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Virtual congresses: video thrilled the cardio tsar

Chris Ross explores the key learnings from a year of virtual congresses

It turns out that everything we thought we knew about virtual congresses was wrong.

Well, not quite everything – but certainly one of its headline selling points. For years, remote models of medical education have been billed
as the ultimate time saver for busy healthcare professionals (HCPs).

According to the brochure, on-demand education would spare doctors the air travel, give them back their weekends and reward them with the gift of time. Well, guess what? It ain’t necessarily so.

A recent study of HCPs’ experiences of virtual congresses – conducted last December by the International Pharmaceutical Congress Advisory Association (IPCAA), in partnership with Ashfield Event Experiences – revealed that, despite the convenience of remote models, HCPs are actually more time restricted in a virtual world.

Where physical congresses give doctors ‘protected time’ to interact and learn, their virtual equivalents typically compete with routine daily duties, professional and personal. As a result, HCPs spend less time engaging with educational content than they would do if they attended in person.

So the on-demand promise has been turned on its head. Virtual congresses may have put doctors in remote control, but what was once a captive audience now has countless everyday distractions competing for time on the schedule. That week in Chicago the oncologists boxed off for ASCO has suddenly turned into a struggle for work/life balance.

The implications for pharma, and how it maximises congresses, are significant. With the virtual experience not going anywhere, anytime soon, companies need to find compelling new ways of engaging their customers in the anytime, anywhere model.

But first, let’s be clear: the shift to virtual congresses in the wake of COVID-19 has been hugely successful. Congress attendance figures are rising, engagement levels are increasing and educational experiences are being enhanced by digital innovation. Attendees can harvest and consume as much content as they wish – and the ability to do it at their own pace and convenience is proving popular.

According to the IPCAA study, on-demand delivery of scientific presentations and ePosters is now the preferred option, while on- demand product theatres and sessions with experts are also gaining traction.

Moreover, the use of technology – and HCPs’ willingness to engage over digital platforms – is transforming the congress experience. The potential to go further is real. But there’s still work to be done. So what have we learned in the last 12 months, and how can pharma do its bit to improve the virtual experience? Here are eight headline learnings.

1. Industry must move from channel-first to customer-centred

"Navigator365 channel affinity data shows that the reach of the online congress has obviously increased since we switched to the virtual
model – but the ‘impact’ still lags behinds that of the traditional congress,” said Ben Harbour, Senior Consultant, Across Health UK.

“This isn’t surprising. Congress BC – before COVID-19 – was a beautiful, pull-based omnichannel experience. Doctors sat at the centre and could select the content they wanted and how they wanted to receive it: live sessions, interactive posters, webinars, meet the experts, online symposia... whatever they wanted, they could take their pick.

"Better still, they could even enjoy coffee and pastries with an MSL between sessions. Then the pandemic stuck and congresses went into a tailspin. The virtual model provides most of what was possible BC, but it’s difficult to fully recreate the same experience. Digitisation has opened up a whole world of new opportunities, but there’s a danger that – with so much possibility – companies will lapse back into a push-based approach and forget to give customers the content that they want. Virtual congresses only truly work when you put the physician at the centre.”

According to Ben, there are five key steps to ensuring pharma delivers impactful virtual congress experiences. “Fundamentally it requires
a mindset shift from ‘channel-first’ to customer- centred,” he said. “First, consider your strategic objectives; why are you there and what do you want to achieve? Second, think about your segments; which physicians are most likely to engage with congress, which behavioural archetypes are in play, and what’s the change communication piece you need to convey? Third, what data do you have?

"Use it to prioritise content and create a matrix of messaging modalities. Only then should you move to step four: picking your channels. Use evidence to understand channel preferences and build your tactics and approach around the customer. Finally, measure everything – using a balance of qualitative and quantitative metrics. This is really important – yet a surprising number of companies still don’t do it properly.”

Jonathan Andrew, Technology Director, Bluedog, part of the Lucid Group. “In the virtual setting, traditional scientific symposium sessions have remained really strong in terms of attendance and experience. However, content typically designed for consumption at exhibition booths appears to have fared less well. HCPs have long valued physical conferences, with the opportunity to interact with peers and digest content at exhibition booths considered an important part of the experience. Feedback and data suggest that, at remote congresses, users have struggled to locate content they would normally find at the booths. There’s work to be done in understanding the content users are looking for from a virtual booth – and we need to find ways of signposting it more effectively.”

Since engagement rates with content from virtual booths are always likely to be lower than they would be at a physical conference (unless
we find a way to offer virtual coffee), scientific storytelling must be approached differently, said Jonathan Andrew. “Rather than diving straight
into tactics, it’s better to consider content in the context of your overarching communications strategy – and ensure it’s coordinated and written in ways that set delegates up to know what to expect when they visit your virtual booth,” he said.

“Original high quality content can take a long time to produce and get approved, so the challenge is to refactor existing content without reinventing the wheel. How do we repurpose long-form content into manageable chunks for digital platforms – and still maintain a cohesive narrative? How do we make content more interactive? And how do we guide people through the process so they can find things quickly and conveniently?

