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The Chronicles of Pharma: a creative review of pharma’s journey to omnichannel

Chris Ross conducts a literary-inspired review of pharma’s pursuit of communications excellence

In his 1961 book, ‘An Experiment in Criticism’, CS Lewis argued that the quality of literature should be measured not by how it’s written, but by how it’s read.

The same principle translates to health communications: creative campaigns are best judged by the actions they inspire among target audiences.

Artistic merit – however impressive – won’t save lives on its own. Fundamentally, behaviour change is the only metric that matters in health communications. And, according to An Experiment in Criticism, if we want to create experiences that achieve it, we must first learn to see ‘through the eyes of others’.

The musings of CS Lewis provide a useful reference point when reviewing pharma’s approach to customer communications. The question is simple: if audience perspective is everything, do pharma companies really view the world through the eyes of their customers when they’re designing communications strategies?

Perhaps not enough. And though many strive to put the customer ‘at the centre’, a continued reliance on traditional practices too often forces them to think product-first, solution-first or – most common of all in the digital age – channel- first. It’s the wrong place to start.

Everyone knows the approach is misguided, but changing direction is hard: 40 years of industry muscle memory is difficult to wipe overnight.

Unfortunately, in an evolved marketplace, yesterday’s practices rarely translate into the type of communications customers want and expect today. If companies are to reach the Narnia of omnichannel communications, they must learn from CS Lewis and let audiences co-author their communications strategies by narrating the story from the beginning.

Now for the plot twist. The pandemic rescued pharma from the inertia holding back transformation of its go-to-market (GTM) model – forcing companies to release the handbrake and embrace ‘new’ ways of engaging audiences.

Digital was, of course, a feature of GTM strategies long before COVID-19, but lockdown forced everyone to go virtual en masse, at speed and scale. They did it. But the all-out approach exposed the thin veneer of customer-centricity in pharma – with many rushing to digital solutions without sufficiently understanding their customers’ world.

The results have been mixed. Research published earlier this year revealed that doctors have been disappointed with pharma’s digital efforts during the pandemic. The Indegene study showed physicians have been unhappy with pharma’s digital interactions across all media, with dissatisfaction rates as high as 50% in some digital channels.

But headline figures can be deceptive – the reality is much more nuanced. For example, longitudinal research from Across Health’s Navigator365 shows that EU5 specialists have seen an improvement in pharma’s digital content over the past year – though only one in five have noticed significant advancement. Similarly, the perceived importance of pharma’s digital content – and healthcare professionals’ (HCPs) satisfaction with it – has also increased in the last year: 62% of EU5 specialists think digital offerings from pharma are important (up by 14% from 2019), while 42% are satisfied with what they’re receiving (up by 29%).

However, more than half think ‘only some’ pharma companies provide relevant digital content. Clearly, there’s work to be done. The appetite for digital among HCPs is unequivocal – for both promotional engagement and medical education. For example, Navigator365 shows that 67% of EU5 specialists want digital to feature in their medical education, with almost half (47%) favouring a mix of online and face-to-face (F2F) interaction.

HCPs’ growing desire for a blend of digital and personal interactions with pharma is driving an increased focus on omnichannel strategy. Across Health’s Maturometer 2021 reveals widespread belief across the industry that omnichannel comms offers a competitive advantage that will only improve commercial performance. As a result, digital budgets are increasing – comprising 27% of the marketing budget in 2021, up from 19% just two years ago, with 78% of companies intending to increase their digital budget by at least another 10% in 2022.

So with all this budget being funnelled into digital, how can companies maximise it to deliver better customer communications? Moreover,
what can we take from the COVID-19 experience to accelerate the pursuit of communications excellence and take pharma to the promised land of omnichannel engagement? Here are some reflections and learnings from expert industry partners that are helping pharma along the journey.

1. Engagement must be engaging

Capturing attention is the first goal of any communication – but maintaining it is just as important. As the COVID-19 experience highlighted, this can be particularly challenging with remote engagement. “When COVID-19 first hit and communications abruptly switched to virtual models, the natural reaction was ‘content is king’, said Jacqui Hopkins, Digital Lead, Development, Purple Agency. “Companies moved swiftly to strengthen their digital content and bring detail aids online. However, as time has gone on, people have realised that the real issue isn’t content – it’s engagement. Content needs to be much more engaging.”

