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The future ain't what it used to be

Planning will ensure we won't lose momentum in the highly likely event of future digital changes

I know a hugely successful venture capitalist, a man of impeccable financial judgment. He had the chance to invest in Google. He turned it down.

To be fair, at the time Yahoo, Excite and a few others ruled the web – what possible future could another search engine have? Past performance, as they say, is no guarantee of future results. Yet in marketing, we simply have to make plans for the future, no matter how opaque that future may be. For PharmiWeb Solutions' pharma corporate customers, that means setting three horizons that can then help formulate a digital strategy.

Firstly, we look at what's happening today and what our approach should be. That's the relatively simple part; there's a menu of tasty digital morsels to choose from and they've all been covered in detail in many previous articles so I won't do so again here, other than to say that any brand owner should be able to make an educated decision about including any of the following in his overall marketing mix for 2011/12: social media (professional networking sites, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc.), digital detailing (web self-service, rep-led on the iPad and other devices, remote co-browsing), closed loop marketing, online physician and patient support and so on. Some of these are no-brainers, some require more thought due to the tough regulatory requirements of the sector, and some may offer only modest advantages. But we are living in an age of enlightenment in pharma, with digital becoming a normal part of the marketing mix, so these decisions can be made with some confidence.

What's a little harder is the two to three year window. Digital is predicated on technology and technology shows no sign of slowing down, so it's just not possible to predict what's next with certainty. Remember, Twitter had few users in March 2006, but five years later it had more than 200 million.

So what might be possible, even probable, in four or five years' time? That's even less straightforward. We'll have to make judgments about technology and trends that are not yet even imagined. And we'll have to be honest and accept our judgements may well be wrong – but here's where scenario-based planning can help, if we have a plan B (through to plan Z if necessary) then we won't lose momentum in the highly likely event of things changing.

It's broadly true that pharma marketing has barely altered in the past 50 years. Yet, here we are, talking about a rapid evolution we assume will happen in just a tenth of that time. True, that brings danger, but it also brings opportunity. So rather than place one bet, we look at general trends and make sure we've got workable ideas suitable for each. For instance, we think that networks will have an increasing impact – professional, as well as patient/consumer. We think Internet TV will gain ground, that DTC regulations in Europe may change and that business software, such as CRM, will become increasingly cloud-based and easier to use. 

We think that GoogleHealth, Microsoft HealthVault and other as yet unknown newcomers will allow individual patients and consumers to own their own health data and build a genetic profile via providers such as 23andme. They can then share it with whom they choose.

So our best guess for tomorrow, as we peer into the future today, is that the fabric of the web will gradually knit together the once disparate communities of corporate pharma, healthcare professionals, patients, carers and consumers. Maybe. So what future will you invest in?

Paul Hartigan
The Author
Paul Hartigan
is chief executive of PharmiWeb Solutions
He can be contacted at:




3rd October 2011


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