Omnichannel engagement: Exploring the new era of pharma communication

30 Apr


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The landscape of pharmaceutical marketing is undergoing a seismic shift as saturation from generic brand communication increases and healthcare professionals expand their search for knowledge beyond traditional channels. Physicians are turning to online resources for information instead of relying solely on drug company representatives. To keep up, pharmaceutical companies need to change their communication strategies. In this article we explore these new communication channels, such as social media, digital opinion leaders, peer-to-peer communities, and medical podcasts. We will also highlight how pharmaceutical companies can adapt their strategies to reach healthcare practitioners (HCPs) through these channels.

Engaging HCPs in the digital age

The era in which HCPs could be easily influenced by charismatic and persuasive pharmaceutical sales representatives, ultimately shaping their choices for first-line drug prescriptions, has somewhat faded. In the present landscape with more treatment options available than ever before, HCPs are required to continuously update their comprehensive knowledge, being able to address all patient inquiries, including explaining the mechanisms of the prescribed drug, outlining potential side effects, presenting alternative options, and elucidating the rationale behind choosing drug or treatment 'A' over 'B’. The reality is that pharmaceutical information frequently leans heavily towards brand promotion, creating perceptions of pushiness at best and, at worst, biases or untrustworthiness. As a result, physicians are increasingly relying on non-pharmaceutical information sources to fulfill their knowledge needs. 

Fig. 1 | Dependent on the region, approximately 80% of physicians indicate having received relevant information from –mostly digital- non-pharma sources related to their specialized treatment areas. In contrast, only half of the physician's report having received relevant information directly from pharmaceutical companies during the same period.

This presents a challenge for pharmaceutical companies as they grapple with the need to adapt to these changes. According to recent syndicated research by Trilations (Fig.1), approximately 80% of physicians indicate having received relevant information, mostly from digital non-pharma sources related to their specialized treatment areas. In contrast, only 54% report having received such information directly from pharmaceutical companies during the same period. The rise of 'earned' and 'shared' content marketing signifies a transformative influence, reshaping brand preferences through influential third-party opinions (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 | Owned, Paid, Earned & Shared new media content marketing. With the rise of 'earned' and 'shared' new media marketing, influential third-party opinions are reshaping healthcare choices.

Read on to learn more about the increasing impact of digital influence in pharma communication.

Webinar highlights: How content drives positive customer experiences

Are you short on time but interested in learning how to define your promotional content strategy, measure its effectiveness, and leverage data and AI to deliver high-impact content? Then watch our webinar highlights, where we explore how to generate captivating and relevant promotional content that engages healthcare practitioners.

The rise of digital influence

Physicians are increasingly influenced by digital key opinion leaders (DOLs) through emerging channels such as social media, podcasts, and peer-to-peer community groups. For instance, a medication gaining attention through insights shared by a well-known doctor in a short, bite-sized video is likely to be perceived as more trustworthy than traditional marketing tactics (Fig.3)

 Fig. 3 | Novartis’ Kisqali – MONALEESA trial campaign in Spain (Trilations customer experience research, 2023). Example use of medication gaining positive attention through insights shared by a well-known, local, doctors in short, bite-sized video content.

According to a recent Sermo survey, almost half of HCPs follow DOLs and/or KOLs on social media and 41% indicates social media influences their prescription behavior (Sermo, Feb 2023 - Social channels gain credibility with healthcare practitioners). Now, more than ever, creating engaging content endorsed or shared by trusted experts has become imperative to cut through the noise.  Pharmaceutical companies are acknowledging these shifts, realizing that they can no longer rely solely on conventional communication channels. However, very few companies succeed in effectively monitoring, controlling, and acting upon messages beyond their immediate influence.

Seizing this opportunity involves purposely installing direct feedback loops into both direct pharma and influential third party communication channels. This strategic move empowers marketing teams to align with customer information needs, facilitating quick adaptation and personalization beyond generic brand promotion. The result is a more relevant and impactful dissemination of information, ultimately resulting in better customer engagement experiences.

 The evolving channels of communication in pharma

While direct interaction and personal relationships with customers remain highly valued, it's crucial for pharmaceutical companies to grasp the importance of staying informed about upcoming channels and stakeholders. This brief overview, though not exhaustive at all, highlights the emerging avenues that are shaping the future of healthcare communication.

  1. Digital opinion leaders: Perceived as key opinion leaders (KOLs), DOLs act as influential conduits for sharing information about products and services. Typically present on general or professional social networks like Eric Topol on Twitter/X, these individuals play a pivotal role in shaping opinions within the international and/or local medical community. For HCPs, the importance lies in the credibility and influence these DOLs wield, providing valuable insights that can impact medical decision-making and product preferences.

    Example Eric Topol on X/Twitter: DOLs sharing scientific information play a pivotal role in shaping opinions within the international and/or local medical community

  2. Medical social networks: Online professional communities like Doximity, CareNet, DocCheck, and Medshr are invaluable for healthcare professionals seeking collaboration and information exchange. These networks create a specialized space where HCPs can share insights, discuss cases, and learn from each other. The significance for HCPs is evident in the collaborative learning environment supported by these platforms, enhancing their knowledge base and facilitating networking opportunities within their professional community.

