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Leveraging ‘weak signals’ to influence a brand strategy and account plan

Health system partnering 29th August 2023

For years, pharma has been trying to turn data into valuable insight in an attempt to be as relevant to customers as possible.

Yet it is a capability that has been difficult to hone. With challenges ranging from how we connect the data; to how we store and manage it; to how we build the skills to translate it into actionable insight.

The answer invariably won’t lie in one big revelation, but more likely resides in the use of weak signals…

Powerful weak signals

Many of us have fleeting thoughts of discovering the next best thing – think AirBnb, iPhone, Tesla.

Such highly successful products/solutions invariably came about by paying attention to weak signals. Signals that may still be a murmur on the sideline or, at first glance, may seem so insignificant. Yet combine 1 weak signal with 3,4 or 5+ more and you may have an indicator of the future [1].

“… identifying and monitoring weak signals over time is integral to getting in on new trends early. Sometimes this can be the difference between catching a new wave and leading this change or getting left behind.”

Andrew Bolwell, Chief Disrupter and Global Head of HP Tech Ventures [2]

Weak signals: A case in point

Many of us will be familiar of the rise and demise of former video rental giant Blockbuster.

At the peak of Blockbusters success, Netflix recognised weak signals. At the time the internet wasn’t a commodity, yet they recognised an increase in access and awareness of the internet; the emergence of search engines; movement away from dial-up to broadband; the rise of ecommerce; improved infrastructure; the dot.com bubble; mobile internet [3]…the list goes on.

As a result, Netflix chose to invest heavily in developing its online streaming platform [4]. Whilst Blockbuster chose to invest in physical stores. So, when streaming became the dominant player, Blockbuster couldn’t adapt quickly enough. They filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

Harnessing weak signals from the top

Listening to and recognising weak signals is no mean feat. But if pharma leaders and their teams hone this capability, they stand to gain a lot when it comes to their customers. So how to do it?

  1. Go broad: From the outset the key to discovering weak signals is to not narrow your focus. Keep your eye on many (many) signals as by their very nature weak signals can lead to nothing, so it is a numbers game.
    Along with this be open minded, otherwise your thinking can go down rabbit holes. Look where very few people are investigating – take a deeper dive into non-obvious facts [5]. Be sure to look way beyond data on what people think of your brand and instead look to data about the influences and agendas of the account and the customers within it e.g. the patient journey.
  2. Continually monitor: Weak signals can be leveraged across an organisation. It shouldn’t just sit with one team or role e.g. KAMs. It is everyone’s job to look out for weak signals – that way you get multiple, valuable perspectives. A great way to encourage this is to have cross-functional account teams meet once every 2 weeks to share and discuss the signals they spot. This can then transcend both up and down the organisation – potentially making a significant difference to the decisions an organisation makes.
  3. Ongoing conversations:Ensure weak signals are being actively discussed. It isn’t just about capturing and tagging them in your CRM. Ensure what is being found is actively being spoken about and debated e.g. what are we seeing, noticing or what’s occurring as a pattern in relation to a signal?
    From here, dedicated roles should take these outputs and look across the organisation – are other areas of the business noticing similar things? If so, how should this be interpreted? Is it pointing towards a new or different opportunity that the organisation should take action on?

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Additional relevant reads on weak signals

Interested in learning more about interpreting weak signals? Here are some useful relevant reads:

  1. HBR article: How to do strategic planning like a futurist
  2. Forbes: Keeping An Eye On The Future Can Help Leaders See Disruption Coming

Learn more about how we help organisations turn data into actionable insight