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Digital: there's nothing to be scared of

Are we locked in fear by the endless possibilities of digital?

Some days I think of 'digital' as a channel; others, I think of it as a strategy. Sometimes it's a discipline or a medium. And it's not just me who sees it in multiple ways. I've heard it debated among people who I regard as pretty knowledgeable about digital. It's difficult to pin down precisely what it means and what it is since it has so many uses.

Digital does not fit comfortably within the traditional pharma model of communication. So it's hardly surprising that every company takes a different approach to using it. However, how we approach digital, both in the management of its function and in gaining knowledge of its possibilities, is fundamental to our ability to use it effectively.

For those companies that do invest in it, the question seems to be about how to handle the knowledge required to understand and evaluate digital opportunities. Training an entire organisation is a daunting task. Setting up a department to handle it all sounds appealing, but then the knowledge is isolated. So what's the best way forward?

There's no single answer: it depends on your particular organisation and what you're trying to achieve. But regardless of whether you want to centralise digital expertise or not, you most certainly need to gain and maintain digital knowledge.

Open your mind
Creating a level of useful knowledge in the digital space requires us to think differently about how we hire and train. There is a school of thought that only Generation Y or younger has a strong interest and expertise in digital. This unnecessarily limits your pool of selection. Digital roles are perhaps the best example of the 'hire for attitude, train for skills' staffing model. Here are some things to consider when training and staffing for digital in the healthcare space:

  • Up-to-the-minute experience is king. In many roles years of experience are important. Technology from five years ago, however, is not very useful. People with less (but more recent) experience can bring more to the table in digital

  • 'Unproductive' time is necessary. Training takes on a different meaning when maintaining current digital knowledge: once-a-year courses are replaced by subscriptions to Wired or attendance at conferences that may have nothing to do with healthcare. Surfing the web and reviewing digital advancements are not just nice-to-haves for your digital upskilling – they're compulsory

  • Policies come from many angles, or from none at all. Facebook has announced that pharma companies are no longer able to disallow comments on their Facebook pages. The only exception is where the page has the product name in the title. Additionally, new rulings are being put in place that will demand all websites have an 'opt-in' policy on the use of cookies. The pace and source of policy is as furious as the growth of digital itself

  • Most importantly, when staffing and training for digital, it's important to understand what your objectives are. I view digital as a potential – and likely – element of any strategic plan that we develop. Rather than see it as a separate entity, digital tactics and offerings can run like quicksilver to fit, where appropriate, in all your communications plans.

When we know what our objectives are, we can begin to explore the best ways to meet them. Let's not try and be cutting edge for the sake of it; let's not self-consciously use digital because we think we should. It's an exciting, flexible part of everything we're all doing, all the time, in today's world. It can spread news at the speed of light. It can raise awareness at a fraction of the cost of other communication channels. Digital is not to be feared: it's to be accepted, embraced and subsumed to the extent that it's an automatic, undifferentiated part of the communications mix.

There is no 'other-ness' about digital. In fact, to lump so much under this vague umbrella is perhaps holding us back to a point where we remain nervous about its wide range of possibilities.

Eric HansenCDM

The Author

Eric Hansen is group managing director, CDM London
He can be contacted at:




5th October 2011


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