The pharmaceutical industry's understanding and adoption of multichannel strategy is, at best, variable. While more enlightened organisations are trying hard to challenge the old models of sales and marketing, others are stubbornly sitting on their hands and persisting with tried-and-tested traditional methodology. And somewhere in between, a growing band of companies have convinced themselves that they've entered a brave new multichannel world by bolting a digital sales aid on to their existing strategy and calling it an iDetail.
In truth, it's simply paper under glass. To progress, companies perhaps need to become more proactive and pull multichannel planning into the strategic process much earlier. But to do this, they may need to develop a greater understanding of the opportunity and challenge some of the historical cultural values that are deeply embedded across the industry.
The leap into multichannels
“Multichannel strategy tends to cause organisational paralysis - not just in those companies still coming to terms with what it might mean to them, but also in those that have already recognised the imperative of evolving their channel offering in line with customer preferences,” says Duncan Arbour, European digital strategy lead, inVentiv Health.
“For those companies yet to take a leap to multichannel, the paralysis comes from the often daunting hypotheses that you need to test. For example, accepting that face-to-face contact can be reduced without damaging top-line growth, or looking beyond share of voice as a key metric.
“And for those companies who have already made significant investments in multichannel planning and delivery, the paralysis comes from brand teams who aren't happy with what they're being asked to adopt. Their current strategies are hitting targets, so they're naturally unwilling to replace these with channels that have been forced on them, top-down. There's no immediately apparent burning platform forcing them to change.”
The journey to multichannel has been a slow one for pharma. “The industry is still learning,” says Dominic Owens, planning director at Seven Stones. “For many years, we didn't have multimedia to choose from - we had a salesforce armed with paper leave pieces, we did some direct mailings, some publications and a little bit at congresses, and that was about it. Nowadays we have all of the electronic alternatives and everybody recognises the opportunity - but, to date, we've found no quantitative way of assessing the value of the digital alternative.
“Thankfully, we appear to be coming to the end of the industry-wide obsession with digital and reaching a more level playing field, where companies realise there's a balance to be struck. But to move forward, we really need to follow consumer marketing's lead and develop an empirical way of measuring the value of activity. That will significantly inform our ability to plan a multichannel approach.”
Must do something digital!
At present, the industry's use of multichannel marketing is often tactical - and rather than being stitched into the fabric of a properly planned pre-launch strategy, it's bolted on at the end as a product of the 'must do something digital' philosophy.
“Commonly, companies' use of multichannel or integrated channel marketing in the pre-launch planning phase is not strategic. But it should be,” says Matt McCarty, senior director, Medical Communications at Quintiles.
“Many people believe that they need to have a digital component, but often many don't really know what that means. So they build a traditional plan doing everything they've done historically for the past ten years, consuming 80 per cent of their budget, then right at the end, they request a multichannel component because they 'must have an iPad app' or 'an e-detailing component', irrespective of the relevance or value with their target customer base.
“This is not strategic. Companies need to look at their whole marketing communications plan and establish the right channels for the right audience - and develop an integrated plan across all of those channels that will return value. Too many companies do their strategic thinking first, then bolt digital on at the end. It doesn't work.”
Look to the customers
Clearly, analytics and customer understanding are key. The industry must focus more on evaluating customer behaviours and preferences, and optimising the customer experience by delivering communications using the right language across the right channels.
“Times have changed and the way in which we connect with our audience is now different, opening us up to more opportunities to engage. However, what we say should still be the same, it's just now about how we say it,” says Raakhee Thompson, general manager, Saatchi and Saatchi Health.
“We should still be using the principles of good communication, in terms of truly understanding who we are talking to in order to make a real connection. Bringing analytics into behaviour can uncover deeper insights and having the right channels in place and ensuring the planning function understands these channels and how they complement the overall strategy, is now key. Having a multichannel/multimedia market place allows us to be more targeted than ever before and become smarter about how we connect to patients, physicians, payers and so on. Clients are increasingly utilising different channels depending on type of customer and level of expertise. But consistency of message is vital - and we need to be mindful of this. The danger is when companies try to be too many things to too many people - we should be fishing where the fish are.