On the face of it, the early numbers told a positive story: whereas face-to-face meetings might normally last between three to ten minutes, remote meetings in the early months of lockdown were lasting as long as half an hour. But, said Jacqui, the metrics are misleading. “Research suggests that while meetings may be longer, HCPs aren’t completely engaged and companies aren’t getting maximum value from the extended interaction.

"So the big learning has been that we need to work harder to make the most of the digital opportunity. It’s not enough just to force traditional content through online channels – or to replicate content across every channel. The beauty of the omnichannel landscape is its diversity. If we want to maximise the channels our customers favour, content must be differential and designed to exploit the specific benefits individual channels offer. That’s the only way we’ll command attention and increase engagement. We must be adding value with every interaction.”

If companies are going to improve their omnichannel communication, closed-loop marketing (CLM) is likely to be very important. “We know that digital engagement is an engine for granular data that can enhance segmentation and drive personalisation – but without robust CLM, it’s harder to execute agile strategies and refine content based on insight,” said Jacqui.

“As we increase our use of AI and marketing automation, the most successful companies will be those who optimise data to create joined-up experiences that nudge customers through the buyer journey – delivering the right content, through the right channel at the right time, all the time.”

2. Make omnichannel acatalyst for collaboration

The importance of omnichannel communications isn’t limited to marketing – it’s vital in medical affairs too. But COVID-19 has highlighted a need to connect the dots. “Pre-pandemic, we saw steady growth in the communications channels pharma was using – and an incremental shift towards an omnichannel approach,” said Stephen Jones, Director of Client Engagement, Ashfield Healthcare Communications.

“COVID-19 has only accelerated that. However, much of that progress has occurred in the commercial space as pharma companies push towards omnichannel marketing. Moving forward, we need to apply that omnichannel thinking to medical affairs communications strategy.”

Clearly, COVID-19 has kickstarted that trend. “Through necessity, medical affairs activities have been remodelled around virtual engagement with customers – and HCPs have recognised the benefits,” said Stephen.

“As restrictions ease and face-to-face interaction is once again possible, the danger is that companies try to pivot back to old behaviours. It’s unlikely to work. HCPs are time poor and don’t want to lose the gains they’ve made through virtual interaction. Hybrid meetings – where larger groups of HCPs attend either in-person or online – are an inevitable short-term solution, while the use of webinars and hub-and-spoke platforms for online content will also continue to grow.”

According to Stephen, the key to executing an omnichannel communications (OCC) strategy in medical affairs is being able to personalise content. “Commercial teams are getting better at segmentation, using increasingly sophisticated techniques to understand HCP preferences and the types of data they need for their clinical practice. We need to translate that approach to medical affairs and develop suites of content that align with, and respond to, individual HCP needs.

“In the future, we’ll see greater use of AI to interrogate big data sets and improve segmentation. This is already happening in commercial, but it’s got huge application in med affairs too. Smart organisations are collaborating with data scientists to unlock deep data that acts as a catalyst for OCC. Ultimately, the trick in med affairs is to collaborate – not just with data scientists, but with policy, access, patients and more – as early as possible in the drug life cycle.”

3. The basics of marketing never grow old

In the rush to adopt new technologies, it can be easy to forget the basics of communications. Pharma isn’t the only industry that’s prone to ‘shiny toy syndrome’, but when it comes to deploying new innovation, the old rules still apply. “The principles of great communications have not changed much over the years, but the COVID-19 experience has made us revisit how we are executing those well-established practices,” said Chris O’Toole, Vice President, Commercial Solutions, ICON plc.

“For example, access to HCPs has been declining for years in the US, but clinicians still want and need information. So, when most medical offices and surgeries were closed during COVID-19 – with next to no access at all – we had to think about expanding and modifying those earlier practices that were already in place.

