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Pre-launch planning and DSLs – the new ways to create launch excellence in pharma

Looking at the top three goals of pre-launch and the role of digital scientific leaders and social media in launch excellence

We are in an era where there are more targeted drug launches than ever before.

Despite the global pandemic, in 2020 the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved 39 new active substances, nine more than in 2019.

One trend that we’re witnessing in industry data, and from anecdotal evidence from our clients, is that more specialised medicines are being developed and there is more investment into rare diseases and niche indications, and increasingly segmented patient groups.

The market itself has also changed – healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients are learning about treatments and innovations faster than ever before thanks to social media.

Allyson Ocean, a GI oncologist, highlighted a number of reasons why she thinks more HCPs should be on social media to:

  • Disseminate medical knowledge
  • Learn about the latest innovations happening elsewhere
  • Have discussions with patients
  • Connect with peers around the world.

HCPs are collaborating in open and closed online networks and they develop and influence opinions in these forums through their conversations.

These digital spaces can also be a place for you to gather intelligence, and to influence opinion. At, one thing that our clients consistently tell us is that when they finally arrive at product launch, the level of activity skyrockets and roll-out can become quite frantic.

So developing an understanding of your customers as early as possible will help you to pre-empt and even mitigate that. There are three phases when thinking about effectively bringing your product to market – pre- launch, launch year and post-launch.

This journey will take place over a number of years. The very beginning of a product’s life cycle is arguably the most critical for your product and the area where the greatest opportunity for success usually lies.

As we are in an era where, more than ever before, novel drugs are being launched to serve unmet medical needs, the three key goals of launch excellence have become even more important:

1. Developing a deep understanding of customers to create early awareness and advocacy
2. Addressing unmet needs and differentiating from competitors
3. Accelerating market access.

Start early with awareness and advocacy

It is never too early to build awareness and excitement for your product. You can talk about your research programmes and share information about your drug candidate. From our experience, HCPs talk about trials and data very early on and they start shaping the online perception of a brand by giving their opinions.

Providing insights on HCP concerns around trial data, administration and confusion over the treatment landscape enabled one of our clients to create meaningful launch messaging tailored to the nuances of different geographical markets.

We also advised on digital channels for engaging HCPs and identified HCP digital opinion leaders who could support the development of the environment for future market access activities.

With an increasing number of HCPs using social media, there has never been a better time to get an in-depth understanding of your customers by listening to their conversations to maximise your awareness, confirm advantages and develop advocates. Your opportunities in this early stage are:

  • Strategic communication to develop a positive conversation about your drug candidate
  • Identifying and leveraging HCP ‘digital opinion leaders’ who are advocating for your drug candidate (don’t wait until the drug launches!)


After building early awareness and advocacy, your next big step is to address unmet needs and differentiate your drug from your competitors.

HCPs talk online about their interests in drugs and disease areas. Further topics that they might discuss regarding your drug candidate could be the study and drug trial data, safety and effectiveness, customer experience or general education and information.

Understanding the HCP conversations in the broader therapy area will give you great insight into their needs and how you could support them.

Your opportunities in this second stage are to:

  • Address unmet needs among HCPs and patients in your therapy area:
    o What are your customers’ concerns? (burden of disease, patients’ concerns)
    o What are the product benefits? (untreated disease, efficacy, safety, price)
  • Know how your customers feel about competitors or comparatives
    o What are the current concerns of HCPs regarding existing treatments? (efficacy, safety, pricing, medicine administration)
  • Test messaging and language
    o Engage and learn from the online community (without mentioning your product).

Accelerate market access

In their online conversations, HCPs are passionately engaged around market access with payers and policymakers, patient advocacy groups and the public.

Understanding those conversations can provide early intelligence on the most likely outcomes during policymaker discussions, and can even provide pharmaceutical companies with evidence to shape their applications in order to achieve a more favourable outcome.

Recently, when supporting a client planning a launch of a novel treatment in a very niche oncology area in the US, we were able to identify early opinions of strong influential HCPs and identify key concerns regarding the new product. This increased understanding allowed the client to make changes to its launch tactics that impacted positively on the launch.

Taking this approach could save time and money for all stakeholders and achieve faster effective healthcare for the patients who need it. Again, HCPs shape a brand very early on and by listening to their online conversation you can detect warning signs months before the approval decision. Your opportunities are to:

  • Identify which HCPs are influencing those conversations online
  • Learn from those conversations and understand if there are prevailing agendas
  • Engage market access influencers online and ultimately shape the market access conversation.

The role of digital scientific leaders

As has been discussed, an important aspect of your product launch is identifying the online HCP influencers early on and tracking their conversations. This enables you to have the finger on the pulse and those insights can be very important for your launch strategies and tactics.

An HCP might be considered a digital opinion leader by influencing the conversation about a particular health topic. But for launch, you are likely to want to understand the trial and scientific conversation.

There are some HCPs who we would identify as digital scientific leaders (DSLs) as they show specific scientific leadership in a particular medical field. DSLs would naturally focus their conversation around research and trials and they might be particularly vocal when new data is released.

From a recent project in a primary care therapy area, we specifically analysed the scientific conversation to identify the DSLs. We found that DSLs like to engage with research and scientific organisations and they are often more likely to post original content than reshare content. Most DSLs are vocal and have strong opinions when it comes to the clinical trial design and data.

They are collaborative and well respected by their peers, and they answer questions from others, but they also have many scientific questions of their own which they seek answers for.

Knowing your DSLs and understanding their opinions will support your launch strategies, especially in the early pre-launch phase. Opportunities are to:

  • Understand the scientific need and provide content that is relevant and useful for the scientific HCP online community
  • Partner with the DSLs and invite them to digital ad-boards or working groups as experts
  • Give them a safe space where they can ask their questions and get answers.

Trying something new

To summarise: when you listen to HCP customers throughout the launch period, you gain a deep understanding that can create early awareness and advocacy, address unmet needs and differentiate from your competitors and you can accelerate market access. And by identifying your DSLs you can collaborate with the experts and gain real scientific advocates for your drug candidate.

Anni Neumann is Associate Director of Health Strategy at

8th July 2021

From: Marketing


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