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‘It’s not about you, it’s about them’ – putting customer needs first in our communications

By Chris Finch

Pre-COVID-19, the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1918 was the most severe global pandemic in modern history.

Since then, the pharmaceutical industry has grown exponentially into a $1.5 trillion industry, predominantly driven by a very simple communications model – large teams of sales representatives visiting healthcare professionals and conveying
‘key messages’ about their products.

As the decision to fund and prescribe medicines has become more and more complex, that model has become less and less effective. Throw into the mix the fact that COVID-19 has all but completely halted face-to-face sales activity, and it becomes clear that now, more than ever, we need a different, more effective way to communicate with our customers and patients.

‘It’s not about you, it’s about them’

For years, many pharma brand teams developed their communication plans by asking three questions:

  • Who do we want to talk to?
  • What do we want to say?
  • How do we want to say it?

This is a very internal way of looking at the world. To create truly engaging healthcare communications that drive a change in behaviour, we must turn these questions on their head and ask:

  • Who are the key stakeholders for our brand?
  • What problems do they have that we can solve and what opportunities exist that we can realise?
  • How do they want to hear about how we can solve their problems and realise the opportunities?
  • Where and when do they want to hear it?

Who are the key stakeholders?

It is important to segment your stakeholders as much as possible, as this will enable you to tailor your communications to specific groups. A crucial stage that is often missed is prioritisation. It is impossible to be all things to all people, so identify the top two or three audiences whose problems you are best placed to solve.

What problems do they have?

For your highest priority stakeholders, map out their journey with your brand, documenting their ‘pains’ (problems they face on the journey) and ‘gains’ (opportunities to make their journey easier). You should validate this with real stakeholders – if that’s not possible, then use personas to represent their voice.

Successful communication of your solutions to these pains and gains becomes the overall objective for your campaign.

How do they want to hear the message?

Engage stakeholders in your message development and act on their feedback. Pharma traditionally creates wordy, heavily scientific communications, but the world has changed. We are busier and have shorter attention spans than ever before.

To cut through the noise, our communications must speak to the needs of our audience through short, clear, punchy messages that grab attention and entice the recipient to engage further, clearly signposting the way to more detailed information.

Where and when?

Stakeholders will have different preferences for where and when they want to receive communications, and in the current environment this may change as demands on time and government guidance on social distancing evolves. Conducting channel research can uncover your stakeholder’s preferences at a macro level, but accurately recording channel interactions and permissions in your CRM is key to tailoring communications at a micro level.

Consider capturing preferences for:

  • Device/platform
  • Time of day
  • Type of communication channel.

The beauty of digital channels is that they are easy to analyse and track, meaning we can do more of what is working and turn off the activities that are not generating the desired engagement. A/B testing on email campaigns and web pages can help you maximise their effectiveness.

What’s happening right now?

Webinars are being utilised to disseminate medical education and sales representatives have adapted to life on video calls. Veeva reported a fifty-fold increase in remote meetings on its platform from February to May.

Other channels that do not require human interaction have also started to gain traction, with pharma companies adopting chatbots to handle common HCP and patient enquiries, and are increasingly looking at solutions to deliver medical education electronically through third- party publishers or their own online educational platforms.

Email is also making a comeback through sponsored third-party email and direct email to HCPs who have opted in. Increasingly, ‘approved email’ is being used to supplement rep activity, following up sales calls in a timely fashion and signposting other digital channels.

While COVID-19 has made 2020 a year most of us will want to quickly forget, we may well look back at the pandemic as the catalyst for pharma finally embracing digital communication channels that put our stakeholders preferences right at the centre of our strategies.

Chris Finch is Managing Director of earthware

In association with

16th October 2020

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