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Three billboards on the road to multichannel

Chris Ross examines the trends driving multichannel communication in 2019


In the critically acclaimed movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes’ much-copied campaign against small- town injustice proves that well-targeted, ‘old- school’ communication can still have a powerful impact.

Mildred’s logic translates into everyday marketing; if you know your audience – and can reach them on the roads they drive along every day – three billboards might be all you need to change their minds. It’s a useful metaphor. And it’s one that will serve the pharma industry well as it explores the great opportunity of modern communications. Because here’s the thing... We all know that digital innovation has transformed customer engagement, creating the potential for exciting new touchpoints across multiple channels. But just because a channel exists doesn’t mean you have to use it. Effective communication means meeting your customers where they live. It’s less about maximising multichannel and more about using the right channel. And determining it depends on authentic customer insight.

The industry has thrown the kitchen sink at multichannel communication, exploring routes to customers that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But while the use of online channels is increasingly popular, marketing strategies are often plagued by a common problem: companies still aren’t striking the right balance. The danger is that, like a child in a digital sweet shop, marketers become so consumed by the opportunity to use multiple channels that they forget about the person at the end of them: the customer. It’s only by understanding customers’ needs, preferences and behaviours that companies can deliver ‘right time, right place’ communications that get attention and change behaviours.

Digital divide

So where are we now? Studies suggest that there’s still a mismatch between the types of communications pharma is delivering and the kind that customers want to receive. Research from Across Health shows that a growing number of HCPs want to communicate digitally with pharma, but a far smaller number are currently reached via digital channels. “The gap between digital supply and demand – the ‘Digital Divide’ – is greater in medical education, where HCPs’ appetite for digital engagement is not being satisfied,” says Fonny Schenk, CEO, Across Health. “In brand promotion the divide is less pronounced. However, while digital promotion is increasing, its impact is variable, with elements such as channel, customer age, specialism and location all influencing the effectiveness of the engagement. This variability reinforces the message: success is not about using multiple channels, it’s about understanding your customers sufficiently to use the right channels well.”

Pharma’s greater use of digital channels for brand promotion should come as no surprise. The industry has long been looking to manoeuvre its customer engagement models away from the traditional rep-heavy approach. The proliferation of online channels has naturally changed the game but there’s a long way to go.

“The industry is still on a journey to define the most effective engagement model,” says Uday Bose, Managing Director and Head of Human Pharma at Boehringer Ingelheim UK & Ireland. “In the early days, the steady decline in customer-facing time – along with a perceived reduction in the value of face- to-face calls – inspired a simplistic recommendation: trim the field force and increase communication through non-personal (digital) channels. But we’ve moved beyond that initial crude perspective.

“The industry has listened to customers, the majority of whom continue to value direct interactions as well as more innovative approaches. One of the most important attributes which is still largely exclusive to the face-to-face channel is the ability to reach an effective ‘close’. The majority of non-personal channels are largely focused on provision of information – and the art of linking information to an appropriate prescription for an appropriate patient is critical. In traditional ecommerce, it’s easy to navigate customers through a completed transaction and conduct post-sales surveys to measure the experience. It’s not so clear- cut in pharma. In our model, convincing an HCP to use our products often depends on an intangible, ‘emotional’ connection that can often be more easily achieved by human interaction.

Similarly, the breadth of our customer-base – and the complex science behind our specialist medicines – stimulates nuanced queries that require a dynamic and agile respondent, typically the representative. So the original hypothesis of ‘digital’ replacing reps has not materialised. Instead, companies are extending the role of the field force to better understand customers’ use of non-personal channels. An increasing number are positioning the rep as the ‘orchestrator’ of the customer journey, sitting at the centre of the dialogue to direct communications across relevant channels based on identifiable preferences and needs. It’s an integrated approach that blends human and digital.”

The multichannel rep

The emergence of the multichannel engagement model is slowly gathering pace. “Field forces are increasingly leveraging a wide range of digital channels to augment interaction and create a seamless customer experience,” says Fonny Schenk. “However, the approach remains in its infancy. Our research shows that while many EU5 specialists interact with pharma via digital channels, less than 10% do so through a combination of face-to-face visits and more than one rep-orchestrated digital channel. The most widely used digital tactic is tablet detailing (84%), but other rep-orchestrated channels are less adopted. The best example of this is ‘closed email’, where reps send targeted, pre- approved emails directly to customers. It’s an effective approach that builds on the existing relationship between rep and HCP. Despite this, the tactic has lower adoption (49%) than mass email (62%). Another tactic – the eRep channel where representatives interact remotely with physicians and co-browse materials – remains poorly adopted (14%). Nonetheless, the case for multichannel reps is compelling. Rep orchestrators can increase engagement and build better customer experiences through the delivery of the right content at the right time through the right channel. This can only enhance the value of customer engagement.”

Consent and content

The challenge of establishing the multichannel rep model has, in the past year, been complicated by new European regulations around data protection. GDPR has brought additional scrutiny to customer data and forced companies to strengthen their processes around permissions. Despite the undoubted pain of adapting to the new legislation, the introduction of GDPR should have positive repercussions for multichannel communication.

