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Why multichannel is not an in/out option

When it comes to multichannel communications, pharma cannot afford to maintain the status quo

Time for change

Last month I received an invitation to a conference exploring 'multichannel excellence' in pharma. Sometimes there's no need for a punchline. In fairness, even the marketing copy recognised the oxymoron, while the programme itself naturally relied on other sectors for clues to best practice. Plus ça change. Multichannel, long a hot topic for pharma, continues to stimulate more debate than an EU referendum. But as models of communication evolve in time with digital revolution, multichannel is not an in/out choice - it's the real world. Pharma is slowly making progress, but excellence? It's not a familiar experience.

Ah, 'experience'. All of a sudden it's raining buzzwords. 'Customer experience', like multichannel, is de rigueur on the conference circuit. But the two do not exist in isolation. Multichannel comms and customer experience are inseparable partners in crime; it's impossible to deliver the former without first understanding the latter. And therein lies the challenge. Progress for pharma means turning buzzwords into real worlds. And translating conference into confidence, confluence and - perhaps even one day - excellence.

Where does the money go?
Let's start by dispelling a myth. It's a widely held view that top-tier management in pharma doesn't 'get' multichannel and that this is hindering the progress of junior and middle management working in the jaws of the marketplace. This is not true. “The pharma C-suite is astute and alert to the need for multichannel excellence, but they also realise how much budget and resource is needed to move the needle,” says Sven Awege, VP, strategic account management, Aptus Health. “At present, pharma is still structured around servicing sales reps. But multichannel communications require a higher cadence and, therefore, more robust teams; more marketing, more medical and more regulatory. A higher intensity cadence model naturally means that strategic plans will include a greater volume of tactics, all of which need developing, approving, implementing and measuring. What's more, tactics need to be sense-checked to ensure they resonate with customer needs rather than simply satisfying brand needs. All of this requires greater investment, not least in qualified people that have a good understanding of multichannel communications. Those capabilities may not currently exist in pharma - they're more likely to be found in other sectors or partner organisations. But investment in them is crucial.

“Pharma's senior executives have long recognised the need for transformation, but - to the frustration of their local teams - many are stalling, not knowing when they should trigger that change. The real-world impact of this is being felt most at the brand level, but the key to unlocking multichannel remains in the hands of the C-suite. To progress, companies must first develop a strategic blueprint before delving into the detail of brand messaging. Ultimately, you cannot detach one from the other. It's only by marrying business objectives with brand goals that you can determine the appropriate resource levels and channel attribution. But in every case, this needs to be decided from your customers', not your brand's, perspective.”

As models of communication evolve in time with digital revolution, multichannel is not an in/out choice

European transformation
Simon Young, director, Blue Latitude Health, believes that multichannel success, first and foremost, requires organisational transformation. “There's much that needs to be done at the organisational level before you get anywhere near brands,” he says. But many are still stuck in a brand-first approach. “Typically, brands work in silos and hold all the power. Though 'global' controls the budget, local markets have the power to veto. This has led to a major disconnect where organisations are centrally investing in platforms for multichannel communications, but when they're offered out to brands, local teams choose to go their own route. Multichannel is not about thinking brand-first or technology-first.”

At present, says Simon, much of what happens is tactically driven. That's not surprising. “Brand planning processes are antiquated - they're built around budgets, targets, audiences and messages. This culminates in brand plans that not only ignore the global platforms being offered to them, but that also resemble to-do lists of unconnected tactics and channels, with little sense of customer needs and priorities. This is no basis for a multichannel approach. It leads to an unholy proliferation of 'digital destinations', apps and social media campaigns, and scenarios where customers are faced with multiple options if they want to interact with a particular brand. You won't find Apple doing that.”

Perhaps there needs to be greater centralisation in the way plans are developed, measured and optimised? “If companies can design sensible blueprints for multichannel planning, informed by genuine collaboration with brands, then the organisational elements like people, processes and technology will no longer be barriers,” says Simon. “Brands should own the insight around their customers and be responsible for developing content, rather than worrying about platforms and processes. With clearly-defined infrastructure and ownership - whether at global, regional or market level - brand teams can be freed to concentrate their efforts where they work best. And they'll have a fighting chance of succeeding.”

