This article is the fourth 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.

If you missed the first article relating to Unlocking Consent, you can access it here, the second article on what the Pharmaceutical Representative of the future looks like here and the third article on the Future of Medical Education here.


The engagement choices we have

Pharmaceutical companies have two main choices when looking to build and maintain relationships with doctors and other healthcare professionals (HCPs):

  • They either directly engage with HCPs through field teams, meeting invitations, emails, and other owned communications
  • Or, they pay to deliver their messages via other organisations (third parties) who already have relationships with the relevant HCPs.

The declining field team access challenge

Historically, field teams offered the most effective channel for engaging with HCPs. This is not simply about the effectiveness of in-person engagement – field teams achieve higher email open rates, significantly better meeting invitation acceptance rates, and are often behind the most meaningful touch points with relevant HCPs.

Even today, post-COVID, if most European life science teams really analyse where most of their highest-quality HCP engagements originate it’s the field team. Email permissions are a good example. The field team is typically the biggest source of email permissions by some margin – relatively few come via other sources such as third-party promotion. This means that for most companies, removing the field teams today would result in both a huge drop-off in engagement across all their owned platforms and a significant loss of first-party CRM data.

However, the days of bigger and bigger sales forces are long gone for one simple reason – HCPs, like many of us, simply have less time for them. They see more patients, they have more admin, and they are bombarded with more communications from every direction than ever before. They also have immediate access to information they might once have asked a pharma representative about. For example, dosing information and clinical studies are now a few taps of a phone screen away and available via hundreds of online and app-based sources.

The result is a gap, a gradual drop-off in the total level of engagement between pharma field teams and HCPs.

Can third-party platforms fill the growing engagement gap?

It’s almost certainly true that if you paid to place content about a medicine on every available third-party platform, you could reach more customers than you do today. However, beyond the obvious constraint of cost, there are several other challenges:

  • Often at a country level we’re talking about reaching 300-600 prescribers who are all online somewhere, at some point in their day, but are split across hundreds of journals, video websites, news sites, communities, apps, and other third-party platforms
  • These platforms are not static. Some are growing, some shrinking, new ones emerge every month, and what your competitors are doing with them is always evolving
  • Each third party will need slightly different types of content to get maximum effect. This can be as simple as different advert sizes or require totally bespoke content
  • In Europe any data you get back from third parties is anonymised and aggregated. You don’t really know who you have reached and generally there’s almost no migration of customers over to owned channels. This means there’s almost no scope to maintain any relationships you build if you stop spending.

There’s also the slightly less obvious challenge that the more you spend with third parties, the more effectively they compete with your owned channels for HCP attention. The core value proposition of almost every third party is having HCP eyeballs available and then selling a share of that attention to life science companies.

So, while third parties have some ongoing role to play in helping pharma connect with doctors, they can’t possibly fill the gap left by declining field team access. And, their use should be monitored closely because spending with them may actually amplify pharma’s future engagement problems.

If renting isn’t the long-term answer then can we own digital properties

Reuters recently published a report showing that only 4% of digital-only pharma launches succeed – this included pharma apps, websites and any other patient or HCP-facing digital tools. [1]

Given these activities have never been more important it’s interesting to look at some of the reasons why most digital-first activities don’t succeed as we’d like them to. After all, getting traffic to a website or app has never been simpler. You pay a third party, and traffic arrives.

The problem, at least in Europe, is that you don’t know as much as you’d like about who is arriving. What you typically see is a lot of visits (normally from many more people than are in your target list of 300-600) with only a tiny percentage of visitors registering or making themselves identifiable in any way.

For those who do register, it’s then very hard to build a meaningful relationship as most never come back. Changing that means having a constant stream of new content, smart re-engagement activities and a wonderful digital product. And, even when you have those things you typically lose 90% of returning visitors within 30 days. Therefore, most of pharma’s digital-only projects have a lot of visitors all there is paid advertising driving traffic, but it instantly disappears when the ad spending stops. Then, when you get asked who all the visitors were you either use vague and often unreliable aggregated and anonymised third-party data – or you talk about single-digit 100% attributable and identifiable user numbers. Neither of which will impress leadership.

What the third parties have that pharma doesn’t

Unlike even the biggest and best life science company digital products the most successful HCP-only third-party platforms will:

  • spend millions for years and years on new user acquisition and re-engagement advertising building their brand and their audience
  • have hundreds or thousands of new items of content a month which are then used to constantly try to bring back registered users via notifications and emails
  • have big dedicated full-time user experience and design teams working on the constant refinement of the product.