“It’s a good thing,” says Uday Bose. “It’s not only made us think more strategically about the data we hold on our customers and how we achieve their consent, it’s also helped highlight the imperative of delivering high quality content. Securing permission to communicate with a doctor requires huge effort – but it can all be completely undone if the content they receive is irrelevant or substandard. They immediately unsubscribe and it’s a struggle to get them to sign-up again. Brand teams are realising that with so much information being pushed through these channels, they must make sure they’ve got the content right before they start engaging their customers. Permission, like trust, can be hard-earned but quickly lost.”

So how do you ensure that content engages customers rather than sends them scurrying away? It’s all a question of emphasis. And perhaps multichannel isn’t the answer. “Multichannel is an unhelpful term that can set people off in the wrong direction,” says Felix Jackson, Founder and Medical Director of medDigital and medCrowd. “When marketers consider multichannel, there’s a risk they fixate on the channel rather than focusing on the customer. The primary goal must be to understand your customers and identify where they’re looking for the information they need. If you don’t start there you’ll waste time, money and real opportunity.

“Similarly, the word ‘multichannel’ doesn’t tell you how a channel is used. Is it a marketing channel or is it a communication channel? It’s an important nuance. Marketers typically talk about marketing channels and use them to push messages at customers. But customers don’t think like that – they look for communication channels where they can find, exchange or share information. This common mismatch in expectation often results in marketing content that doesn’t work because it’s not aligned with customer needs.

Unfortunately, one of the benefits of the digital age is that it’s easy for customers to switch channels if the one they’re using is cluttered with suboptimal content. If you get it wrong, they’ll quickly go elsewhere.”

The death of multichannel?

There are two related trends that could help marketers improve their communications. “Firstly there’s a growing desire for more customer insight,” says Felix. “But that’s not necessarily bigger, deeper dives – it’s about ongoing insight that helps you adjust as the market changes. It’s no longer enough to do large pieces of one-off research, you need small touchpoints throughout the year to keep on top of the expert environment. Secondly, in progressive organisations, we’re beginning to see that agile insight being used to shift the focus away from ‘multichannel marketing’ and onto the production of high quality content. That’s the right way to go.

“In time, multichannel terminology will become redundant. For now, pharma has an incredible opportunity to meet its customers ‘where they live’ and build solutions that fulfil their needs. If we’re to get to the next level, we must get closer to our customers and partner with them to create the tools they need. True marketing – with a small ‘m’ – is not about selling to customers, it’s about building relationships with them to uncover solutions that deliver mutual value.”

Measured investment

The death of multichannel as an industry buzzword seems unlikely to happen any time soon. So where should the industry look next for improvement? Perhaps a good step would be to strengthen the metrics. “Measuring the impact of digital marketing has so far proved difficult,” says Uday Bose.

“In the early days, because the medium allows us to examine things like open rates, click-throughs and time spent on page, we probably had more metrics than we could handle. Over time we’ve realised that much of that data is deceptive and doesn’t provide intelligence on the things that matter. We’re now seeing a huge effort to establish more meaningful metrics that get closer to the decision-making phase and help us measure conversion. ‘Harder’ metrics – the kind we see

in consumer eCommerce – are difficult to find in pharma. But if we’re talking about enhancing reps with digital channels, we need to be diligent in ensuring those channels deliver comparable outputs. The technology to do it is there. What’s required is a shift in cultural mindset to take us to the next level.”

And what of the resources required to accelerate pharma’s progress? It’s a mixed picture. Marketing budgets are flat to declining – in part influenced by the double-edged sword of digital communications. There’s an understandable perception that the shift from rep to digital should save companies money. However, it’s a simplistic view. The comparable efficiencies of using digital channels at scale are offset by the ongoing costs of maintaining platforms and updating content. The digital medium enables high turnover in content – but agility comes at a price.

Conversely, investment in skills and in-house capabilities is increasing. “Traditional brand team roles are evolving with the times,” says Uday. “Companies are working hard to develop their existing talent to upskill them for the modern workplace. They know that if they want to establish digital as a basic capability, they must ensure existing headcount has access to the best tools and training. Better still, organisations are increasingly choosing to evolve traditional disciplines into the multichannel function rather than buying in support from outside. That sends a great message around personal development and growth and bodes well for the future.”

Three Cs, one billboard

The pharma industry’s pursuit of a new engagement model that chimes with the digital age will undoubtedly intensify in 2019. The focus will, of course, be much broader than a debate around channels. “It’s not an either/or in content/channel – you need both,” says Fonny Schenck. “The Triple C should be there – customer, channel, content – as well as the ‘feedback’ channel (metrics) too. It’s basically the old comms model of sender/receiver/ content/channel/feedback. Fortunately, things are slowly improving. Companies are beginning to take digital seriously and making digital transformation a Board item. As part of this, there’s a shift from myopic ‘rep-centric’ multichannel marketing towards extending the reach to other HCPs as well as leveraging digital to engage payers and patients. These are exciting times.”

The road to multichannel excellence will not be easy. Getting there requires a comprehensive and agile understanding of customer behaviours to create timely, high-quality content that satisfies unmet need. Certainly, multichannel excellence is not about maximising multiple channels – it’s about focusing on the right channels and meeting your customers where they live. Who knows, in a world of deafening digital disruption, one metaphorical billboard might well be enough to cut through the noise.

Article by
Chris Ross

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

21st February 2019

Article by
Chris Ross

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

21st February 2019

From: Marketing



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