Times have changed and the way we connect with our audience is now different
“Companies should be thinking more broadly about how to connect with their audiences. There is so much opportunity to engage using new and innovative channels, but these need to be right and relevant to the customer. That's where planning as a function has evolved.”
Identifying best practice
With such variability in its current approach to multichannel planning - against a global backdrop of cost-containment and efficiency drives - the industry could perhaps benefit from adopting a more collaborative approach to identifying best practice.
“The imperative and business case for multichannel are both clear, but you'll never deliver the anticipated benefits if you ignore the last mile customer experience. But no one in pharma seems to know 'what good looks like' in a multichannel experience. All they know is that they're not confident in the quality of what they're obliged to offer and are seeing poor results with their customers. It's not surprising that internal support for multichannel initiatives is not what management would like it to be,” says Arbour.
“Enough companies are rolling out new integrated channel and touchpoint strategies that it should soon be possible to conduct research with customers to find out what the current gold standard is – and this will be good for everyone. I'd love to see sharing by the major players in the industry in terms of delivering the best experience to customers. There'd be great value in finding a consistent approach and delivery of new channels.”
The answers, however, are likely to be familiar - not least because customers, whoever they are, are also consumers. And this is where the benchmark is set. Multichannel success will only come when companies' customers become individuals that are happy to engage through all channels, not only because those channels meet their functional needs, but also because they provide an experience equal to the type of digital interactions they experience as consumers, outside of their professional spheres.
Engaging with partners
Beyond customer analytics, there is undoubtedly a need to reevaluate planning processes, in particular how companies engage with marketing partners. The concept of integrated communications - both internally and externally - appears to be a no-brainer on paper, but the reality is often different.
“More often than not, agencies work in silos,” says Owens “The PR, medical education, advertising and congress should all be working to the same theme, but more commonly, we just inherit a brand book from the lead global agency and there is no cross-media discussion about the rationale behind it. To a large extent, the market has polarised; you are either the global agency and involved in all sorts of things strategically, or you are the country agency, given tactical executions and everything else is centralised.
“There still needs to be an enlightened conversation with the local country about how those executions can be tied together schematically, but polarisation is stopping that. It's making people think only about execution. But the way things get executed in local markets really matters, because that's where your audiences are - so rather than just having plans handed over by the global teams for execution, it's even more important that local agencies can get under the skin of why strategies were created so that other media can start working together effectively. Otherwise, all you have is vanilla everywhere. There is a job to do in tying everything together so the PR, medical education, advertising and multimedia are all integrated,” Owens said.
When to implement?
So in a multichannel, multi-customer environment, it seems only a multi-disciplinary, cross-functional approach will suffice. But how soon? For the optimal multichannel plan, when should companies consider engaging their agencies?
“This is not the addition of multichannel communications three years pre-launch resulting in significant budget increase - it's about making sure you do the right steps at the right time as part of your communications mix,” says McCarty. Clearly, the broader long-term strategies are developed much further out and if you don't have the right endpoints in your clinical trials you don't end up with the value evidence you need for market access. But from a communications perspective, there is much that can be done earlier that can strengthen a strategic launch plan.
“There's a big role for building awareness - internally and externally - during the latter parts of the phase II stage that can sow the seeds of important relationships. This is almost always more effective the earlier you do it. And it doesn't have to cost you a huge amount more money - it's about doing similar activities earlier. Companies don't need to replicate their six-month pre-launch budget from three years pre launch. But if you communicate with the right stakeholders early enough, the long-term benefits are significant. In a competitive multichannel landscape, forward planning is essential,” McCarty finishes.
The journey to multichannel marketing will not be completed overnight - but it needs to gather pace. Integration, collaboration and evaluation will be key. Multichannel planning must become an important part of the industry's strategic thinking. After all, companies that fail to do the early analysis risk the continued price of organisational paralysis.