from the vaccine project are motivating the company to provide doctors with better vaccine information to give to concerned parents.

- check out the WSJ article

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