The first step of any journey is understanding where you're starting from – and the pharma industry is at the beginning of its marketing journey as regards the use of digital channels. Compared to some leading customer-led organisations, many pharmaceutical companies would freely admit that they're behind the curve.
This is borne out in recent quantitative research conducted by Brand Learning to assess, track and benchmark global marketing capabilities. Looking at an amalgamation of the findings across these studies in a variety of industry sectors, building digital capability is identified as a key opportunity for all companies – and particularly for pharma organisations.
Around half of the firms surveyed said that they listen to online consumer/customer conversations (eg via social media) to build their understanding of what customers want, but only a minority use social media and/or digital channels to help build relationships with those audiences, improve customer service or work collaboratively with customers to develop innovative ideas.
So why do so many pharma businesses see themselves as lacking in this area, despite their strenuous efforts to correct the situation? Do they perceive the challenges as more difficult than they actually are? Or are other factors at work?
Perhaps. One key challenge is around compliance: pharma companies need to satisfy the different ethical, legal and regulatory requirements that can vary drastically by market, yet at the same time the internet is global.
As a result they need to be able to actively manage who accesses the information they provide; that it is maintained, up to date, accurate and not misleading. They also need to ensure they're not missing out any of the collation, management and reporting of adverse events.
After all, each country is different. There is invariably a mix of local regulations, which means that on a global level everything gets more complicated. Be that as it may, pharma marketers need to work with people within compliance and external regulators and find a way to meet these requirements, and to do so digitally.
Whilst these challenges are real and the pace of digital change is exceptionally fast – the answer is not to do nothing. Different customers - whether patients, physicians or payers - expect to have access to information.
Moreover, in the modern world they expect to be able to engage in conversations through digital services or channels. Pharma companies need to understand these audiences' online behaviour and preferences and find ways to be part of these conversations; if not leading them, then at least contributing.
Another challenge is that with blockbuster drugs now less prevalent than in the past, many pharma companies need to change their strategic approach. Rather than gearing up solely to launch and manage big brands, they now need to look at how they can profitably launch drugs or treatments aimed at smaller patient groups or specialist physicians.
New business models to make these opportunities commercially viable using digital channels can be one way to deliver efficient and effective information or services. This opens up more possibilities, where the previous operating model wouldn't have worked.
There are some good examples of recent digital marketing activity by pharma companies. For example, Bayer is trying to help children to monitor their own blood glucose levels even though getting kids to do it on a regular basis is a real challenge.
By teaming up with Nintendo they have developed a measurement device that kids can also plug into their Nintendo console and use to play a game. It's about trying to tap into existing patient behaviours in a way that enables them to develop better compliance and/or treatment.
Healthcare mobile apps, such as Sanofi's AFib Educator app that allows healthcare practitioners to better explain the risks and consequences of cardiovascular disease, are another way companies in the sector are trying to deliver genuine innovation.
Mobile devices are a big growth area because smartphones have become commonplace and information can be relayed directly from physicians to patients via the device – instilling in the latter a sense of control and a heightened commitment to their own care.
Whilst the pharma industry may not be seen as leaders in digital communications they are nonetheless experimenting with new ways to engage with and co-create ideas with their patients. As part of their consumer campaign to build demand for their influenza vaccine, Novartis sponsored a YouTube contest for the best consumer-generated commercial on proper flu etiquette. By seeking content created in this way they used viral marketing to increase awareness of influenza and the vaccine and drive consumers to a site where they were then directed to locations that stocked Novartis' flu vaccine.
Although these initiatives are encouraging, the overall message is that pharma organisations need to invest in better, stronger marketing capabilities. It's not always easy to develop marketing capabilities, particularly in sectors, like pharma, that have historically relied less on cutting edge marketing practices.
However, in many ways digital is no longer the radically new element of marketing – getting it right and delivering services online is now just as commonplace and expected as traditional communications.
Andy Bird and Mhairi McEwan are co-founders of Brand Learning, global experts in transforming marketing capabilities and co-authors of a new book, The Growth Drivers.