Friday 26 March 2021,
by Nitro Admin

A paradigm shift in marketing communications within life sciences is underway. COVID-19 will change the way that patients and healthcare professionals seek information, education, and engagement online. 

Irrespective of how soon social distancing becomes a thing of the past, by that time new digital habits and dependencies will have been formed.  If you are working in a life sciences company, effective communication with customers will require much greater consideration and confidence for tackling online interactions.  

COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation across most industries, shifting thinking from ‘doing some digital’, to really ‘being’ digital.  Whilst marketing and communications are just parts of that equation, they are a critical part, and executing them effectively can still seem an overwhelming task if digital hasn’t already been embraced by your organisation. 

Digital as a percentage of global marketing is projected to be 75% of all spending by 2024, increasing from a ‘mere’ 50% now.  This is an all-industry snapshot, and not just focused on life sciences and healthcare. Although life sciences may have been slow to adopt technology in sales and marketing in the past, it is no longer immune to these technological trends that have become the norm. 

Unlike Sir Martin Sorrel’s (the Ex chairman of WPP) focus on ‘digital-only’ in consumer advertising, I don’t anticipate digital will completely replace face-to-face selling in our industry, but I do believe that it will become ‘digital first’, enhancing and deepening front-line customer teams’ engagement.

So what have I learned from helping clients in the pharmaceutical space reach and engage with healthcare professionals (and patients) online over the last fifteen years?  What are the take-aways for those organisations looking to increase their confidence and accelerate their adoption of online channels to reach and engage their stakeholders online?  

My thoughts and recommendations can be summarised in the points below. 

1. Embrace the opportunity and start small

You have to start somewhere. Don’t put too much pressure on making it perfect the first time. Figure out how soon you can implement your campaign, not how perfect you can make it. This is digital, so whatever you share with your audience, you will be able to learn from what happens and improve it for the next wave, phase, campaign, or implementation. 

Establish momentum and progress to test and learn; being able to validate value before adapting and growing is the best way to expand digital offerings. This doesn’t mean being non-compliant. Yes, there are regulations, but between brand, signatory, and agency, you can figure out the right balance between ambition and safety. 

By starting small and then working towards the bigger ideal of digital transformation, you can avoid being overwhelmed by pushing against old SOPs and processes no longer fit for purpose, and just keep it simple. Consider driving your audience to a simple landing page to communicate key messages above-brand. Failing that, you could drive content to secure third-party sites. 

But don’t be tempted to put all your eggs in one basket by, for instance, throwing all of your money at one big publisher as a low friction method of ‘doing digital’.  Just because a third-party platform claims a considerable number of your target customers as its audience, it won’t necessarily translate into attention that you are looking for or insight that you can actually use.

2. Create a practical working strategy and ensure that you have clear objectives

Start with a hypothesis for how digital can help you realise the strategy or overcome a problem.  Don’t just run a digital tactic for the sake of it.  If you can, before you start, create a hypothesis of your customer personas and their online journeys so that you are clear about what value you are creating for them. 

Capture data to validate if your objectives are being met, with clear KPI goals to indicate success or failure in terms of the outcomes you are looking to achieve. These should not, however, just be ‘vanity’ metrics that are only loosely linked to the strategy or simply some ‘after the fact’ reporting.  Capture and store reporting data across your initiatives to create a more real-time approach to insight and learning.

Accept that your tactics will more than likely change over time (or rapidly) as you understand what works and what does not.  With clear targets -that are time-bound- you can adjust the plan as you go based on insight. Even the strategy could change. What remains is your north star, the vision, and purpose. 

3. Align people internally and be collaborative 

Recognise the digital maturity of the brand, of the medical team, and others within your organisation that you will need to work with, but also appreciate their appetite for innovation and change.

Start with an acceptance of where the organisation is relative to what you want to be able to do, and plan accordingly - and don’t set your expectations too high. Think incremental success, by planning well-ahead and alerting stakeholders to what your plans are and what may be expected of them. 

Find change advocates that will help leadership, medical, regulatory, and legal teams buy into more rapid approval cycles, and remember that implementations build trust and confidence via doing. 

4. Focus on the needs of the audience and make it insight-driven

Online is not one channel, it is many. Avoid channels that seem to be attractive ‘right now’ and instead focus on those that are most likely to help you accomplish your objectives. 

Avoid bombarding your target customers or audience with the same messages via different channels. You need to establish the value and adapt the message according to their needs and beliefs. This can get complicated as you adopt a more personalised approach. When in doubt, simply ask yourself, ‘is this initiative focused on the needs of the audience as well as (hopefully) accomplishing my goals? 

Ask yourself honestly, “What is in it for them”?  In an always-on world where the customer can go anywhere, at any time, they are not going to be worried about causing offense by clicking away from your content.  You need to make it relevant to them, to their challenges and needs, otherwise, they won’t stick around.

You will have carried out bucket loads of market research, but probably no ‘user research’ and, especially user research as it relates to their online pains and needs. Don’t worry right now, but do realise longer-term that online user insight is not a ‘nice to have’ if you are going to build effective ‘personalised’ communications. This user-focus provides an opportunity to cater better to the needs of customers and patients than highly focused face-to-face product sales. Later test digital assets with them directly.

Take advantage of the quicker feedback loop to test messages and content that improve engagement and validate (or refute) your hypothesis that users will engage with you online.  Using the digital analytics that you will acquire will enable you to determine ‘what’ your customers do when interacting with your web properties.  Layering on user research will be vital to uncovering ‘why’ your customers react in a certain way.

This user-insight focus is not, however, a reason for delaying execution. It is a mindset for learning and adapting to improve your approach.  Being insight-driven enables you to continually improve your messages, content, assets, and targeting.   It enables you to improve your effectiveness, and ultimately the experience that you provide your stakeholders. 

In summary, the digital online genie is well and truly out of the bottle, but it’s not time to cross your fingers and make a wish. It is time to act.  Be clear about what you are trying to accomplish, create target outcomes that drive (or justify) your marketing outputs, that are mapped to your strategic pillars, and add value for the audience. 

Just make sure that you record and leverage data, and remain open to learning about what works for customers and for your organisation. Start with the end goal in mind, and as you progress the digital IQ of the team and company will grow.  Be curious and remain flexible because the digital and online space is rapidly evolving, and so too (eventually) will the regulations. Ultimately though, cut the theory and just get started.

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