In addition, each of these platforms is 100% focused on winning and keeping HCP attention – it’s all they do. The bigger ones have thousands of people. And, they have been building their platforms for decades in many cases. When you start to understand what a single pharmaceutical company brand is trying to compete with then a 4% success rate is quite good.

Choosing the deep blue sea

Unless something fundamentally changes most pharmaceutical companies are very slowly going to have less deep, less meaningful, and less frequent relationships with fewer relevant HCPs. And, as field team access continues its slow downward trend pharma will likely spend more with more third parties who will fight each other and pharma ever harder for HCPs’ attention – perpetuating, not solving, the problem.

However, a small number of life science companies are starting to look for smarter ways to navigate the sea of competitors they have for HCPs’ digital attention, including:

  • re-orientating budgets and decision-making power towards omnichannel leads – with brand teams having to go to them for money
  • investing much, much, more in digital content, thinking and experiences
  • reviewing the speed of regulatory reviews and thinking more broadly about attracting the right eyeballs
  • introducing dedicated and accountable owners and teams for their owned websites and digital products.

All of which make sense and will undoubtedly improve the success rate of owned digital-first activities. However, it’s not enough to radically shift the scales without a further mindset change. A key part of that mindset change seems to have been ignored for years despite the prolific use of ‘omnichannel’ for many years – pharma needs to be integrated across its traditional activities, field teams, and digital touch points.

Fundamentally, HCPs want to hear from pharma, and they want to know as much as possible about how their medicines can help their patients. Pharma still has field teams, goes to congresses, runs meetings, publishes data, provides education, and does many other things it has done for 100 years. Pharma has relationships that are way deeper and more meaningful than any existing digital third party and that exist across many more channels.

Often one of the biggest challenges pharma companies have is that they don’t know how deep some of the relationships they have are. There are times when the global medical team talk weekly to the same doctors the local country commercial team find it impossible to engage and neither team knows what the other is doing.

Imagine the power of issuing each HCP with a single ID they use for every engagement. If they are attending a meeting, if they see a member of the field team, if they visit a website, if they access education, provide advice, undertake research etc. The type of ID we use every day with Amazon or Apple, the type of ID that underpins everything we see from LinkedIn like learning, events, posting, or job searching.

That one thing is key to developing deeper and more mutually rewarding relationships with HCPs via digital platforms. It allows us to re-examine what HCPs want from pharma, how they currently get it, and how all the teams across pharma companies can work with each other to provide more joined-up and useful experiences. It should also help remove some of the barriers HCPs face when trying to view pharma content – for example if you go back to LinkedIn after your first visit you don’t have to log in again, the app and desktop experiences are seamless, and the products all share a similar feel and a single registration to a single profile you use for everything.

The same digital rethink means continuing to evolve the role of field teams to allow them to curate and share the content HCPs really want in a non-traditional way. If those teams know a doctor is part of the global research plan or writing an abstract as part of a project with the medical team, they can avoid sending them an irrelevant message about the paper they co-authored. If they know a doctor registered on the global booth and watched some content on a specific topic, they can suggest the next video or talk in the series to watch on the journey home. This isn’t about AI-driven next-best action engines, this is about considered, informed, joined-up, human-led interactions designed to bring joy to a small number of very important customers.

A relatively small step to brilliant

It sometimes feels like pharma is a little behind with HCP digital-first initiatives, and maybe in some senses, it is. However, it’s only a small step away from being utterly brilliant at them. Getting to brilliant really only requires a mindset shift – away from one-off, short-term, disconnected digital projects and towards a single-minded, long-term connected approach. An approach that results in an HCP knowing that a single pass (or ID) gives them access to everything they want from the company (be it digital or in-person) with one login via their phone, a touch screen, or their desktop.

From here it’s simply connecting all the other brilliant things pharma does so that HCPs receive the most helpful content for them, can seamlessly join webinars and events, and can have better discussions with field teams that recognise their specific level of understanding, expertise and current engagement in a subject.

Simple is never easy but with the right advice, people, and mindset it’s only a click away.




If you find value in the article then please like, share and join in the conversation. If you or your organisation are not already members of the PM Society then you can see the value of becoming a member here.


Chris Bartley, Client Strategy Director at Lucid Group

Sam Pygall, Executive Director, Commercial Strategy and Operations at MSD


The PM Society is a not-for-profit organisation that believes excellent healthcare communications lead to better outcomes for patients.

We aim to:

  • Support organisations and people in healthcare
  • Recognise excellence and promote best practice
  • Provide education and development

Visit us here to learn more about the society and the value of becoming a member

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.