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Superstar congresses and conferences will stay centre stage but now share the limelight with virtual and hybrid events

With the pandemic having dimmed the lights on pharma conferences, their virtual and hybrid replacements have grasped the opportunity and are here to stay

Conference attendance records are being shattered around the world with industrial quantities of abstracts, posters and highlight sessions being shared – and not one set of luggage has been lost in the process.

McCormick Place, the vast 2.6 million square feet Chicago events space that hosts the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting, has been eerily silent but the oncology centrepiece still attracted 42,700 attendees over its three online days featuring 5,300 abstracts, 2,300 oral and poster presentations, cancer-specific highlights sessions and clinical symposia that have been viewed more than 2.5 million times.

The European Society of Cardiology (ESC) saw its figures rocket, as did countless other conferences and symposia that were forced into a virtual existence by the pandemic’s rolling lockdowns.

Virtual conferences and hybrid events have become part of the landscape and, after the early rush of necessity, industry is now calculating which elements work best in a post-pandemic world.

It is an equation that rambles through behavioural psychology, technology capability, logistics and sustainability, and no-one really knows quite what x equals yet.

Online and on-demand content is going through multiple creative prisms to find engagement triggers and behavioural hooks to compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact. Tactics from the gaming industry are being deployed and, this year, your name badge could be an avatar wandering the conference halls free from the jeopardy of the coffee queue.

“Congresses and symposia continue to be a critical source of information for healthcare professionals (HCPs), who rank them more highly than other channels including email, pharma reps, pharma websites and social media. Only independent medical websites are rated more important as a channel,” says Michelle Kelly, marketing director at EPG Health, the publisher of Medthority, an independent medical website for healthcare professionals that has a global actionable reach exceeding 1.8 million HCPs in 185 markets and territories. Its report, The Gaps Between HCP Demand and Pharma Supply of Medical Information, revealed that HCPs have derived value from virtual events and more than half expect their demand for access to online events to remain higher post-pandemic than it was pre-pandemic.

“For an industry often criticised for being slow to both respond to and effect change, it has been remarkably quick in shifting to remote events, despite the challenges,” added Kelly. “We have seen a really positive impact for our own HCP audience and pharma clients, achieving greater numbers for live online attendance, but also many times more participants accessing on-demand recordings, congress highlights and enduring materials in the weeks post-event.

“HCPs have the benefit of being able to access what they want, when they want it. Pharma has the ability to reach far bigger and broader audiences and, through online metrics, better understand engagement with the congress output.”

The definition of value
This success underscores the viability of a future where in-person, virtual and hybrid events co-exist across the calendar with, significantly, the EPG Health study showing that 72% of HCPs believe that virtual attendance is as good for learning as attending in-person.

Kelly added: “But, as long as HCP demand for congress remains – and our research indicated it will – these meetings will continue to go ahead in some form, and the companies that are able to deliver value for HCPs through them will continue to benefit.

“Delivering value is key to effectiveness for pharma, and COVID-19 has altered the definition of value for events, probably forever. Understanding how to deliver value differently, via hybrid, virtual and on-demand or enduring content will be really important to the success of companies.”

But EPG Health sees potential tension with some companies prioritising resources to their websites, sales force and MSL activities to deliver scientific information to doctors. “From an HCP’s perspective, that would be a mistake,” said Kelly. “81% value congress and symposia, compared to 40% for sales reps, 47% for MSLs and 52% for pharma educational websites.”

Vikki Ward, European Project and Content Delivery Lead at Havas Lynx Group, believes the advent of virtual and hybrid events is democratising health education by making it easier to spread scientific and clinical information.

“This move to virtual has been coming for a long time and there has been a frustration it hasn’t happened sooner,” she said. “There’s been a feeling that we have all this cutting-edge information, so why restrict it to people who can attend, or are invited to, a congress?

“We are all – agencies and customers – learning fast here about the capabilities of virtual events and how best to reach an audience, but the potential is immense.”

The key, she believes, is to make deeper connections and open wider circuits of knowledge exchange via technology. “It is about becoming a 365-days a year partner, not just for a concentrated few days and then disappearing for another 12 months,” Ward added.

“The challenge is to resonate with an audience of three million rather than 3,000 and this is a massive opportunity to engage with your customers and let them understand where you are with your science, your patient support and how you are pushing the barriers of that disease or therapy area.

“If we have the enthusiasm and the drive, there are so many opportunities to connect, innovate and keep conversations and connections going throughout the year.”

As easy as Amazon
Ward feels the migration towards more virtual events should be seen as a landmark moment capable of endowing engagement and relationships with deeper understanding.

“We can demonstrate that we are really considering our clients,” she said. “It’s not just about what you want to tell them, it is answering what they want to know from you – that is where the real change is happening and it’s exciting.”

But, she emphasises, going digital does not mean a data dump of conference materials in software-melting downloads. Conference sessions and presentations need to be smartly tailored and easily accessible for optimum knowledge transfer.

“I think pharma conferences and exhibitions had somewhat stagnated but the expectations of attendees who are used to digital consumption have pushed them on in recent years,” Ward said. “The customer wants to find information relevant to them as easily as they might find something on Amazon; they don’t want to wade through vast acreages of data and posters.”

