In 2011, digital strategy moved to the fore in healthcare marketing: at last, big pharma is embracing the potential that the right application of technology can have in their communication campaigns.
The reluctance to adopt 'digital' in such a highly controlled industry is understandable. By allowing interactivity, modern social/digital solutions take pharmaceutical marketing beyond the safe havens of one-sided communications like the traditional leave piece or static patient website, and into more challenging territory –in terms of development, approval and regulatory compliance.
This change in approach is necessary. Recent surveys show that 78 per cent of US doctors use digital tools to gather drugs and device intelligence. Some 69 per cent of European doctors use social media (including Wikipedia) professionally and, according to a 2010 survey by Bupa, 73 per cent of UK consumers go online for health information. Waiting on the digital sidelines is no longer an option for pharma if it wants to reach its audience: if it doesn't offer its customers information through their medium of choice, someone else will.
While healthcare has some way to go before matching the innovation we see in less regulated consumer-facing industries, 2012 is likely to see significant changes in our space.
I've pulled together five key trends that, either in reaching their full potential, or by shaking up traditional approaches, are poised to make an impact on digital healthcare marketing this year and ahead. Across all of these ideas, mobile platforms will continue to grow among HCPs and patients, and this will be reflected in how these concepts are executed.
In reverse order:
5. Natural language processing
Thanks to the success of Apple's voice recognition app Siri, the world is waking up to the potential of speech- and language-based interface. But similar technology can be used for far more than telling your phone to book an appointment. By 'understanding' human language, chat-bot style natural language processing allows software to respond to human requests and return results in an intelligent way.
The applications in healthcare are myriad. Doctors will be able to ask (or type) questions of evidence bases or brand information, rather than using basic search functions. The same chat technology could also enhance HCP education in virtual patient scenarios or, on the patient-facing side, allow users to ask a website for health information or advice on medication usage. In a detailing environment, artificial intelligence is always on license, and on message: something you cannot always guarantee in its human counterparts.
The technology is just reaching the mainstream, with virtual customer service representatives already being used by companies such as Argos. The Spanish Ministry of health has already used such an approach to educate teenagers about STDs. As the way we interact with computers continues to evolve, it is more a question of when, rather than if, this technology will reach healthcare marketing.
4. Professional peer-to-peer communities
Aside from their own experience, HCPs trust nothing more than the views of their peers. Doctors have been doing this online for some years through third-party networks such as medcrowd and Doctors.net. For pharma to connect with HCPs there's a need for it to provide a similar experience. In 2012 and beyond, brands will offer easier ways for specialists to share knowledge and opinions on particular drugs digitally, be it by exchanging comments, videos or recommendations for research and data.
The concept could manifest across several areas, but it's likely that social-network style knowledge sharing will eventually become a core part of brand service offerings, either online or by integrating the concept into electronic detail aids (see point 3).
3. Electronic detail aids will grow up
With the recent surge in popularity of touchpads (and iPads especially), developing digital detail aids has been a natural step in pharmaceutical marketing. Largely this can be seen as a good thing, offering reps the opportunity to showcase their brands with rich-media and more enticing presentation.
Yet emulating paper detail aids digitally brings little advantage alone. In 2012, the industry will begin to further understand the nature of medium.
Good use of an electronic detail aid can completely transform the structure of a sales call. The dynamic nature of the platform means that information, data and the entire 'user journey' can be tailored to what the customer requires. When done right, an electronic detail aid supports sales reps, rather than competes with them.
2. Brand specific patient communities
The success of third-party health-specific communities such as Patientslikeme shows a desire for people to talk about their health within the confines of their own 'social network space' and with anonymity if they so wish.
As ever, regulatory hurdles will need to be negotiated for pharma to realise the potential here. However, now that there is a greater desire to embrace digital solutions, it's likely that brand- or disease-specific communities or 'micro social networks' will play a greater role in what pharma offers patients.
These websites will begin to embrace a greater array of social media functionality. And by increasing access between patients and with doctors, patient communities will become more and more a standard service offering, adding value to brands.
Pharma will also begin to realise the marketing potential of letting patients give them their health data, which can be used both to tailor messages and provide specific health information to patients.
Building on the hottest marketing trend of 2011, pharma will continue to embrace 'gamification'. Gamification – employing the mechanics of play to engage, educate and ultimately persuade your audience to spend more time with your brand – has proven highly successful in consumer circles, from 'checking-in' apps like Foursquare to money management tools like Mint. But in many ways healthcare is a more natural fit: here you have a genuine need that exists beyond pure marketing and money.
In 2012, we're likely to see more in-depth simulation-based education tools – such as eBee's award winning Paper to Patient campaign for GSK. HCP training will become smarter, with better use of artificial intelligence allowing more adaptive and clinically useful feedback for doctors (see point 5). A gamification-style approach will also continue to feature more generally both in interface and site design.
While individual pharma companies have different attitudes to digital strategy, it's clear that concepts such as social networks, interactive education and online health information are here to stay. Those unwilling to look ahead are likely to be left behind.
But using technology is not enough. It is in the thoughtful application of the different tools to specific brands that success will lie. eBee is already working across all of these areas. If you would like our assistance, get in touch – we're more than happy to help.
Alastair McQueen is senior copywriter at digital innovation agency, eBee. eBee brings digital innovation to healthcare communications. You can follow eBee on Twitter @eBeeHealth.