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After the watershed: the dos and don’ts of digital KPIs in a post-pandemic world

Chris Ross looks at how COVID-19 is forcing businesses to reconfigure their commercial strategies around digital channels

The global COVID-19 crisis is likely to be a watershed moment for pharmaceutical sales and marketing. The outbreak has brought traditional customer engagement to a grinding halt, forcing businesses to reconfigure their commercial strategies around digital channels that have, until now, largely been underused or undervalued. Historically, pharma’s investment in digital has been uninspiring, with a continued reliance on traditional approaches often dictating only incremental increases in digital spend. In many companies, digital is not yet a priority, with the channel considered little more than a tactical bolt-on. The pandemic, however, is changing everything. Caught in the jaws of lockdown – and unable to rely on familiar tools – pharma’s route to customers has been forced off-road. As companies scramble to fill the gaps left behind by reps in quarantine, digital is suddenly priority number one.

Commentators report a surge in tele-detailing, virtual reps and remote programmes. Alongside them, brand teams are desperately trying to bolster their digital capabilities and strengthen digital campaigns. Across the industry, marketers are searching for quick-fix solutions and seeing digital as their tactical salvation. Many are finally discovering the true power of digital. Moreover, as pharma grapples with the question of how much promotional engagement is actually appropriate while HCPs battle COVID-19, companies are recognising that digital can offer a solution – allowing customers to set the terms of that engagement by providing choice and flexibility in how (and when) they consume information. The approach could facilitate a shift in pharma’s commercial model from ‘share of voice’ to ‘quality of voice’. It will certainly transform customer engagement.

Post-pandemic, it’s unlikely we’ll ever go back. Tomorrow’s world will be the blended mix of channels that digital pioneers have long been advocating. However, to get there, pharma’s use of digital must evolve from tactical to strategic. If the global pandemic is to become a watershed moment for pharma’s commercial operations, companies must make sure digital routinely becomes part of the strategic discussion around how brand teams plan, deliver and – crucially – measure customer engagement.

In recent years, ‘digital KPIs’ have become an obligatory page in pharma’s marketing playbook. However, a common tendency to treat digital as an adjunct to brand strategy – rather than a core component of it – means some companies struggle to set meaningful digital KPIs. The industry’s slow progress towards digital maturity only makes things harder. As marketers look to build evidence-based business cases for their digital programmes, many are finding they don’t have the requisite data, support or digital understanding to determine the best digital KPIs for their brands.

With digital likely to play a leading role in pharma’s customer engagement models post-pandemic, brand teams will ultimately be measured against the KPIs they set. So how do you ensure you’re setting the right ones? Here, with the help of experts in digital engagement for pharma, are ten dos and don’ts of digital KPIs.

#1. Let your strategic objectives guide you

“The most effective brand teams resist the temptation to set digital KPIs in isolation – and are instead guided by broader strategic objectives,” said Amy Williams, Head of Digital, Hanover. “Of course, good KPIs can prove good work and impact, but the results should fit seamlessly into the bigger picture for a business. How is a campaign, or an execution, aligned to your business objectives? If you don’t know the answer to that then you probably need to take a few steps back before addressing digital KPIs.

“The first – and most important – questions when setting digital KPIs should always be: what are our overall objectives, and how does this digital execution have a positive impact on our business goals? If it doesn’t, you probably shouldn’t be undertaking it. Sometimes, digital KPIs are set to provide impressive numbers that don’t actually demonstrate a positive impact or contribute to objectives. This is a fool’s errand.”

Tim Russell, VP, Medical Communities, M3 (EU), agreed. “Strategic imperatives are the only true driver of meaningful digital KPIs. First considerations should always be: what is our communications objective, what’s our endpoint and what, ultimately, are we trying to achieve? For example, is it awareness? Is it increased prescribing? Or is it an increase in clinical knowledge or a change in clinical behaviour? Clinical behaviour change is very difficult to prove, not just digitally but across any channel. However, it is possible to track intent to change behaviour – and digital provides a great mechanism to do this. For instance, you can see if an HCP has taken an action; they may have read something or taken part in an interactive poll that indicates an intent to do something; they may have downloaded clinical data for review or requested further information; or they may have returned to look again at useful material, or clicked through to drill deeper into a topic. All these things indicate intent to change behaviour.”

#2. Don’t fixate on the numbers – look at the bigger picture

“Steering on lagging indicators like market share and sales by solely relying on leading quantitative metrics – such as email open rates or web visits – is like praying for sunshine,” said Christophe Brock, Head of Impact, Across Health. “Quantitative metrics will tell you whether you’re reaching your customers, but they don’t guarantee their engagement or conversion. Did you persuade them to buy into a new treatment option? Did you secure their prescribing intention? The numbers alone won’t help you. To win, you need the binding tissue between lagging sales numbers and leading reach metrics – through qualitative channel and brand-specific metrics. Not all channels are equal. Summing up interactions across multiple channels gives you clues about the number of touchpoints generated, but it tells you little about their impact. Why would reading an email contribute as much to convincing your prospect as, for example, a 15-minute remote interaction with a rep? It’s important to compare apples with apples. There are great tools out there to help you do that. But make sure you’re looking at the full picture. Don’t stare yourself blind on channel-specific KPIs – set overarching campaign and customer-level objectives too.”

