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The digital shift in pharma marketing

Indegene’s surveys in 2016 and 2019 show a spike in digital spend

In October 2019, industry leaders from tech and pharma met in Philadelphia to discuss and envision the future of digital in augmenting healthcare. 

One of the panelists who leads omnichannel and data strategy for a large pharma company strongly recommended grabbing every opportunity to know your customer, gather data from various touchpoints, and then create a personalised, relevant service for customers. For an industry that has long functioned within iron-clad regulatory boundaries, this may be a milestone moment.

Creating the right omnichannel mix

The pharma industry embraced the call for digital transformation five years ago in a bid to survive sweeping changes in the business environment. This included the end of the patents era, compliance codes that were more strictly enforced than ever and, most importantly, the online transition of healthcare stakeholders.

Furthermore, the emergence of artificial intelligence and machine learning applications unveiled the extent to which technology could unleash a new wave of customer engagement in a meaningful, outcome-oriented manner. Personalisation became a keystroke in the symphony of omnichannel marketing by new generation pharma marketers.

Fig 1

Industry scrambled to get its omni-mix right. Indegene’s survey in 2016 on the digital shift in pharma marketing had 100 respondents from life sciences and biotech companies across the US, Europe and APAC, and made a couple of bold predictions.

It said that, by 2018, global digital spends were expected to increase between 20% and 30%. The report also predicted that global pharma marketers would spend approximately 19% of their marketing budgets on digital channels, with three dominant engagement channels – mobile apps, social media and HCP portals.

Indegene’s 2019 survey, based on responses from over 100 pharma and bioscience companies, indicated that by 2022, one-third of pharma companies will be spending over 50% of their marketing budget on digital channels

Regional disparities in digital spends

Although one in three marketers at the global level were progressive in their approach to their digital spend exceeding 20% of the overall marketing budget, regional variations had to be factored in.

Digital investments in Europe and the USA were of similar levels, but APAC was most conservative in its approach, with one out of every two respondents confirming that their digital spend was low.

The survey also said that, by 2018, pharma marketers’ preferences for mobile apps as a preferred channel was expected to increase by 30% globally. This was primarily because HCPs across the globe were already using smartphones as the most preferred device for accessing medical information. KOL webinar preference further increased to 69%, asserting its global dominance as the most preferred channel to reach HCPs.

On the downside, more than half the respondents in 2016 cited measuring ROI on digital spends as a barrier to omnichannel spending, with pharma marketers veering toward tried and tested channels such as brand promotion emails and KOL webinars. Progressive marketers, however, confirmed higher conversion rates, using social media and mobile apps as newer channels. The industry continued to use online patient forums to engage with patients.

Data devotion

What the industry did not foresee was a tectonic shift in the rate of digital adoption and the change in the nature of the content demanded by HCPs in the years to come. While the efficacy and safety profile of drugs remained the most sought-after information for prescriptions, there was an unprecedented increase in requests for real-world evidence.

New insights were sought as physicians started to work toward better health outcomes in light of regulatory pressures and payer demands. Technology advances changed the role of medical representatives and they became seen as conduits for precise and personalised content that could be shared on demand.

Data became the new currency as every marketing planner strived to stretch the dollar to deliver tailored content in a hyperlocal digital environment by mapping customer journeys, so much so that algorithms around most written prescriptions had to be available and decoded for content input and prescription output metric.

This meant that the pharma industry had to make another set of investments in data collection, collation and interpretation. Efficiencies had to be built in to respond to HCP needs in a faster and better way. More robust measures of omnichannel investments had to be institutionalised with the commercial organisation within the pharma enterprise.

Digital spikes – onwards and upwards

Three years on, a similar survey done in 2019 culminated in the Pharma Marketer 2020 report predicting a startling shift in digital spends. The report, based on responses from over 100 pharma and bioscience companies, indicated that by 2022, one-third of pharma companies will spend over 50% of their marketing budget on digital channels.

This shift is led by the emergence of new channels of communicating and engaging with HCPs, optimised content marketing and advanced technology deployment.

On average, the number of organisations that are currently spending more than 20% of their marketing budget on digital channels is expected to increase by over 70% over the next six years. This budget increase pattern highlights how marketing organisations across the globe are undergoing a structural change.

Globally, KOL webinars and social media continue to dominate as the most preferred channels in both called-on and white-space marketing.

Figure 2

What’s interesting to note is that third-party websites and online journals in the US and tele-detailing in Europe/Asia received the highest rating as upcoming channels in white-space marketing. This is an eye- opener for pharma marketers in the coming years.

Personalisation emerged as the top effective content strategy for pharma marketers. Respondents confirmed that content personalisation has generated maximum returns on digital investments, addressing the challenges of reduced face time for sales reps.

Besides personalisation, geographical nuances of content strategy in the US included retargeting and localisation of content, while European companies focused on adapting content to device compatibility and promotion of content through infographics, and in Asia, repurposing content into videographics and content promotion through infographics remained an overarching priority.

The bedrock of the digital journey

Marketing organisations managed to build a suite of automation and analytics tools to push content through various digital channels; however, based on survey results, these companies utilise what is now considered ‘staple’ technology (such as campaign management). These companies scored poorly on tools’ deployment for social listening, which has a significant bearing on collecting real-world data.

Digital analytics seemed to be the most popular technology choice among pharma marketers, with close to 65% stating that it has already been implemented within their marketing stack.

Campaign automation is the next most widely implemented technology, with over 60% of respondents already using them within their organisation.

The pharma industry’s digital maturity journey must get fast-tracked with the disproportionate rate of increase in digital adoption by HCPs and the ever- growing need for personalisation.

Millennial HCPs with smart devices are adding a new dimension to the channel mix utilised by pharma companies. This signals an urgent need for investment in advanced technology and robust content strategy for better and more engaging customer journeys.

Value-based and personalised care

At the close of the Indegene Digital Summit 2019 conference in Philadelphia, industry leaders from tech and pharma unequivocally agreed that both industries were converging to enable value-based and personalised care everywhere.

It has never been more critical to know your customer through every given opportunity, make your content discoverable and personalised, develop a healthy and optimal digital mix, automate and measure.


  • In 2016, 37% of companies spent 10-20% of their marketing budgets on digital channels – Source: ‘The Digital Savvy Pharma Marketer 2016’
  • In 2019, 18% of companies spent more than 50% of their marketing budget on digital channels – Source: ‘The Digital Savvy Pharma Marketer 2020’
  • By 2022, 31% of companies will spend more than 50% of their marketing budget on digital channels – Source: ‘The Digital Savvy Pharma Marketer 2020’.

Gaurav Kapoor is Executive Vice President at Indegene

23rd January 2020

From: Marketing

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