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Bombarded with information – the challenge of crowded digital channels

Chris Ross explores the pursuit of communications excellence in a world of noise

A few years ago, a bloke in America decided to count the number of branded communications he was exposed to in a single day.

After reaching 487 before he’d even finished his breakfast, he quickly opted to abort the experiment. That was in 2015. Today, he might not get to start eating his croissant. In the digital age, the average person is apparently exposed to between 6,000 and 10,000 promotional messages or branded items every day. Whether that’s via TV, print, digital platforms, social channels or mobile media, that’s quite an onslaught. A lot of people are going to a lot of trouble to try to get our attention.

The time we spend online, or glued to a mobile device, is growing astronomically – and much of it is peppered with interruptive pop-ups, branded content or native advertising. Alongside it, as the number of channels at our disposal ever increases, traditional marketing still lands on our doormats and even the most primitive forms of electronic communication continue to flood our inboxes. More than 300 billion emails and 23 billion text messages are sent, worldwide, every day.

The equivalent stats for social media marketing are equally staggering; last year, companies invested $84bn – 13% of global ad spend – on social media advertising. And that investment is only going to get bigger. It’s fair to say that, as consumers, we’re being bombarded with information. Much of it doesn’t make it past our attention wall. However, as the online migration caused by COVID-19 forces even more content through crowded digital channels, the challenge facing modern marketers is only getting harder. How do you get noticed? As the author and philosopher, Matshona Dhliwayo, says: ‘The world accommodates you for fitting in, but only rewards you for standing out.”

Therein lies the paradox of communication: a strong message has to fit in and stand out. If we don’t recognise it, we don’t notice it. And if we don’t notice it, it’s failed. To compound the challenge, it’s widely accepted that in communications, ‘familiarity breeds apathy’. So even if we recognise a message, the point at which it stops standing out is the point at which we stop paying attention. Public health guidelines for COVID-19 are a great example. So in a world of non-stop noise and cluttered channels, how do you prevent your messages getting stuck in the bottleneck?

Success is all about the quality of your creative communications. You may be championing groundbreaking innovation, but if your communications don’t differentiate, you’ll likely never cut through.

Communications excellence

Communications excellence is a clichéd term but it’s never been more important. That’s certainly the case in pharma, where the challenge of getting high-cost medicines to patients is as much about effective communication as it is about scientific innovation. Differentiated communications are at the heart of great customer experiences – and they’re a proven driver of competitive advantage. So how can companies deliver it?

The core components of communications excellence typically boil down to audience, message, channel and metrics. There are nuances at play across all of them, and COVID-19 has provided some added spice. But despite the challenges, it looks like pharma comms are heading in the right direction.

Ask the audience

According to Chris Finch, Managing Director, earthware, the industry’s transition to customer centric comms has shifted beyond rhetoric.

“Pharma is moving away from the old approach where marketing teams would start by asking themselves: ‘What do we want to say to our customers?’ Today, they begin from a different perspective: ‘What do our customers need from us? And how do we address those needs through our communications strategy?’ Pharma companies are no longer just shouting product messages at the market, they’re focusing on the problems customers face and then working out how they can communicate the availability of medicines or services that can help to solve them. Customers’ pain points are at the root of product innovation – and they’re the foundation of communications strategy too.”

Getting it right, said Chris, is about involving all your stakeholders throughout the process. “When we’re designing solutions, we always recommend bringing end users into the process – at the earliest possible opportunity – and trying to understand what their world looks like. What are the pains and gains that person experiences? And how can your solution help alleviate the challenges and realise the gains?

"This insight forms the basis of our communications strategies. We then iterate and test it with those same end users all the way through the process – to ensure we’re saying the right things and using the right channels. Those ongoing conversations are critical. They inform your messaging, your channel plan and your solution development. And crucially, they give you confidence that the solutions you’re developing always link back to a problem that needs solving. When they do, customers don’t just value them, they use them.”

The change of approach is a huge step forward. “In the past, some pharma companies just jumped straight into solution thinking,” said Chris. “Now, right across the industry, teams are taking a more customer-centric approach; they’re mapping their stakeholders, identifying their priorities and then building on that insight to evolve solutions. It’s the only way to go.”

The greatest story never told

It’s widely agreed that customer insight is the anchor for everything comms. It drives brand positioning, channel planning, customer experience and metrics – and a whole lot more in between. However, when it comes to messaging, there may be room for improvement. Communications is all about storytelling, but according to Blair Hesp, Principal Consultant at First In Human Communications, there’s a key plotline missing.

“There’s a treasure trove of riches in first-inhuman studies that is currently untapped,” said Blair. “At the moment, data that’s captured at that point is greatly valued from a regulatory perspective, but its value from a communications perspective is often underappreciated. Brands are missing out on a crucial part of the story: the origin story. Where has the medicine come from? And what does that mean in the real world, when the patient is sitting in front of the doctor?

“Data from early phase studies on healthy humans typically focuses on two things: pharmacokinetics (what the body does to the drug), and pharmacodynamics (what the drug does to the body). It’s important stuff – but it’s really inaccessible. Few people understand it, and even fewer are motivated to read it! Companies have a duty to publish the information within 12 months of the study – but this is typically considered an obligation rather than an opportunity.

"We’re missing a trick. Communicating early-stage data is an opportunity for brands to make the link between the science and clinical practice. When the patient is in front of the doctor, understanding how that patient’s unique characteristics – age, gender, weight, smoker, hepatic/renal function, existing conditions/ medicines, etc – could influence a drug’s effect on them and can help doctors make more personalised treatment decisions. That interaction is when the theory collides with the real world.”

The challenge for pharma, said Blair, is making phase 1 data accessible, digestible and understandable.