#3. Avoid vanity metrics

The abundance of data associated with digital has arguably driven an obsession with ‘counting’. But numbers only tell you part of the story, and the narrative only makes sense if you’re counting the right things. A good example of this is socalled ‘vanity metrics’ – numbers which make you look good to others, but do little to help you understand your own true performance. “Vanity metrics often crop up when we’re discussing digital measurement,” said Amy. “They can be both a help and a hindrance. It’s easy to be blinded by big numbers and lose sight of an objective. However, if a business is gathering a wide range of metrics throughout a campaign, sometimes these numbers can complement the demonstration of a campaign’s impact – as long as they’re not treated as the ‘be all and end all’.”

#4. Don’t confuse metrics and KPIs

“The terms ‘metrics’ and ‘KPIs’ are often (inaccurately) used interchangeably. It’s important to understand the nuances between the two,” said Tim. “Digital offers hundreds of metrics, but only a handful will be KPIs. A KPI directly links to the strategic objective you’ve set for a campaign, whereas a metric is the deep dive that adds granularity and detail to show you why. Metrics feed into the main narrative and are often secondary or tertiary objectives. However, the bigger story – the ‘was this campaign successful?’ – is measured by KPIs that all link back to those overarching strategic objectives.”

#5. Don’t have too many KPIs

“Some make the mistake of having too many KPIs and blend them in with metrics,” said Christophe. “It’s better to focus on just a few core KPIs at the campaign level – ideally around five – and define one or two per channel and customer (segment). Stick with them, and don’t go into a measurement frenzy – but make sure to spread them across all phases of the customer journey: first ‘reach’ them, then ‘convince’ them – by providing an optimal user experience through the channels of their choice, then finally ‘convert’ them into a brand loyalist and measure the effectiveness.”

#6. Look around you for benchmarks

“Businesses should consider what they’re measuring already,” said Amy. “Having a benchmark is a great place to start to prove the impact of digital activity. If you’re not measuring certain things then why not? Should you? And, if so, how? For example, if you want to change consumers’ opinions of your business, are you tracking the sentiment of your brand/business so you can see if your campaigns move the needle? “Once your objectives, and what you can measure, are clear, you should ask yourself which metrics will provide the best evidence to demonstrate success – then define those metrics and what their value might be. For instance, if you’re trying to drive traffic to a webpage, do you know what normal traffic looks like and therefore what will constitute a marked increase? Digital KPIs that are set without any knowledge or benchmark are, at best, an educated guess and can set a business up for failure from the outset. If you don’t have metrics or benchmarks to go on, there is a wealth of industry guidance that can steer you. For example, many social and search platforms provide guidance on estimated results based on previous experiences.”

#7. Collaborate internally

“High quality KPIs are a reflection of a high quality strategy and marketing plan,” said Christophe. “They’re typically set during the planning phase through close collaboration between the business owner, the campaign strategist and someone from business analytics. Involving the latter at the strategic design phase will help streamline the KPI definition process further downstream. Additionally, business analytics will help identify measurement leverage points – like pre/postcampaign measurements – you may want to bake into your campaign strategy.”

#8. Collaborate externally

“Collaboration is key to establishing the right KPIs,” said Tim. “This means understanding internal perspectives through broad crossfunctional engagement, but it also means throwing the net wider to capture external insights from specialist digital partners. A good partner will not only bring expertise, they’ll give you a window to your customers’ digital world, providing the deep understanding of online communities that will help shape strategy and inform KPIs. However, this value is only fully realised when teams engage early and work end-to-end in true partnership. Unfortunately, some pharma companies still choose to maintain transactional relationships with their suppliers. For example, some marketers will say: “I just want to engage 500 oncologists for a month – and this is my budget.” It’s relatively easy to show success against crude metrics like that, but the businesses that do it are actually just dipping their toe in the ocean. Similarly, some organisations don’t give enough time to digital – they think of it as a bolt-on. The most successful teams treat digital and third-party media as a core channel, giving it the same attention and focus as other more traditional activities. Ultimately, true value – and better strategic alignment of KPIs – comes from working in trusted partnership.”

#9. Test, test, test

While KPIs should always be set at the beginning of a campaign, they need to be agile too. “KPIs are not just targets to aspire to, they’re the barometer of a campaign’s progress and there to guide your approach,” said Amy. “Some companies make the mistake of not tracking KPIs throughout, waiting until a campaign has ended before seeing if they succeeded. Good KPIs highlight problem areas that need improvement and help agile marketers adapt their campaigns accordingly.”

#10. Don’t make it too technical

“Think about who will be reviewing your KPIs,” said Christophe. “A common mistake is to make KPI reports way too technical, or rely on clever dashboards that tell you everything and nothing. The best approach is to plan two types of report – one at the strategic/executive level, the other more operational. The first will give you a high-level overview of your performance versus campaign objectives and business outcomes. The second will provide more in-depth reporting of individual campaign (channel- and customer-level) components. Both allow you to take well-defined actions, each at its own level.”

Moving beyond the watershed

A global health emergency wasn’t the catalyst the world wanted in order to force pharmaceutical companies to modernise their commercial operations. However, the coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly a watershed moment that – through circumstance, not design – has compelled industry to leverage digital channels that have previously stayed in the shadows of more traditional engagement. As we move towards a new tomorrow, where face-to-face engagement rightfully returns to the promotional mix, the most effective marketers will be those whose campaigns find the right balance of offline and digital channels – and whose KPIs, digital or otherwise, are all aligned with overarching strategic objectives. Unlike large chunks of the world’s current population, digital doesn’t live in isolation. In the post-pandemic era, integrating it into the strategic mix could be pharma’s most important KPI yet.

Chris Ross is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

18th May 2020

Chris Ross is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

18th May 2020

From: Marketing


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