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Seven steps to innovating your digital strategy

Dealing with digitally native HCPs

digital numbers

In a distant backwater village of Old Pharma, rumours of the imminent arrival of the Natives are greatly exaggerated. The Natives aren't coming; they're already here. In fact, after a long-running struggle with the Immigrants, they're gradually claiming control of the island and redrawing the map of global communication. But panic not. No lives have been lost in the combat - only budget, time and opportunity. For this is a battle between the 'Digital Natives' and the 'Digital Immigrants' and, as technology continues to evolve at an unrelenting pace, the Natives are finally winning.

The Digital Native/Immigrant philosophy is the 2001 brainchild of US author Marc Prensky. It describes the generational switchover where people are defined by the technological culture with which they are most familiar. Digital Natives are those born into an innate new culture - native speakers of digital language. Digital Immigrants are 'old world settlers' that have lived through analogue and migrated to the digital world - and many have perfected an appalling 'Digital Immigrant accent' to prove it.

Digital Immigrants are not technophobes, but they typically struggle to adapt to hi-tech progress. They don't speak the language - and it's a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, many of today's business leaders and strategists are indeed Digital Immigrants who use outdated vocabulary and techniques to communicate with a population that speaks an entirely new language. Sound familiar? That's because, in pharma, it is.

Prensky's native concept provides useful context to the current challenges facing pharmaceutical companies in Europe. According to Professor Brian Smith's well-known musings on the evolution of pharma, the industry is still struggling to adapt to a new world; and digital lies at the heart of the problem. A more recent PMLiVE study highlighted 'unclear strategy' as pharma's biggest digital challenge. The Digital Futures 2014 survey revealed that digital strategy is believed to be the industry's biggest issue this year, and that, once again, regulations are identified as a major barrier to progress. Significantly, the study showed that gaining internal buy-in for digital marketing remains a huge challenge.

The 'buy-in' issue is a strong indicator of the Native/Immigrant struggle that pervades pharma. A collective lack of familiarity with digital, particularly at the 'treacle layer' of middle management (where new ideas can often become stuck), is a prevalent problem that often holds up progress and stifles innovation. But it also highlights a digital language barrier that, unless addressed, will stimulate a growing disconnect between pharma and its customers. Why? Because the Natives aren't coming, they're already here.

We all know that in the consumer world, digital engagement has long since progressed from being the new black. But the metamorphosis has happened in healthcare too. Recent research from LBi Health hails 2014 as the Year of the Digitally Native HCP. Calculations estimate that, for the first time, the number of UK doctors that have qualified since the Internet went mainstream outweighs those who trained during the analogue era.

Pharmaceutical marketing has reached a tipping point where the majority of HCPs rely on digital interaction. Moreover, like patients, their expectations of a multichannel experience are being set by major consumer brands like Apple and Amazon. Digital is not the new black, it's the new normal. But to optimise it, pharma must move away from unclear strategies, internal resistance and a penchant for blaming regulations.

Delivering a multichannel marketing strategy that maximises digital requires a focus on two distinct, but ultimately convergent, areas; the top-down blueprint for a digital culture, and the development of a framework at the local level that allows marketers to leverage digital at every stage of the brand planning cycle. But how do you get there? Here are seven steps to help you meet the Natives…

oneStart top-down, not brand up

Marketing is all about effecting behavioral change amongst target customers. But to thrive, pharma companies should consider some change management of their own, starting right at the very top. “The companies making strides are those where leadership teams have developed a top-down edict that their organisations must embrace digital,” says Stephen Dunn, client services director at emotive. “This then filters down to brand planning at the local level and allows senior management to critique plans to ensure they are appropriate, integrated and aligned with wider corporate strategy. In the most proactive companies, leadership is demanding change, investing in infrastructure, and ensuring that personal development plans, training and performance bonuses are all aligned. This is changing cultures and transforming companies' digital capabilities and readiness.”

Paul Tanner, chairman at 90TEN, agrees: “Companies need to agree their digital strategy and ambitions at a corporate level. They need to ask themselves how far they are willing to push the boundaries. Are they willing to engage patients and customers on social media channels? What customer data are they happy to capture on CRM systems, and what do they plan to do with it? It's about developing a framework and then sharing that across the organisation so that everyone understands how it works. Then, at the brand level, teams can develop multichannel strategies with the confidence that they won't get blocked by legal, regulatory and IT departments.”
Despite this, there is still a tendency for companies to start thinking about digital at the brand strategy level, instead of first establishing how digital fits into a business as a whole.

2Build the right infrastructure

Progressive organisations are gearing up to work with digital and are putting infrastructure in place to support an overarching digital strategy. “We are seeing a welcome increase in corporate centres of digital excellence and digital brand teams,” says Natalie Newell, client director at Digitas LBi. “But the emphasis on 'digital' is misleading – we should be focusing on multichannel. Disciplines need to be integrated; every aspect of brand promotion should be focused around the digital interaction. That way, each engagement can be tracked and embellished to improve business. We need to stop talking about digital, online and offline; everything we do should be multichannel. This will inform how internal teams should be set up. Who is responsible for content marketing? Who is the editor-in-chief that's making sure everything is written in the right voice and aligns with the overall strategy? This is where companies need to build infrastructure. But it requires high-level investment rather than viewing digital as a cheap commodity item.”

