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Are you talking to digital natives?

In 2014, ‘digitally-native HCPs’ will outnumber ‘digital immigrants’ – yet pharma’s marketing spend and strategy still disproportionally targets an ageing and less impressionable demographic

Digital native

Fast Track

  • Digital is no longer 'nice to have' – it's the 'new normal'
  • HCP and patient expectations for digital and multichannel experience are being set outside of pharma by the likes of Apple, Nike, Virgin Atlantic and BBC iPlayer
  • Digital is an opportunity to move past empty platitudes and finally put the 'customer at centre'
  • The next step for marketers and those who support them is to put theory into practice – make the urgency of digital transformation tangible, and devise practical means to take immediate action 

One thing it seems we have become quite good at in pharma, is believing that our customers' experiences and online preferences are somehow different from our own, or the rest of the population.

I've sat in many meetings being told that “our customers aren't online” by individuals spanning the pharma demographic, who – almost without exception – are simultaneously multi-tasking online using a variety of devices and channels. Even without the wealth of data provided by highly respected bodies such as Manhattan Research or Forrester, which irrefutably proves our customer are online, why do we find this so hard to believe or accept given our own personal experiences? 

We increasingly hear the term 'digital natives', but often seem to equate this to our nine-year-old children, nieces or nephews, rather than our grown-up children – and dare I say – our doctors, who are not only tasked with our well-being, but for many of us influence the outcome of our brand's or company's performance. It was this disconnect which led to us developing the 2014 – Year of the Digitally Native HCP infographic with a senior EU digital leader working in pharma.

The concept or data used in the infographic actually isn't that new, or ground breaking; it's just assembled in a way that begins to join the dots and tell a story. A story which uses the commercialisation of the internet in 1995 to set a benchmark of a 'digitally native HCP' and then applies a number of filters to demonstrate that using this benchmark, in 2014 more than 50 per cent of practicing doctors in Europe will be considered as digitally native. 

This 'revelation' is in stark contrast to where we see the majority of the pharma marketing spend, focussed not on the younger (soon to be majority) doctors who are arguably more impressionable and looking to consume information across a variety of channels, but on the older, soon-to-be-retiring generation, happy to consume information by the more traditional channels often loved by pharma.

It's true that pharma marketing spend on digital channels is increasing, but is it increasing fast enough or being spent in the right way? In this brave new world, having iPad eDetails that are little more than interactive PDFs broadcasting the same promotional messages, or disconnected brand websites with no mobile experience or links to other marketing channels, all being measured using single channel metrics, is not going to move your business forward. It's time that we realised what we (pharma) consider as innovation isn't what our customers view as innovation and if we are truly going to make an impact on our customers and business it's time for transformational, not incremental change.

Why pharma falls short
It's no longer (and never was) good enough to aspire to be better than your main pharma competitor online as your customers are not judging you in this way. You need to be as good as Apple, Nike, Virgin Atlantic and BBC iPlayer – as it's this standard your customers will use to judge the experience and value of what you provide. 

So what's holding our industry back from a convincing evolution into the digital reality our customers (and we) already live in?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that we've been speaking in platitudes about placing the 'customer at the centre' in pharma for years – yet have done very little to change how we fundamentally engage with them. What's interesting is that digital finally provides that opportunity – the opportunity to engage in refreshing, dynamic ways through a mix of multiple channels that customers actually prefer. Even so, stubborn myths persist in the halls of pharma that digital is either a competitive alternative to more traditional channels, or should be exclusively reserved for no-see, low-writing physicians that can't be accessed with these other more familiar channels.

Outdated research and data also seems to be the basis for a persistent belief that traditional channels and face-to-face rep engagements are still the most effective approach preferred by HCPs. The marketing mix for brands at launch, for instance, is still very traditional and based on face-to-face engagement. Though enterprise-level marketing platforms, technologies, and operationalised ways of interacting with customers have been in place for years, these resources are seriously underutilised – applied 'on top of' traditional channels and not as an integral part of a multichannel mix preferred by customers. (Interestingly, more mature brands are beginning to reflect a shift in perception that multichannel can address their business challenges.)  

Meanwhile, digital marketing support teams work hard to raise awareness, improve understanding, and encourage adoption of a multichannel approach to marketing that, in theory, can work for brands across all markets. Marketing master classes, training, and support for brand planning strive to educate on basic multichannel principles. Nevertheless, awareness and comfort with multichannel strategy remains uneven between individual brands, local markets, and critically – non-marketing gatekeepers such as medical, legal and regulatory.  

The result of all this is that while marketers (and those who support them) may indeed understand multichannel marketing in theory, too many still seem to be unaware or unconvinced of multichannel marketing's business-critical urgency, least of all its importance or applicability to their customers in their particular market. Without either a compelling business- or customer-centric rationale, marketers are slow to take up multichannel marketing, seeing it as theoretically 'nice to have'.   

The days of digital being a 'nice to have' are over; we might call it the 'new normal' for pharma. Our challenge is to take meaningful steps toward multi-channel transformation: bring multichannel marketing 'theory' down to the ground, make the urgency of adoption tangible and relevant to marketers, and provide practical means for successful activation by all internal stakeholders.

Article by
Mark Prince and Adam Clarke

Prince (pictured) is client partner and Clarke is director, strategy and planning at LBi Health. They  can be contacted at and

19th February 2014

Article by
Mark Prince and Adam Clarke

Prince (pictured) is client partner and Clarke is director, strategy and planning at LBi Health. They  can be contacted at and

19th February 2014

From: Marketing



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Onyx Health

Onyx Health is a healthcare communications and PR agency based in the North East of England, but with a national...