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Harnessing Insight

How can pharma use online doctor networks to best effect in 2014?
It is widely acknowledged that pharma lags behind many other industries in using digital tactics for effective sales and marketing. In fact, globally the pharma industry spends only 15.3 per cent of its marketing budgets on digital, according to Across Health, and most of this continues to be devoted to websites.

Across Health found that barriers to effective digital marketing for pharma include a lack of strategy, a lack of conviction about the value of digital and anxiety about regulation and compliance. Establishing credibility online is also a problem for pharma and evidence from suggests that only three per cent of doctors think online pharma company resources are credible, while 42 per cent never visit their websites.

Research conducted by among 1,000 GPs shows 52 per cent of doctors do not see any sales reps in a typical week due to time pressures, and 23 per cent prefer to source information online. This preference for independent information, combined with doctors' need to communicate in a secure environment that cannot be accessed by the public, have driven the growth of independent online doctor networks in the past few years. There are now around 80 such organisations worldwide with more than 3.5 million doctors (a third of all doctors) signed up to them.

Furthermore, the traditional sales rep model is under intense pressure and for many brands the cost of face-to-face engagement is simply not justifiable other than for a small number of high prescribers and key decision makers or influencers.

Collaborating with online networks
So how can pharma make use of online doctor networks? Doctors use them to communicate with colleagues (99 per cent), to keep up-to-date with information (66 per cent), to access online CME (44 per cent) and to ask a clinical question of their colleagues (33 per cent). In fact, these networks have become so integral to the doctor's working day that they are rated second only to medical journals in terms of the level of trust that doctors place in them. Working in partnership with an independent network not only enables pharma to 'fish where the fish are', it also helps to build credibility since doctors are far more likely to engage with industry information presented via a trusted third party channel than a pharma-branded website.

Most significantly, pharmaceutical companies can use these networks to develop a new kind of 'user-focused' relationship with doctors. One in which they move away from simply delivering promotional messages that might tick strategic marketing boxes but might not resonate with the target audience, and instead begin to adopt a 'pull' approach that provides doctors with what they want from pharma - timely and relevant information and resources around particular disease and therapy areas. This approach also makes doctors more receptive to viewing promotional messages since it positions a company as a trusted provider of valuable information.

In order to share information and resources effectively, pharma companies need to take the time to research their target audience. By gauging doctors' levels of knowledge and understanding around specific disease and therapy areas at the start of a campaign and on an ongoing basis, they can ensure that resources are tailored and optimised accordingly. Online networks make it easy for pharma to gather insights from target groups of doctors via a variety of services that range from polls that gauge a quick view, to more formal tools such as surveys (both quantitative and qualitative) that provide a scaled up picture of doctors' current attitudes and experiences of a specific disease.

Discussion forums can also be mined for key sentiments and terms that may have been discussed around a particular topic; while groups of specialists can be gathered for an online bulletin board discussion. Accredited educational content can also be used to identify specific knowledge gaps either before the launch of a new brand or in an established brand programme.

Having identified doctors' levels of understanding and potential knowledge gaps in a therapeutic area, pharma can begin to add real value to a doctor's clinical practice by developing educational resources that meet those needs, as well as promotional content. Educational resources may include conference or congress highlights since many doctors do not have time or funding to attend such events, clinical paper summaries, case-studies or educational self-assessment activities.

Promotional resources may include new product information or updates such as new indications or new safety data as, contrary to popular belief, doctors do want information about products and services. However, experience shows that doctors prefer short snippets of information that are quick to read as opposed to lengthy e-details.

Making networks work for you
To get the best value from an online network, pharma should use the insights gathered and digital engagement achieved to inform and enhance other sales and marketing activity both online and offline. For example, insights from a digital programme can help reps or key account managers to understand the needs of their customer and find ways to deliver more value.

When creating online materials, it is vital to deliver them in the right format. Many doctors do not have time to sit through a lengthy webcast in order to glean a few nuggets of information and while presentations with animations might look impressive, they might not appeal to doctors or might not even work on NHS computers.

Most doctors still prefer text material and they want to be able to navigate easily to find exactly what they want. Also, with most doctors now using smartphones and tablets, pages need to be designed for easy access on the go whatever the screen size.

In addition to harnessing an online network to improve their knowledge and understanding of doctors, pharma marketers can also use them to address one of their key digital marketing concerns - measurement and evaluation.

There is a common misconception within the pharma industry that digital activity is hard to measure and evaluate. This view often arises from a lack of advance planning around what should be measured, and a tendency to focus on basic metrics, such as the number of visitors to a campaign, or the amount of page views, rather than deeper insights into how a campaign has been received and what impact it has had on the target audience.

Online networks can help brand teams get to grips with interactive data, such as levels of awareness and perceptions before and after a campaign, as well as changes in prescribing intentions and behaviour. This can really help to prove whether a campaign is delivering value.

An increase in sales is, of course, the gold standard measure of success and with careful planning this can be assessed. For example, a programme with both digital and face-to-face elements can be designed to include 'control groups' in the same way one does with a clinical trial.

Online programmes can also be effective where there is no sales force activity. This was recently proved in a campaign that ran for a client with a product in the area of women's health. This was a digital-only promotional campaign and has achieved above target sales growth since launch in early 2013 and received an award for 'Best HCP website' in the PM Society awards in 2013.

In conclusion, independent online networks can help brand teams to build a more trusting and transparent relationship with doctors in a secure and carefully controlled environment. By providing tailored resources that fulfil clearly identified clinical needs, pharma can achieve broad and deep levels of engagement with a target group of doctors, build trust and deliver highly measurable impacts on sales.

Article by Dr Tim Ringrose
CEO of, the UK’s largest and most active online network of doctors. He can be contacted on tel: +44 (0)1235 828400 or email him at

14th February 2014