"Virtual communications was an obvious solution, but the introduction of ‘new’ ways of engaging can’t come at the expense of the core components of good communication. The old rules still apply: know your audience, respect their time, be efficient in what and how you communicate, and use words and images they can understand quickly. Be relevant – or get out of the way.”

The world, of course, is changing and we’re slowly returning to a semblance of normality. But practice has no doubt adapted to the learnings from COVID-19. “In the US, physicians practising certain specialties in an IDN or academic centre are still off limits to sales reps – but they can receive visits from MSLs now that offices are reopening. So how do you equip MSLs to provide useful information that can help physicians better treat their patients?” asks Chris.

“Advance Practice Providers tell us that peer influence ranks highly in their evaluation of educational materials and discussion, so in- person meetings became Zoom conversations. So while COVID-19 made digital and virtual communications the tactics of choice, the need for high quality scientific editorial never went away. That’s where we continue to focus our teams’ strengths and energies.”

Moving forward, as brand teams look to maximise digital and establish omnichannel engagement with HCPs, the key to communications excellence, said Chris, is all about understanding strategic objectives and remaining true to them. “Know what you want to accomplish and with whom, and be open in thinking how to accomplish that. And then be ruthless in getting rid of anything that won’t get you there. Embrace the latest thing, but don’t be seduced by it. Remember the fundamentals: they work.”


4. Imagination is making a revival – and it’s the red thread to everything

According to Stephen Page, Co-founder at Page & Page, creativity is making a comeback – and it’s key to the future of health communications. “We’re entering a new age of imagination – a creative renaissance, driven by social consciousness, digital disruption and new frontiers in the art of the possible. The world is rediscovering the power of creativity – and nowhere is that more important than in health.”

So how can pharma take advantage of this creative renaissance? “Great communication requires two ‘i’s: insight and imagination,” said Stephen. “But it also requires directing that imagination through a different set of eyes – the eyes of your target audience. In healthcare, that’s complex. While HCPs are naturally considered pharma’s core customers, the end users are ultimately the lead characters in the story. They should set the narrative. However, as an industry, we struggle with the blurred line between patients and health consumers – and that naturally impacts communications.”

Today, pharma wants to put the patient at the centre – but strategies are largely shaped by internal stakeholders and HCPs. So, if communications are to be patient-centred and insight-driven, how do you unpack this complex customer dynamic to identify the insights that matter most? The answer, said Stephen, boils down to interpretation and imagination.

“People sometimes confuse ‘findings’ with ‘insights’ – and it sends them off in the wrong direction. Findings are facts, insights are human. To translate findings into insights, you need to use your imagination. Effective communications start by seeing the world through your audience’s eyes to find out what’s important to them. Once you’ve established that, it’s then about freeing your imagination to create communications that alert them to the solutions.”

But how do you do it? “We advocate a step process built around 4 Ds: Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver,” said Stephen. “The first two steps are crucial for communications excellence. It’s only by identifying objectives and uncovering findings that you can develop the insights that define your vision and strategy. Imagination is the red thread that runs through everything.

“Over time, as technology has led us towards data-driven marketing, we’ve allowed imagination to be overtaken by data science. As we embark on the creative renaissance, the health leaders of tomorrow will be those who revive imagination in the creative process – and use it to develop insights and solutions that, in the eyes of their target audiences, add value and inspire action.”

Science and sensibility

As the past 18 months have shown us, health communications have never been more important. The most effective communications – the ones that inspire action – are those that ignite the intersection between science and sentiment. Behavioural science tells us that human decision-making is generally driven by emotion, not reason, so if we’re going to be persuaded to change our behaviours, communications must focus on the heart as much as the head. It requires deep insight.

All of which brings us back to CS Lewis who, in his 1939 essay, Bluspels and Flalansferes, said: ‘Reason is the natural organ of truth, imagination is the organ of meaning.’ The essay argues that we don’t really grasp the meaning of any concept until we have a clear picture or image that personally connects us to it.

That’s the role of communications. And it’s why a creative renaissance – in concert with insight imagined ‘through the eyes of others’ – might be the key to delivering great communications that make a difference in health.

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

21st July 2021

From: Marketing

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