“The answers almost certainly come from following established user experience best practice principles. We recommend adopting a more web- centric, responsive approach to disseminating content, signposting people with as few distractions as possible – and avoiding processor- heavy 3D experiences that can be unnecessarily slow and painful to navigate. Getting the user experience right is key to making virtual content accessible.”

3. There is appetite for exhibitions – if you build around the customer

“The virtual audience really appreciates that they can access congress presentations on demand, but the networking experience and
virtual booths haven’t translated as well,” said Matthew Strawbridge, VP Client Services, Ashfield MedComms, an Ashfield Health company.

“Exhibition visitors remain low, but our studies with IPCAA show that engagement is increasing and there is – unsurprisingly – a clear preference for medical over commercial content. There are also signs that greater attendance is possible: 58% of HCPs who hadn’t visited the exhibition hall can be positively influenced by raising expectation levels, ensuring virtual booths are well promoted and easily located. The desire and opportunity is clearly there, our challenge is to improve the experience.”

An effective comms plan is, of course, a fundamental requirement. But from there, how do you ratchet it up another level? “We need to personalise the communication and the journey so that we’re giving HCPs the experiences they want,” said Matthew. “But how do you ensure that the content you’re providing – whether through an exhibition booth or a scientific symposium – hits the mark? Ultimately it’s simple: you ask the audience.

"And you make sure that all the touchpoints and interactions you have with your customers are built around these insights. If we want to deliver great education and engagement on demand, we need to take a Netflix-style approach to user experience and make sure everything is oriented around the customer. That’s the next phase for virtual congresses.”

4. Enduring content is important: think beyond the event

“We’re starting to hear murmurs of digital fatigue,” said Jonathan Macdonald, Chief Operating Officer, EPG Health. “The pandemic forced everyone
to switch to online channels for education, and there’s certainly a growing willingness to engage over digital platforms. However, it’s also led to a significant increase in digital content – putting pressure on conference organisers and pharma companies to ensure the content they’re presenting cuts through. Just because something is online doesn’t mean people will see it and engage with it – and that’s certainly the case with virtual events.”

According to Jonathan, the shift to virtual has proven companies can successfully extend their congress thinking beyond the ‘calendar event’ and provide ‘enduring content’ that engages audiences anytime, anywhere.

“Enduring content has, of course, always existed, but its value for HCPs has grown significantly in the past 12 months,” he said. “Pharma companies are recognising the importance of content that can be repurposed and revisited outside the congress experience, and are investing in ways to ensure their enduring content is valued.

“It goes without saying that you need to get the fundamentals right; you need to make sure the content, both for the event and after, is tailored
for the target audience. The most effective content engages audiences. This requires thinking a little bit harder about format, channel and message
– all of which should be configured around the needs and preferences of your target audience.

"Our experiences show that great congress content, properly edited for digital consumption, can engage over five times the audience that attended an in-person event. But to achieve it, you don’t just need to understand your audience, you need to understand the channels and formats so that content is contextualised and structured appropriately.”

5. Pull, don’t push – but take an evidence-based approach

Ultimately, the key to delivering engaging content is to take an evidence-based, customer-centred, pull-based approach,” said Ben Harbour. “All our data suggests that physicians want educational content. If you want that content to be considered valuable and engaging, it pays to know your customers. Then test, learn and course correct.”

6. Measure from the start

Measuring effectiveness is something that’s often considered right at the end of a project life cycle. It’s an upside-down approach. “Defining KPIs at the very beginning of a project is invaluable,” said Jonathan Andrew. “We recommend establishing a key performance framework – in line with your overarching strategy, but specific to individual tactics – at the outset. That framework should include up to four key objectives, and act as your measurement for effectiveness. If you don’t define your KPIs up front, you won’t be able to understand interactions or the measurements you need to track to make sense of your data.”

7. An integrated strategy is key to omnichannel experiences

The virtual audience is now too big to be ignored, said Matthew Strawbridge. “As such, we’re beginning to see real advances in strategic planning, with clients developing integrated plans that consider both virtual and in-person audiences. Pharma companies are moving away from managing events in silos. Instead, they’re looking at all their events across a calendar year and working out how they can connect them and take their customers on a consistent journey.

"By planning early and taking a structured approach, you’re better placed to cater for your total audience – virtual or face to face – and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel for every congress. It’s the essence of an omnichannel strategy – and if you get it right, it doesn’t matter whether a congress is a virtual, in-person or hybrid model, you’ll be delivering a consistent, valued experience.”

8. Hybrid will be the new normal

“The future of congresses will likely be hybrid,” said Jonathan Macdonald. “Virtual will never replace face to face – the best experiences will offer a balance of both and complement it with compelling, engaging, enduring content that reinforces learning and provides long-term value beyond the event.”

We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far

The virtual congress model, hybrid or dedicated, is here to stay. Its application to major congresses across all medical disciplines – from cancer to cardiovascular, respiratory to rheumatology – will undoubtedly continue. And there’s no going back.

So if you’re planning to engage heart experts at the ESC Congress later this year, remember this: video can thrill the cardio tsar – but only if you design the experience around known customer behaviours and needs.

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

8th April 2021

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

8th April 2021

From: Marketing

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