This article is the fifth in a series produced by the Pharmaceutical Marketing Society’s Digital Interest Group to address some of the industry’s most pressing challenges in the digital space. They have been designed and written to inform and share good practice, but most importantly to generate discussion and collaboration.
Aspiring to omnichannel excellence in life sciences
Using the word ‘omnichannel’ communicates a desire to deliver consistently brilliant and seamless experiences in all the settings where a brand and customer might interact. And, given the potential for omnichannel excellence to add value to the relationships life science companies have with doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals (HCPs) it’s no wonder that omnichannel gets a mention in almost every discussion about marketing, medical, and digital activities.
However, the desire and the reality of omnichannel excellence are still a long way apart in most cases – partly because:
- brilliant and seamless customer experiences are a hard ask for any big company with lots of teams
- most people see omnichannel solutions as being primarily something that technology delivers
- and, our thinking about omnichannel rarely starts with, or fully considers, the customer’s current experience and works back from there to what will really improve it.
Flipping the focus from solving internal problems to what the customer experiences
Typically, any discussion of omnichannel starts with solutions to mainly internal problems. Stuff like:
- rep-triggered emails built from pre-approved segments
- ways of reusing content on different channels
- how we can use automated content sequencing
- or even how data and AI can build better customer relationships using ‘next-best actions’.
All of this is fascinating from a tech viewpoint but doesn’t really improve the experience of doctors and other healthcare professionals when they engage with companies. It’s more about production efficiencies, and managing internal processes, and the fact that pharma typically creates very little new content because every item takes months to develop and approve.
If we flip it around to look at the customers’ experience we immediately see the limitations of this approach. Take the typical experience of the customers life science companies work hardest to engage and impress: the doctors who lead global thinking in their respective specialties. Particularly around congresses, they get a deluge of calls, emails, and meeting requests from different people in:
- Global teams
- medical teams
- commercial teams
- agency partners
- logistics partners
- and local field teams as well.
These are typically separate, unconnected requests, in a variety of formats, sometimes with asks that conflict with one another – and typically with the goal of setting up a few discussions or presentations at the same event for the same medicine. This is the exact opposite of omnichannel excellence, and it hasn’t been solved by any of the ‘technology solutions’ above.
And this leads us to an interesting and perhaps more important second question. If omnichannel solutions, as we typically think about them, don’t work very well for a small but critical group of doctors, then how well do they work for other groups of customers?
Starting with current experiences and working back to solutions
I think it’s interesting to reflect on the fact that beyond the US life science companies are specifically not normally communicating with millions of consumers. In secondary-care settings particularly, they focus on very small groups of subject-matter experts in highly complex fields of medicine, often sub-specialists within an already small specialty. This means a company’s target list is normally 300–600 prescribers in each country who are seriously clued up on a particular area of medicine.
I don’t think we ask ourselves enough how people this expert feel about fairly generic, fairly limited content (that was efficiently produced to work on a range of channels with the broadest possible audience in mind). And, we certainly don’t think hard enough about why they would go to a pharma company for this level of content, and not a third party that has more of it, refreshes it more often, and covers many more topics in one place.
Big behavioural datasets from companies like Veeva give us some clues about where HCPs get the most value from pharma – the value they can’t get elsewhere. For example, Veeva’s Pulse Field Trends Report: 2Q22 (reflecting data from the field activities of more than 80% of industry representatives worldwide) suggests that when companies have something interesting to say, most specialists would prefer to just talk to someone from the company about it rather than be sent content.
The report highlights that the engagement mix for the top three oncology companies (the three that I suspect have the most interesting new launches) is 69% in-person, 12% video call, 7% phone call and 12% email. That’s 88% conversation-led engagements. By comparison, less-well-performing companies have a much heavier use of email – often up to 39%.
An important side note is that I don’t think this difference in engagement mix has much to do with digital or omnichannel capabilities. It’s simply a reflection that these doctors are more interested in deep conversations with people from the top three companies – probably because these companies have more ‘newer’ news than others in the space, and the doctors have expert questions they can’t get answers to anywhere else.
The other companies use more emails because they are getting less face time – generally because they are less interesting, relatively speaking. This also connects to the overall trend of slightly declining field team access. This is not driven by pharma’s customer engagement strategies – it’s mainly that most doctors have never had less time or more options for where they can source most of the general information they need.
