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Congress 2020 BC (before COVID-19)

By Ben Harbour

Cast your mind back to the good old days, sitting on a plane scrolling through abstracts with a sense of anticipation, while eating airline food with a sense of apprehension.

The pre-COVID-19 congress-going healthcare professionals (HCPs) had to make their choices about which parallel sessions to attend and which posters discussion slots they needed to be early for, so they could ask the presenters their burning questions. Just as importantly, they had to coordinate catching up with peers over coffee, visiting the exhibition hall to quiz the MSLs, chat with the reps and play with the latest augmented reality gizmo. Even the glass of wine in the hotel lobby at the end of a hard day was a vital networking opportunity.

The classic congress was a true ‘pull-based’ omnichannel experience with the physicians sitting at the very centre, as they should be. They select what they want to hear, when they want to hear it and how they want to hear it: attend the live session, catch it on demand or just read the summary later.

Recreating the congress, virtually

Once COVID-19 hit, congress organisers and their pharma partners made valiant efforts to replace the congress experience with digital-only channels.

Theoretically, providing a plethora of on-demand sessions for the delegates to consume at their leisure is a recipe for ‘pull’ communications at their best. However, the lure of the classic congress has so far been lacking in pharma’s efforts.

Industry increased its digital presence by creating tactics and digital shiny objects including online symposia, interactive poster sessions and webinars galore (the reach of webinars during COVID-19 increased by 51%). This is what channel-centric pharma does best: provide more content via more and more digital channels, but this doesn’t necessarily give the physicians what they want – and it doesn’t recreate the congress.

Taking a look at the Navigator365 ‘time- trends’ (EU5 SPEC, 2019 vs Q4 2020) we see that the online congress increased its reach by 37% (how often a physician has used the channel in a three-month period) with a 3% rise in impact (impact the channel has on clinical decision-making), while the reach of the international congress has declined by 37% and its impact has declined by 2.4%; however, the impact of the online congress is still below that of the traditional congress.

HCPs are getting in the driving seat and their changing needs and requests can’t be ignored. They are an increasingly non-captive audience (especially as they are no longer stuck in the middle of a row at your satellite symposium) and if they cannot get the content they want from you, in the format they want it in, they will vote with their clicks and go elsewhere.

The ‘pull’ of the hybrid congress

When designing your offering for the hybrid congress, it’s critical to start with HCPs in mind: what do they need; what do they want? Then weave a mix of high-value content, delivered using the most appropriate channels based on these needs and wants, which may include different mixes of channels and content according to identified learning-style segments.

Setting your hybrid congress strategy

So, how do you optimise your hybrid congress omnichannel approach?

  1. Identify your key congress hooks (data presented at the congress, symposium speakers and anticipated competitor activity)
  2. Decide which of your HCP segments/ archetypes should be prioritised with your content and communications (you do have segmentation in place, don’t you...?!)
  3. Explore all opportunities to communicate your data and establish a matrix of messaging modalities allowing physicians to choose how much information they want to consume and select their preferred channel via which to consume it
  4. Identify both quantitative and qualitative channel and brand KPIs to measure the effectiveness of your decisions (and feed into planning for the next congress)
  5. Finally, integrate into local/regional ecosystems to ensure the widest possible reach.

You should also consider your above-brand offerings. The value of the networking opportunities offered to HCPs by the traditional congress cannot be underestimated.

Pharma can help support this through virtual activities and events, even if legal won’t allow you to replace the glass of congress Chablis.

Ben Harbour is a Senior Consultant at Across Health

In association with

9th April 2021

From: Marketing

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