Believe it or not, multichannel isn't just another buzzword that business executives throw around like confetti. It's the new normal. As consumers, such is our familiarity with multichannel communication that, like a good referee, we don't notice it's there - we just expect it to be.
In pharma, however, its introduction has been more conspicuous and has dominated the strategic discussion to the point of saturation. As pharma buzzwords go, multichannel has become so noticeable it's like the whistle-happy referee whose questionable decisions are spoiling the game and influencing the result. But the attention is worthwhile; multichannel is a game-changer. The pharma companies that succeed will be those that show the red card to traditional linear and silo-led approaches and recognise multichannel as the new normal. The rest will pay the penalty.
The pharmaceutical industry now competes on a different playing field - where its broad customer-base has a huge choice in how, and where, it goes to find information the information that it wants. Technological evolution has spawned the multichannel and we, as consumers, have happily indulged it. But multichannel is much more than a proliferation of channels - it's an opportunity to look at multiple stakeholders, the experience an organisation creates and understand where and how they interact. To deliver that promise it's essential that all available channels are integrated. This is misaligned with pharma's long-established penchant for working in silos - and just one of a number of fundamental factors that pharma must address if it's to reap the rich rewards of multichannel. So, with the help of some industry thought-leaders, this article plays referee and blows the whistle on some of the key decisions that could change the game for pharma.
Kick-off: too narrow, too isolated
Defining multichannel is a good place to kick off. “The simplistic view is that it means 'many channels', but it's actually far broader than that,” says Dan Mathews, life science partner, Ernst & Young. “Multichannel is the use of multiple synchronised communications to reach customers. The real battle is trying to achieve that synchronisation to create a meaningful win:win customer experience - and make the transition from channels operating in isolation to a more coordinated cross-channel approach. Across pharma, multichannel capabilities have largely been implemented in a siloed fashion. e-Detailing, web platforms and online congresses are now used as standard by more than 60% of all pharma companies - but many remain disparate. However, channels are most effective when they're industrialised at regional or global level. For example, in the past year a top five pharmaceutical company has expanded its content capability so that more than a third of all customer contact is outside the representative. The outcomes have been impressive. They're not alone. The scale of change across the sector is now extraordinary as the use of more channels grows. The next evolution is to try and link them more effectively.”
The scale of change is extraordinary as the use of channels grows. The next evolution is to link them more effectively
Man in the middle: who is in charge?
The lack of synchronisation is a by-product of uncertainty around who should be driving multichannel within organisations. A recent Ernst & Young survey of big pharma revealed that 67% of executives had no clear affiliate-level roadmap for how to develop multichannel capability, while 61% agreed that leadership needed to show more commitment to driving the approach. “The question is: who controls the customer experience?” says Dan. “If we're to move to a multichannel world then understanding customer experience is crucial. Companies are adopting different approaches dependent on who they believe best understands the customers' needs and wants; some are giving the representatives overall control, others are creating models where the experience is controlled from the centre. Whatever the approach, there's a real need for a single management node that manages all channels so that everything is coordinated.”
The TMO: collaboration is key
Collaboration is a key driver for multichannel effectiveness. However, cross-organisation collaboration in pharma has historically been limited. “Best practice encourages collaboration across the product lifecycle; from bench through to launch and beyond,” says Charlotte Moseley, global head, Complete HealthVizion. “It's easy to think of multichannel from a pre-launch/launch perspective - but there should be engagement throughout a brand's development. Pharma has diverse customer-groups and engagement with them starts at the bench and doesn't stop once a product has hit the shelves. Often, internal stakeholders are focused on their individual customers but forget they're just one component of a whole lifecycle. To ensure activities are coordinated, there may be a case for companies deploying a 'lifecycle leader' that looks after a brand throughout that journey. Such innovation is already taking place outside pharma as all industries grapple the multichannel challenge. We can only learn from their experiences. Banking - another highly regulated sector - addressed it by getting closer to customers and listening to their needs. Pharma must do the same.”