“That requires skilled communications professionals who can translate medical jargon into plain language. When it’s communicated properly, phase 1 data can bolster a brand’s overall messaging and build HCP understanding around its appropriate use. Industry must make the most of it. At the moment, early stage data is potentially the greatest story never told. It’s a ready but underutilised resource that could be plugged into many key elements of the brand story. The smartest marketers will be those who recognise phase 1 data as an opportunity to differentiate – then translate it and integrate it into their overall communications programmes. Because first-in-human communications might just be the missing ingredient of communications excellence.”

Better connected

Another key factor in achieving communications excellence is the ability to reach customers using the channels most relevant to them. In the digital age, getting the channel mix right has become a major battleground. As exciting new channels open up, marketers are naturally eager to use them. However, the dangers of thinking channel-first are now well understood.

Marketers know that if they don’t meet their customers ‘where they live’, investment and opportunity will inevitably be wasted. Once again, everything points back to customer insight.

“Communications excellence is the ultimate yardstick of everything we do,” said James Mayfield, Creative Director, Purple Agency. “It’s about looking at the impact a communication is having at the business end of the funnel and asking: is it effective? If you’re going to get that right, you’ve got to get back to basics. That begins by building a real understanding of your target audience and being crystal clear on the change you want to drive.

"The goal is to move them from a current belief to a desired belief – and that means immersing yourself in their world, understanding their priorities and using that insight to develop reasons to believe, both practically and emotionally. This provides the springboard for creativity when you can start to think about brand propositions, messaging matrixes, journey maps and touchpoints that will determine your channel mix. But if you don’t get to grips with that insight right up front, everything else you put in the machine – the great data, creativity and innovation – will be wasted. You’ll end up with something bland rather than something differentiated.”

Channel mix is all important – it plays a key role in differentiating the customer experience. With HCPs and patients now emphatically ‘digital consumers’, the proliferation of online channels is shining a bright light on pharma’s use of digital. “Companies have really begun to think differently about how they activate campaigns – they’re far more customer-centric,” said James.

“In the past few years, digital has been ramping up, but COVID has moved it to another level. However, as communications increasingly move online, the challenge isn’t limited to ensuring you’re using the right channels, it’s in making sure that all your channels are connected. It’s not just about transferring messages across, it’s about ensuring that your calls to action and the triggers that get people to engage all play out consistently and effectively. Joining up the journey so customers can move seamlessly between channels is crucial to the customer experience – but it’s also key to triggering the next interaction and gathering valuable data that’s going to enrich your understanding.”

Ultimately, said James, everything needs to join up and hook back to the customer. “Pharma’s use of digital channels is only going to grow, and companies must continue to be brave and bold in how they make the most of them. But if we want to create communications that stand out and inspire customers to do something different, we’ve got to get closer to our audiences and make their needs (not ours) the centre of our universe.“

Golden rules

The importance of integrated communication isn’t just limited to customers – it applies to internal operations too. “The golden rule for all communications is that your activity needs to align with and deliver on your business’s or client’s strategic priorities,” said Emma Gorton, Senior Director, Hanover Communications.

“This means that comms plans should not be developed independently of other stakeholder engagement workstreams – they should be considered as part of the bigger picture and target those commercial challenges where there is potential to make the most meaningful impact. Many of the challenges pharma companies face today are complex and it is therefore rare to see successful campaigns that leverage media relations alone. For example, to deliver impactful communications you need a deep understanding of the policy space. And vice versa, to deliver a policy outcome, you need an impactful comms strategy that can be implemented flawlessly.”

Another golden rule is around measurement – a crucial barometer of communications excellence and commercial performance. The inherent measurability of digital channels has set new expectations in terms of performance metrics, but as the saying goes: just because you can measure everything, doesn’t mean that you should.

“It’s important to keep learning, and that means conducting good measurement,” said Emma. “It’s all very well measuring quantitative metrics but how can you prove that these results made a valuable business impact? You need to think about how these measurable elements reflect onto the bigger outcomes you’re looking to achieve, and how they prove the value of comms in supporting larger organisational goals.”

Comms and COVID-19

So what about the here and now: communications in a pandemic-driven world?

“COVID-19 hasn’t changed how comms works,” said Emma. “The same golden rules apply. However, while the principles of communication haven’t shifted, the media landscape has. Health has dominated the news agenda, with COVID-19 being the top story for many months. What’s more, the level of discussion around healthcare issues, such as the challenges of research and development, the balance of safety and efficacy, and even just the term ‘underlying conditions’ has never been so prominent. This offers healthcare companies a unique opportunity to engage with an even wider audience, including consumers who are taking notice of the industry more than ever before.

“With COVID-19, we have also seen how a lack of information or communication is too often filled with misinformation. Therefore, building trust with your audience is perhaps more important than ever. It is important to choose your media outlets and influencers wisely, considering that the best channels to reach and engage your audience may have changed.” One positive to come out of the pandemic is that pharma has finally shrugged off its digital caution – and this can only be good for the future of healthcare communications.

“For years, adopting digital innovation has been considered either too difficult or too risky,” said Chris Finch. “All of a sudden, projects that might previously have taken two years to get over the line have suddenly been approved and adopted in weeks. Companies have done it because they’ve had to. The industry is moving much quicker. Clients are by no means willing to take risks, but they’re prepared to try new things in a safe way. These are encouraging signs.”

So, in the final reckoning, it seems that, despite obvious challenges, pharma marketing is in relatively good shape as it strives for communications excellence. However, in a world where we might just see 500 ads before breakfast, the message to marketers is clear. Getting noticed is getting harder. You may not be sending an SOS to the world. But if you don’t get the basics right and stay focused on the customer, you might end up with your message in a bottleneck.

Chris Ross is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

13th October 2020

Chris Ross is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

13th October 2020

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