Thinking beyond the classic data, content, channels omnichannel narrative
Doctors having more information options than ever before might be obvious, but strategically it’s quite important. In an online setting, there have never been more places for doctors to get instant access to great content – few of which are pharma owned. And yet pharma’s focus is often in trying to move to a digital-first engagement model. The consultancies, tech companies, and particularly the HCP-only third-party platforms, all promote the importance of more ‘digital’ engagement – and particularly the importance of more bite-size, short-form content. And that works, most doctors go to third-party platforms for this stuff. However, they are certainly not going to shop around ten pharma company websites to find it. They’ll just go to their third-party platform of choice for it because it will offer fast access to a broad range of topics.
Adding to the challenge for pharma is that they have to play by a very restrictive set of rules online: they are limited to talking just about their own medicines, and they can’t really allow discussions or deep interaction. And, in addition, it’s hard and slow to approve even the simplest new content which needs reapproving every 2 years – so lots of bite-size digital content is a logistical nightmare for pharma. In contrast, the hundreds of third parties providing information on medicines digitally don’t have most of these challenges. They can and do pump out thousands of new content items a month. So, for a pharma company to win ongoing, consistent digital attention given its disadvantages and the quality of the competition is exceptionally hard.
Interestingly, almost all the brilliant third-party platforms and publications out there are largely funded by pharma renting their audiences for short spells. Which most companies now have to do because very few have meaningful audiences without constantly paying for traffic.
By far and away the most successful pharma websites I’ve seen (and had full access to their data) had deep-dive, long-form, highly specialised content targeted specifically at small expert audiences. Most didn’t pay to build their audiences they grew them slowly by consistently offering something the third parties couldn’t match.
In the words of the author Rory Sutherland – “the opposite of a good idea can be another good idea”. So, one way for pharma to win is to do the opposite of what works for the third parties. To go really specialist and really deep into the topics aligned with their medicines and be fine with the fact it will appeal to a few hundred people. To build a digital product known for being very specific and very focussed and very relevant for only the most expert people.
The one thing we need but don’t have
However, omnichannel isn’t about just resolving digital engagement issues – it’s about connecting every experience. And to do that there’s a critical bit of technology that is a must-have for all companies who want to deliver consistent experiences across all touch points – a single customer ID. When I say this, I don’t mean a single customer relationship management record; I mean one profile that a customer can use to access anything they want from that company.
If they want to go to a meeting, they register with their ID; if they want to access online education, they use their ID; if they want to schedule a call with a rep, they do so with their ID; if their badge gets scanned at a congress, it links to create a note against their customer ID; if they are a study lead for some research, it’s logged via their ID.
This would be just like the ID you get when you use Amazon or Apple services. After all, it’s hard to imagine Amazon asking you to create separate profiles for your TV, music and delivery services, and yet this is typically how life science engagement works now.
In the EU, this seemingly simple solution is more complex than it might appear. However, at least one company has done it, and it has significant potential to help companies connect the dots across all their customer touchpoints, particularly the ones featuring people rather than digital content.
It’s one ID that:
- starts to solve the issue with engagement around congresses highlighted earlier
- allows us to understand where our target customers specifically are using the deep-dive, expert content we’ve discussed
- allows us to do less for fewer people but in a much more rewarding way for our customers
- helps us ensure, starting with the most influential global thought leaders, that each interaction is as enjoyable as it can be. And that the invitation process is joined up, that the people doctors meet know what else they do with the company and that what’s talked about isn’t the same discussion they had a week ago
And it’s one ID that allows us to share digital content that makes each customer feel like they are the only HCP we’re talking to – not just another recipient of an automated process.
Starting by learning to think backwards
An interesting workshop activity is asking your teams to build a tower with straws in 30 minutes. Most will start by quickly planning their tower, then building the foundations, and building up from there. Typically, about halfway through they start having issues that get harder and harder to resolve because it’s very hard to understand how each new layer will affect the stability and integrity of the tower when you start. Effectively the foundations they lay limit what they achieve.
However, a rare person might start upside down – they might start at the top of the tower and build down. That approach radically changes their likelihood of finishing with the tallest tower because each level simply must support the level above – so you get a bigger tower much faster.
This mindset is the one I think we need to adopt, at least partly, to improve the experiences HCPs have across all life science company channels. By starting with their current experiences at the top and thinking carefully about how we can practically improve them over time we’ll have a much greater chance of success. Using this approach allows us to support those experiences with technology rather than allowing technology to define them. And most important of all it puts us much closer to the people who really need to understand how our medicines can help them change people’s lives for the better.
Chris Bartley, Client Strategy Director at Lucid Group
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The Digital Interest Group is made up of passionate pharma digital experts who volunteer their time to:
- Promote digital best practices across pharma marketing and the wider commercial organisation
- Explore and share an understanding of what digital strategies and tactics marketers in the life sciences sector can employ effectively to support their brand, business and customers.