Offside: know how your customer moves
With 'customer experience' acknowledged as the bedrock of multichannel, it's not surprising that the industry is placing much emphasis on understanding the customer journey. However, though companies widely claim to be customer-centric, there remains huge variability in the market. “Companies generally believe that their multichannel plans are informed by the 'voice of the customer', but there are still examples of 'marketer ventriloquism' where companies project their brand messages on to stakeholders to such an extent that they convince themselves they're hearing their customers' voices,” says Matt Bolton, head of commercial, Blue Latitude Health. “The most effective approach is to set up internally around your customers and ensure that their voices are identified and heard throughout the development of brand strategy. Brand teams need to understand what their customers want and when and how they want it. They also need to establish what information is already available, who provides it and from which third parties customers prefer to receive it. By doing this effectively, pharma companies can identify focused areas where they can provide value for customers along their journey. There's much debate around who should be driving multichannel in pharma - but there's actually a simple answer: it's the customer.”
Brand teams need to understand what their customers want and when and how they want it
Clearly, customer understanding must encompass professional and clinical needs - but it's not limited to them. Multichannel is, after all, the new normal. “It's important to understand customers as individuals,” says Charlotte. “It's not just about focusing on a particular disease area, it's about understanding how they operate as people. Which platforms do they use? What content do they like? This kind of granularity helps you develop a multichannel strategy that will work in practice. But it's also important not to presume multichannel is just digital activity; it's about engaging with customers how, where and when they want - and that doesn't necessarily mean digital. Conferences, symposia and other traditional formats remain incredibly resonant for many stakeholders.”
Substitution: replacing the brand plan?
Pharma has an overwhelming tendency to think brand-first - but does this work in a multichannel world? “There's an emerging dynamic around brand plan versus customer plan,” says Dan. “Pharma communications have always been very product-centric. Companies have brand planning rather than customer planning processes. How do we change to make multichannel the new normal? Leaders are beginning to think about how they can put the customer at the centre and get more alignment across brands that are quite often targeted at the same customers. The next step may be to rethink the brand plan and instead create an end-to-end customer engagement model that sits above it to deliver the experiences that customers want.”
The breakdown: common offences
The barriers to multichannel effectiveness are manifold. The most common encompass customer research, organisational capability and metrics. “Quality insight is critical. If you don't know, you don't do,” says Matt. “Companies are rightly beginning to invest more in primary research, both qualitative and quantitative, and using analytics to validate the approaches that will work best. However, developing the organisational capability to deliver customer-focused plans is a challenge. Companies need to have robust processes for planning, developing, approving and delivering content assets at pace. Often this isn't the case. Teams generate great content based on good insights - but it takes so long to deliver that by the time it's complete the market has moved on. Improving this is vital.
“Another obstacle is expectation management. Senior management want cost-savings, brands want sales and customers want quality information - but we need to be sensible about how all this value is going to be delivered. There needs to be upfront investment to get the processes and content in place to deliver efficiencies and drive sales. But multichannel isn't a silver bullet. There needs to be a measure of reality injected into expectations and metrics to measure its success.”
The final whistle
In the final analysis, effective multichannel communication ultimately depends on one thing: content. The industry's ability to develop and leverage high quality content will be a key determinant of its success. “Across all channels, content is still King,” says Charlotte. “Customers will only allow content to alter their behaviours if it's relevant to them. Sometimes planning focuses more on the channel than it does the content. Conversely, there's also lots of strong content being delivered on a one-off basis where there's no drive to repurpose or reuse it across other channels. If pharma is to realise the benefits of multichannel - the ability to drive enhanced and personalised customer engagement - it must put processes in place that enable it to share content at pace and scale.”
Multichannel is indeed the new normal. But to get there, pharma must take charge and make some difficult, game-changing decisions.