  3. General social networks: General social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and LinkedIn offer specialized groups where medical professionals engage casually. Paid advertisements on platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn provide precise targeting opportunities for pharmaceutical and healthcare companies. For HCPs, these networks offer a more informal space to connect, share experiences, and access relevant information beyond the formalities of their professional roles.

  4. Virtual conferences: Digital versions of live, in-person conferences, virtual conferences provide HCPs with opportunities to share knowledge, listen to expert talks, and discuss specific medical topics in a virtual setting. The advertising opportunities, including sponsored content, banner ads, and videos, create a platform for pharmaceutical and healthcare companies to engage with HCPs. The importance for HCPs lies in the convenience of accessing valuable educational content and networking opportunities without geographical constraints.

  5. Medical podcast: Medical podcasts have emerged as a vital and impactful new media channel, gaining significant importance in the healthcare landscape. With a dramatic increase in podcast popularity, their accessibility and engaging format have positioned them as a valuable resource. For healthcare professionals (HCPs), podcasts offer flexible and convenient ways to stay informed. The audio format caters to busy schedules, allowing practitioners to multitask while staying updated on medical advancements and improving their overall well-being. This emerging channel provides a dynamic and efficient platform for continuous education, professional development, and discussion on topics outside of the own clinical practice. It an indispensable tool in the evolving landscape of healthcare communication.

  6. The new role of the sales representatives: Sales reps have historically driven HCP engagement, providing personalized insights and building lasting customer relationships. However, advancements in technology, budget shifts, and modularized content have ushered in a new era of virtual engagement, with digital channels taking a more prominent role. Tomorrow's sales rep must possess personal skills and tools to navigate physician preferences, technological finesse, and integrated marketing tactics for a comprehensive customer journey. HCPs primarily seek support from sales representatives, humanizing the relationship between the HCP and the pharma company.

  7. Medical journals: Scientific publications featuring peer-reviewed studies and research, offering physicians expert medical information. Many are owned by larger publishing groups, allowing for efficient cross-journal strategies (e.g. Springer, Oxford University Press, Elsevier, …). These journals play a crucial role in disseminating peer-reviewed reliable medical knowledge. This is particularly important for HCPs, as it allows them to access a comprehensive spectrum of validated information, aiding in their decision-making processes and staying abreast of the latest advancements in their respective fields. Keeping tabs on what researchers and the medical community share and discuss can help steer pharma’s next communication campaign.

Balancing channels and content: the two pillars

While the selection and strategic utilization of communication channels are undeniably crucial, it is imperative to acknowledge that the quality and relevance of content play an equally, if not more, significant role. Achieving impactful messaging necessitates not only an understanding of the right channels and the optimal frequency of interaction but also a meticulous focus on the message itself. Factors such as the format of delivery, the scientific underpinning, the credibility of the information source, and the personal relevance to an HCP's daily practice are all integral aspects contributing to the overall interaction experience. In essence, the effectiveness of healthcare communication hinges not only on navigating the channels adeptly but also on crafting content that resonates deeply with healthcare professionals, ensuring meaningful and lasting engagement.

Constructing the optimal communication mix

Choosing the right channel with the appropriate message for the intended audience underscores the necessity of an integrated omnichannel engagement strategy. Pharma-owned content and channels directly controlled by the brand lay the foundation for a successful campaign. Earned media, encompassing shares, mentions, and reviews from external parties and DOLs, not only builds trust but also extends the campaign's reach. Paid media acts as the amplifying force, strategically disseminating messages on platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter, where healthcare professionals actively seek information. So, in your next brand campaign, ask yourself: which channel mix do I need to use? What message do I want to convey? Who is my target audience? And how can I ensure that the targeted physicians amplify the correct message? Monitoring the impact and relevance of messages across various communication channels are vital to the success of these strategies in the dynamic landscape of healthcare communication.

Monitor and control: the heartbeat of your strategy

As crucial as all elements of your campaign are, monitoring channel and content engagement across these platforms becomes even more vital. Pharma companies need to keep an eye on how their products are being discussed and portrayed by external sources to mitigate misinformation, maintain compliance, and ensure a consistent and factual narrative. Additionally, it is imperative for pharmaceutical companies to carefully select key performance indicators. These indicators should measure the optimal frequency and quantity of communication, the impact and relevance of the message, the quality of supporting materials, and the general interaction experience. With the varying degrees of trust, cost, and impact associated with each form of communication, companies must not only monitor but also dynamically allocate resources to change and optimize their strategy where needed, comparing the effectiveness of various channels and carefully constructed messages, ensuring maximum impact for every marketing effort.

The personalized engagement imperative

In an expanding digital landscape, pharma companies must pivot to a personalized engagement approach encompassing both traditional and emerging platforms. By monitoring and actively engaging in broader conversations, fostering relationships with DOLs, and maintaining visibility at digital events, pharma communication teams can ensure comprehensive and influential customer engagement strategies. With the direct and indirect external communication sphere's considerable sway, adopting a proactive, monitored, and adaptable strategy is not just beneficial—it's essential for success."

Any questions?

For more information, contact Hendrik, our Global Business Director, Healthcare Strategies.

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