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Digital blooms: multichannel marketing in China

The evolution of marketing and its increasing use of new channels is as relevant to China as it is to mature pharma markets
Digital Blooms

The same digital evolution that is prompting us to explore anew every aspect of our daily lives is also dramatically reshaping the way we do business.

This process creates a 'new normal of everything' in which companies of all shapes and sizes are challenged to write the internet into their DNA and prove they can perform strongly when it comes to digital channels.

Pharma too faces this situation and it has been a few years now since the industry joined fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies and those in sectors such as the automobile, communication and traditional manufacturing industries in 'going digital'. But pharma, and healthcare in general, is perhaps only now truly poised to experience the real disruptive change of digital. As this takes place the challenge for companies will be, firstly, to integrate digital into their multi-channel effects and then to do it well.

Consumer-driven innovation
The digital generation of patients adds into the mix behaviours that are completely different from those of their predecessors. In terms of their healthcare, changes can be seen from the point of disease awareness and diagnosis or even before - tools such as the the iTriage mobile app allows patients to check and evaluate possible symptoms way in advance of speaking with a healthcare professional - and amplifying the often noted effect of 'Dr Google'. 

In terms of how pharmaceutical companies work, digital developments are changing the typical patient support hotline approach. The advent of, and subsequent rapid rise in popularity of, social media including online platforms such as patientslikeme.com have massively expanded the places patients can go to for information. When they have critically important questions like “what is this condition?”, “how can I get treatment?” and “what outcome should I expect?”, there are many more places to go than just their healthcare professional, which would have been the situation just a generation ago.

Just as this is true in mature, Western pharmaceutical markets, it is also the case in China, where I work. Here the explosive growth of social media platforms has even expanded patients' definition of 'care givers' to encompass the digital ecosystem. For example, last year social media monitoring firm NM Incite found that, within a six-month period, there were more than one million diabetes-related consumer posts on micro-blogging site Sina Weibo and other platforms. The digital conversations taking place on these networks included very detailed information about medical issues and some 18 per cent of the diabetes-related discussions were found to refer to specific products.

HCPs ready but need the infrastructure
Healthcare professionals (HCPs) in China too are more than ever before willing to use digital tools and the internet to receive and retrieve healthcare information in all therapeutic areas. Around 85 per cent of physicians in China go online to look for general medical news or stay up to date with clinical information, while 69 per cent go online to research new pharmaceutical products, according to analysts at Manhattan Research. 

It is clear too that virtual communities, online HCP portals and promotional programmes are what some physicians look for online. On average, physicians in China spend around six hours per week online for professional purposes, and the use of online tools for discussions, e-detailing, webcasting or even use of social media is very common among Chinese physicians. It is seen as an easy and convenient way to engage with their peers, with their partners (including healthcare companies) and with their patients.

The multi-channel perspective
There is always conflict between the idealised concept of a plan and the reality of the situation on the ground. Often marketers stick rigidly to what seems like the most tried and trusted channel for engaging their target customers - the sales rep. But is that the option we have?

Companies are slowly trying to incorporate newer digital channels into their marketing mix, as they work to overcome compliance issues around social media, for example. From my experience, even those companies that might be termed laggards, are still eager to expand their customer touch points via a multi-channel approach. 

But it is, of course, much easier to say you want to provide the 'right information to the right person at the right time' than it is to actually do so. Marketing engagement with target, or potential, customers should be a process that sees companies record, track and analyse interactions, powered by their use of business intelligence. Truly, we have never before had such capabilities to really know our customers until now with the advent of the digital era.

Bearing fruit
Earlier this year at the inaugural Digital Pharma China Summit a number of multi-national pharma companies demonstrated how they have embedded digital as one channel within their marketing mix for China and the regions that surround it.  

Type 2 diabetes, which affects an estimated 94 million people in China, was a focus for a number of the projects exhibited. One set of initiatives was brought together by Novo Nordisk under its Changing Diabetes programme, which helps patients to learn about their disease and address its long-term management. Patient education comes from out-reach initiatives like Novo's Changing Diabetes bus, in-hospital education and also its provision of online resources. Another of the companies addressing this issue was Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) through its Better Diabetes Management Solution (BDMS) project. BMS engaged a potential audience of some 36,000 endocrinologists through its use of the online physician community dxy.cn. Healthcare professionals in China increasingly prefer to receive evaluated and unbiased information via third parties, and online channels are definitely the best place for pharma to host such activities. 

Mobile is clearly a topic on the minds of many a marketer and one recent project that really stands out is Sanofi's iBG Star blood glucose monitor for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It allows information to be easily shared with a patient's healthcare team and can help them make better-informed diabetes-related decisions together. The iBGStar Diabetes Manager app can be used to track glucose, insulin and carb levels and chart individualised glucose patterns over time. Patients can also use it to input personal notes about their health and their data. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the technology is the way it allows data to be shared, either via email or simply shown to healthcare professionals during the patient visit. Thanks to these features the technology's Australian launch hit a number of milestones, from returning its campaign investment six times over to winning more than 148 pieces of editorial coverage and, the measure that really matters, achieving sales that were 186 per cent above budget.

Pharma's next move
The industry must now engage some strategic thinking and make the leap from being predominantly reactive to being proactive when it comes to multi-channel marketing. There is no doubt that the marketing model must change and that these changes should be brought by digital and mobile devices, as IT drives the whole planet into a brand new era. In this new landscape, marketers should be encouraged to think big, especially where digital strategy is concerned. This requires a different organisational approach in terms of management, both from the top down and from the bottom up, linked to performance and outcomes.  

The change will need to take place across the organisation, which means we need to consider the following:

  • How should you capture the information about the market and customer in order to position your product? 
  • How do your customers behave currently, and why? 
  • What channels should be used and how will they compare to existing channels?
  • Which channels are the best to deliver messages, receive feedback and engage with your customers? 
  • How should customer feedback be evaluated?
  • What are the major activities that can be implemented to help you differentiate from competitors via the innovative channels and tactics offered by new media?
  • How can you continue to manage change and optimise your activities to maximise your ROI?

Building multi-channel capabilities
Aligned with a proper understanding of marketing theory, the  fundamental capabilities that will form a bridge to take you from the starting point of your journey to its successful end will include data, CRM, multi-channel solutions, tracking/reporting and analytics.

But multi-channel marketing is not a single tool, or solution, that can ease the industry's pain as the world around it changes; the whole corporate ecosystem must also change. You also have to bear in mind that digital strategy is not just about IT; the way to approach it is to combine the best elements of infrastructure and marketing. To do this requires team work and centralisation to streamline and optimise new process for business model innovation, based on a strong value proposition and operational excellence. This is the way from vision to decision.

Article by
Ryan Li

senior manager with a leading biopharma company in China. This article represents his personal perspective only. He can be contacted via email: ryan_lilei@hotmail.com

12th December 2013

From: Sales, Marketing

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