Delivery has to be further tuned too, Ward added, with information available for phone or podcast consumption as well standard documents and pdfs.

“It has been a steep learning curve on all sides but it is clear that we have more ways of communicating now and as HCPs’ work lives, schedules and expectations are changing, we have to be permanently adaptable.

“In-person meetings will continue but virtual environments are allowing us more opportunities to build relationships and share the incredible amount of science that is emerging. We have the chance to make these relationships 365, which feels like a really exciting moment for industry,” Ward concluded.

Nick Burgoyne, Healthcare Client Services Director at Purple Agency, echoes the imperative for creating strong information exchange at virtual or hybrid events.

“We have three golden rules: make it relevant and valuable; make it snackable and accessible, and make it cohesive and memorable,” he said. “That applies to whatever medium you are communicating in, but it is critical on digital channels.

“It is about engagement and our challenge as an agency has been how to make data appealing and relevant to HCPs.

“We have to use creativity and understanding to make virtual events work and on-demand is an essential tool to achieve this. It has to be as accessible as watching sport on TV where you can fast-forward or rewind to the bits you need.

“Some HCPs are really interested in safety, others efficacy, others mode of action. Others want to see the clinical papers, others want to plug into the real-world evidence so you can't make people sit through endless stuff they are not interested in – you have to take them right there.

“If you can increase that accessibility and convenience for them, then you can get a much wider audience than you would at a conference,” Burgoyne added.

The buzz is back
Purple Agency, an international marketing agency and part of HH Global, has experience developing and strategising live and virtual events.

“We launched a drug at the London Vet Show in 2019 and it was a rip-roaring success because we had everyone there in person and you could see the excitement about the product,” added Burgoyne. “A year later and it was virtual so, although information still got to vets, it was not in that big, collaborative way. It was in-person again this year and the buzz was back.

“That personal contact, catching up with friends and colleagues is the biggest thing missing from live events. HCPs value mixing with peers and sharing information in relaxed, ad hoc settings where they can listen, learn, understand and discuss and debate freely.

“Those moments where a rep can chat to three doctors is invaluable and certainly better than trying to chase them down hospital corridors or firing off emails. For those reasons, conferences will come back but virtual is here to stay and digital is very effective at getting information to time-poor doctors and consultants. Both physical and virtual are now part of the mix.

“We certainly lost that physical contact with peers and working colleagues during the pandemic and you have to build it in a different way online. At Purple, we have found new ways to work ourselves and to engage with clients and, although a live event is still a Holy Grail, we have to accept that life has changed.

“We are not working five days a week at an office and that probably won’t come back ever. Virtual working is part of our lives now and we have to apply our creative efforts and innovation to making this environment work as well as in-person contact,” Burgoyne concluded.

Sustaining online engagement
The organic conversations, networking and collaborations are the golden dividend of live events and no amount of manoeuvring like-minded spirits into chat rooms can replicate its efficacy.

“Even though they are made to seem ad hoc, they can feel a bit scripted and regimented. It is not as agile as real life,” said Lisa Lishman, Commercial Director at Page & Page and Partners, the independent global creative communications agency specialising in health, wellness and lifestyle.

“A lot of virtual conferences have posted record attendances but you need to interrogate those statistics because the challenge clients face is how to sustain engagement online. People log in but do they stay involved and engaged?

“The audience you are trying to reach is phenomenally distracted, overwhelmed, looking at emails, having side conversations at home or at work so this is where communications, creativity, impact and value really need to come through. You have to ask how do you cut through all the social noise that's going on and how do you tap into somebody's true purpose, their hearts and minds? How do you make them feel valued?

“When the pandemic started, all our lives switched online and people got frustrated. They got overwhelmed. They got distracted and had a work/life bleed, not a work/life blend. So we are at a point where online events have to be attractive and offer added value to get their attention.”

Face to face is life affirming
The tools of marketing and gaming are becoming more apparent, with some virtual conference invitations being sent in special boxes rather than by save-the-date email, and events are being designed with avatars and games to keep attention levels from flagging.

“Industry woke up pretty quickly to the reality that it could not simply copy and paste conference content,” added Lishman. “Watching a 90-minute presentation with background statistical slides on your laptop is not that appealing but having a personal avatar that can physically walk down 3D corridors and into rooms to look at posters or listen to a presentation is more engaging.

“The feedback we get from HCPs is that they miss in-person events but are grateful for the flexibility for hybrid and virtual where they can pick and choose, fitting events around their schedules. We also know that when we first started transitioning online there was a feeling it would be cheaper and easier than taking a booth at a conference but that was quickly dispelled.

“The planning, the support for the speakers, event branding and awareness and follow-up have become even more important because more people have got used to living their lives online. They have to be well thought out, innovative and creative, with a deep understanding of the client and the audience.”

Lishman concluded: “The tangible elements and advantages of meeting someone, having a conversation and affirming your learning or experiencing a different point of view means there will always be face-to-face events but they will be followed up with or run in parallel to online.”

This year’s big conferences are, for now, still scheduled to be in person and The European Society of Cardiology will be celebrating its 70th anniversary with this year’s conference in Barcelona with the proud billing: ‘Onsite and Online’.

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

24th January 2022

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

24th January 2022

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