Time for change
Retrospective analysis undoubtedly shows that pharma remains behind most other sectors in its adoption of multichannel strategies. The complexities of marketing a medicinal tablet as opposed to a digital one provide understandable and well-documented reasons for the perceived lack of multichannel maturity, but it would be churlish to suggest that progress isn't being made. “Three years ago, multichannel was considered 'nice-to-have', but now pharma companies know it's something they simply have to do,” says Gabriele Vanoli, partner, EY, Global Life Sciences. “Exploration of multichannel is a natural consequence of approaching communications from a customer-centric perspective. Multichannel starts with understanding customer needs and cascades into a strategy that delivers the right content to the right customer in the right channel. That correlation between insight and multichannel is crucial. But the biggest barrier to progress is not a lack of understanding, it's an inability to change.

“Around 70% of multichannel strategy is about change management. Changing ingrained behaviours is a huge, but necessary, challenge. Healthcare customers are now demanding a different type of interaction, but pharma's commercial model remains stuck at version 1.0. To succeed, companies must change the way they segment, moving from a brand-centred to a customer-centred implementation. And they must improve the way they collect, manage and analyse data across a multiplicity of channels.”

Pharma also needs greater agility, because in the multichannel environment, you need to be quick. “You cannot take six months to approve content - you need to be able to respond at speed. If you don't have the right processes in place, it's better that you don't respond at all.” In fact although process is perhaps the most important element of multichannel capability, in many cases it's the missing ingredient. “Companies are sometimes focused so much on the technology, or on hiring multichannel experts from the consumer world, that they forget to establish the process and infrastructure to drive efficient and effective multichannel engagement. But the message is clear: you can buy the best technology and hire the best people, but if you don't have the right processes in place, you'll struggle to make a difference.”

Companies urgently need to strengthen their digital capabilities to develop multichannel strategies that deliver value to customers in a new world

Manifesto for multichannel
And so, as the industry continues on its excellence adventure, what is actually happening in the European marketplace? A recent IMS Health White Paper - The Essential European Revolution - outlined why multichannel is vital to pharma in Europe, but warned that the region is lagging behind the US and Japan in the volume and impact of its digital interaction with prescribers. “In Europe, face-to-face interaction with clinicians is falling by almost 20%. However, while digital interaction in the US and Japan is increasing, it remains at just a tiny fraction in Europe,” says Gareth Dabbs, principal, technology and services, IMS Health. “Against the backdrop of the salesforce spending less time with doctors, it's clear that companies urgently need to strengthen their digital capabilities to develop multichannel strategies that deliver value to customers in a new world. Pharma knows that digital is by no means all of multichannel - it's merely one component of it - but as customers demand a different kind of engagement, pharma also knows it must leverage technology to deliver rich content and services to all its stakeholders.

“There are no right or wrong answers in terms of how to approach it, although understanding the customer experience will undoubtedly be a common denominator in the most successful strategies. Excellence, however, boils down to a simple trilogy of considerations. Primarily, what are you trying to achieve from a strategic perspective? Secondly, what value levers will you need to manipulate in order to achieve that strategy? And thirdly - crucially - can you map what you're doing and measure it against those first two objectives?”

Unfortunately, says Gareth, some companies struggle to achieve the latter. In the most extreme cases, marketers appear more focused on doing something 'innovative' than on measuring the return. It's a false economy. “Technology can help us achieve many things but it should never be the starting point. As digital strives to play its part in multichannel, the most effective organisations will be those that take a sequential, structured approach to communications based on the ability to define, deliver and measure results. These three simple steps can help companies differentiate - and they may just inch pharma closer towards multichannel excellence.”

In a year of heated debate across Europe, 'remain or leave' has been an enduring question. For the pharmaceutical industry, discourse around multichannel has been equally enduring. On this occasion, however, there's no need for a referendum. When it comes to multichannel communications in pharma, remaining the same is not an option. It's time to leave an old model behind.

Article by
Chris Ross

is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry

15th August 2016

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