"had colon cancer; what age should my children begin colonoscopies?"
"multiple sclerosis can be misdiagnosed for what other diseases?"
"what food to avoid when you suffer from fibromyalgia?"
Sure, some of the signs had only a few words like "Lipitor dose" or "DVT airplane" but the bottom line is that as people type more and more words into the search box, they begin signaling issues, needs and concerns that had previously been very expensive to gather. You had to rely on in-depth interviews and focus groups and, even then, you rarely got samples big enough to instill confidence that no material concerns were missed.
Looking at these "signs" or search phrases paints a more complete picture. I'm not talking about the "top 10 searches" -- but rather about the thousands and, in many cases, tens of thousands of search phrases that are readily available in campaign management tools and web site administration tools. I have found it especially instructive to pull at least 5,000 search phrases and filter out those with fewer than four words because as the string gets longer, it begins to look like a more complete thought -- many times an actionable thought.
I have looked at tens of thousands of these strings and I can tell you that they offer real insight into patient concerns about a diagnosis, treatment options, symptom ambiguity and -- perhaps most important -- the family situations and daily concerns related to living with many of these diseases. This view into a patient's real world is priceless.
For example, in colon cancer, 59% of the searches focus on tests and treatment but "diabetes" and "diet" show up 5% of the time. Looking further, the specific concern is about delaying the screening because of fears that the preparatory diet or fasting would have blood sugar consequences.
How to ask for these free insights
I'm not suggesting that the big market research firms are becoming less relevant. I'm stating that new sources of insight can illuminate previously hard-to-see needs in the population. These data are free or very low-cost if you ask the questions and crunch the numbers.
Three things to ask for to get free market research for your brand:
1) If you are spending money on search marketing, ask your SEM buyer to provide you with a search term analysis that includes the full search strings that broad matching has obtained for your campaign. Well beyond that list of keywords that is driving your traffic and conversions are the longer-tail phrases that carry the color of the concerned patient. Every search campaign should yield thousands of these each month, if not more. Ask for it.
2) If you are advertising on a condition-specific health site, ask the media company to give you an analysis of the referring search strings that their analytics tools (from the free ones like Google Analytics to the pricey ones) capture as part of traffic source reporting. Not only do these referring searches provide insights into the consumer mindset, they can also validate the quality of the audience at that site. For example, a wealth of "anything but pills" kinds of traffic suggests a psychographic that is simply not interested in pharmaceutical intervention.
3) If you already license syndicated research from comScore, Hitwise or Compete, you can use these tools to look at the kinds of searches that define different disease categories and segment the concerns in ways that fit with your market segmentation.
Data from any of these sources can both validate what you have accumulated to date and often suggest new needs or concern areas that may be addressable in ad creative or at your brand.com site. I've probably oversimplified the process a bit so please jump in with a comment if you have questions or other ideas along these lines.