3Think strategy first, tactics and channels later

A common criticism leveled at companies' marketing strategies is their propensity to put the digital cart before the horse. In the worst examples, marketers start by focusing on channels and tactics and then end up disappointed when their desired objectives fail to materialise. “Marketing should be driven by brand strategy, not channel-specific tactics,” says Paul Dixey, an independent consultant with a long history of working inside pharma. Here Paul, who is currently working within a major multinational, shares his personal views on pharma's common digital mistakes. “Companies often concentrate on activities and deliverables; they measure on outputs rather than outcomes. For example, 'how many iPad details did I produce this quarter', or 'what can I do in this particular budget cycle?' Digital often sits in a silo and doesn't integrate with the rest of marketing. To compound this, some marketers start off with digital tactics and try to shoehorn them into a strategy. They begin with the activity, rather than looking at the brand strategy and asking which channels and activities can help them deliver their goals.”

The industry, it seems, often focuses too much on the medium rather than the desired outcome. “Sometimes Brand Managers think about the channel or the medium first, rather than starting at the end point and working backwards. We need to strip the challenge back to its core and ask: what are our objectives? Who is the target audience and how can we engage them to change their beliefs and behaviours? From this point, the choice of medium, or combination of media, is easier to establish – and should be chosen to improve the delivery of the message,”” says Paul Tanner. “An effective digital strategy should allow us to reach more of the right people, more effectively, using less resource – creating a transformative effect.”

4Understand your customers

No marketing article would be complete without mention of 'customer-centricity' – a c-word that modern marketers throw around like cheap confetti. But in the multichannel era, the industry's digital immaturity often exposes a failure to live up to the hype and put the customer at the centre of communications. “Strategy has to start with insights; who and where are your customers? How can you engage them, and what message do you want to communicate? These are classic, traditional marketing questions – but today's customers are no longer doing traditional things. They're not at congress or reading a journal, they're using online communities, doing eLearning or attending online symposia. They're collaborating over social media. They're Digital Natives!” says Stephen. “Marketers need to understand the environment where their customers are hanging out and what channels they are using. And they need to learn how to engage with them through their chosen media, in line with needs outlined in a robust brand strategy.”

The need to be customer-centric extends beyond HCPs – it's also vital for patient-centred initiatives such as adherence programmes and disease awareness applications. “These programmes should be crafted with the end user, not with the end user 'in mind' – and there's a big difference between those two concepts,” says Paul Tanner. “Engaging patients using ethnographic research allows you to watch human interaction in a natural environment, rather than the artificial world of a focus group. Working with behavioural psychologists, you can then develop digital programmes that respond to those patient needs and deliver long-term behaviour change.”

5Don't confuse digital with multichannel

In a world where consumers move seamlessly from one channel to another, the multichannel concept is firmly established. But in pharma old silo habits die hard. “Pharma's current use of 'multichannel' is a misnomer,” says Paul Dixey. “In many places, so-called multichannel departments simply focus on digital and have no involvement in aspects like the field force or meetings and conferences. But a robust marketing strategy should indeed be multichannel; it should integrate on-and-offline activity, depending on customer requirements – in line with brand strategy.

“The most effective strategies look for constant engagement – they don't lurch from one budget cycle to the next. Coca Cola, for example, says it no longer does 'campaigns', it does 'constant engagement'. Pharma people should take a more iterative approach, measuring, adjusting and making decisions based on customer analytics – and doing this quickly – rather than benchmarking against what they did the prior year. Moreover, pharma needs to develop strategies with the customer, not the channel, at the centre. Digital channels are routes to realise a marketing strategy – not an end in themselves. The industry must become truly multichannel.”

6Collaborate

Companies need to adopt a more collaborative approach. Organisations that effectively integrate legal, regulatory, IT and digital departments – and take everyone in the brand team along the same journey – often avoid the pitfalls that can derail projects. “The sales team is an invaluable source of information on your target customers,” says Natalie. “If companies leverage that knowledge and use it to inform strategy, it becomes easier to get the most out of other channels and activities. Greater alignment across work streams can only be a positive. It's about building a proper digital ecosystem, rather than simply putting up a website or developing an app because you think your customers might need it.

7Innovate in small steps

But progress won't be made overnight – it requires a patient approach and long-term commitment. “Marketers need longer-term goals,” says Natalie. “Brand managers are always looking at the next year– but they need to be thinking further ahead. The most proactive will establish where they want their communications to be in three years' time, and then start moving towards them in a step fashion. You won't be able to do everything at once – but incremental progress can deliver significant results.”

Against the backdrop of short-term sales targets – aligned with bonus and remuneration packages – the shift to long-term planning is an anathema to pharma's current business model. This, once again, underlines the need for a top-down strategy that redesigns operations in line with the new digital environment. Pharma's famous lack of agility and reluctance to change does little to indicate that a huge revolution in corporate culture is just around the corner. But this does not mean that marketers cannot be innovative or attempt to push the margins.

“The best examples of innovation come where companies take a step back and think about how digital can contribute to and transform traditional activities,” says Stephen. “Digital is all-pervading – but it needs to be leveraged appropriately. The smartest marketers are those able to examine the customer experience and identify areas where digital can improve it – rather than being hung up on developing an ambitious digital strategy that, in the end, is undeliverable. Strategy is critically important, but not all channels are online. Digital can support traditional channels and improve customer experience in offline activities such as meetings and one-to-one interactions. It is in these areas where marketers may be able to push innovation.”


And so we return to that backwater village of Old Pharma to find that the Natives have not only arrived, they're beginning to get irritated by dated marketing approaches they consider extinct. The Natives are restless. It's time to change the model, before Apple and Google change the game altogether.

Article by
Chris Ross

is a freelance journalist

16th September 2014

Article by
Chris Ross

is a freelance journalist

16th September 2014

From: Sales, Marketing

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