To respond best to the changes driven by the ongoing pandemic, pharmaceutical companies and reps should consider adapting their sales and marketing strategies to fit the evolving needs of today’s healthcare professionals (HCPs). Lorenzo Vasini explores the innovative technologies and approaches enabling reps to better engage the healthcare industry.

It has been somewhat of a turbulent year for the pharmaceutical market, with even industry heavyweights such as Pfizer reporting revenues of $11.8 billion and $23.8 billion for the first half of 2020, representing a 11% and 10% decline year-over-year. The reduction in arguably the largest sales channel, face to face meetings, means new challenges have emerged for pharmaceutical companies large and small.

The inability to directly engage HCPs – be that via proactive visits to clinicians and health care centres, large in-person medical conferences and educational tours, or partner charity fundraisers and other usual brand marketing activities – has led reps to have to re-think sales and marketing activities due to widespread restrictions brought about by COVID-19.

And while much attention has largely focused on the immediate crisis, including facilitating access to medicine, supporting HCPs amid the crisis and meeting patient needs in the ‘new normal’, the emergence of a new coronavirus vaccine – paving the way for mass vaccination – means the bigger picture is starting to come into focus.

Pharma organisations that are able to start identifying suitable strategies and back to business plans that can help them continue connecting or reconnecting with HCPs stand to capitalise on a new market landscape and drive revenue opportunities.

Of course, how that market looks will be much different to anything experienced before. With stay-at-home orders and social distancing now the established norm, HCPs are now operating in a largely digitised world.

To keep pace with the drastic changes, marketing departments have put significant investment into digitisation initiatives in order to acquire, retain and serve HCP customers in this new environment. Understanding the technologies and strategies that will likely provide a solution to the reduction in leads and opportunities, and find ways of continuing to sell without the use of main traditional channels, is not straightforward.

Those pharma enterprises that are able to determine which channels can offer the greatest benefits to a sector faced with a new radically altered digitally-led marketplace, stand to improve efficiencies, eradicate gaps in resources and eliminate the loss of previously indispensable marketing channels.

Thriving in the new normal

Naturally, as pharmaceutical businesses arrive at the inevitable conclusion that digital marketing will play a fundamental role in digitising communications to HCPs, technology is likely to be the true enabler for delivering innovation under challenging circumstances.

This prerequisite for digital transformation, however, can lead brands to over automate communications and lose sight of the fundamental aspect that is human-to-human interaction. And while some brands have been able to deliver a unified equilibrium between human and technology-driven interactions, many still face fundamental struggles in this area.

To ensure genuine human engagement is delivered, without it affecting digital journeys, the foundational element of any effective digital transformation strategy should be building a cohesive eco-system of agile leading-edge technologies. When such an ecosystem is underpinned by a wealth of critical data, the benefits can be extensive. Whether that is patient information, scientific statistics, or behavioural insights, it all needs to be harnessed to deliver a more relevant and personalised service.

By forming an accurate picture of each individual customer – including their behaviours and channel preferences – reps can deliver highly tailored communications across all digital channels rapidly, and perhaps just as crucially, cost-effectively.

It is critical that pharmaceutical reps and marketing teams gain a deeper understanding of their client’s needs than ever before. While reps are likely to increase the volume of interaction with HCPs during the pandemic, the communications will be less relevant as their needs have changed.

During prolonged periods of lockdown and moves into three tier regional restrictions, for instance, the ‘hard sell’ approach is perhaps not appropriate. Particularly as HCPs have been largely overwhelmed by the pressures of delivering healthcare in the midst of a global pandemic, as well as dealing with delayed treatments, increased costs and safeguarding patient mental health.

Instead the focus of marketing will likely be on maintaining a strong brand relationship and re-assuring prospective customers through the appropriate marketing messaging and empathetic tone. Pharmaceutical reps should place a particular emphasis on finding new ways to help the HCPs continue to support patients. By building an Innovation Partner Ecosystem, for example, brands could provide practical online support around close patient care, or even help to highlight where the local testing stations are and direct patients towards them.

Embracing new technology

It is in this regard that a methodically planned delivery infrastructure can facilitate the unification of previously fragmented customer communications technologies, while at the same time effortlessly integrating new ones to create a truly ‘frictionless’ customer experience (CX). A centralised communications ecosystem can help seamlessly engage HCPs with speed, efficiency and relevancy across a multitude of channels.

The use of email marketing, social media, display ads, retargeting, and content marketing may be a new-fangled approach for a drug development industry known for its traditionalism and reliance on in-person interactions, nonetheless, they are expected to play a crucial role in building and nurturing ongoing sales and customer relationships in the next 12-18 months.

Indeed, it is such a technologically-led approach that has been demonstrated with great effect by some industry players. The utilisation of novel telehealth platforms – particularly when launched in collaboration with traditional healthcare providers – has already played a vital role to play as drug development corporations shift from a familiar in-person communication approach, to strategies that rely increasingly on more automated and remote practices.

'Outsourced' healthcare such as the NHS partnership with Livi in the UK has already provided new opportunities for engagement to pharma. Such is the positive impact, that demand for Livi’s services have greatly increased in the last year, with appointments in the UK increasing 534% between March 2019 and March 2020.

From a sales perspective, the growing popularity of E-detailing certainly holds great potential if harnessed correctly. E-detailing, or electronic detailing, is a now well-established way of increasing pharmaceutical and MedTech company efficiency in customer engagement – facilitating an improved service delivery to HCPs and other stakeholders.

By digitising sales content and providing it on a mobile device, pharmaceutical reps can achieve greater levels of interactivity with their target customers, while at the same time using more impactful and creative forms of content – such as moving graphics and video – to draw attention to key messages.

The resultant highly-targeted and personable approach enables company representatives to work at an individual level with HCPs, but with much greater speed and efficiency than face-to-face interaction by virtue of the interaction being digitally-driven.

What’s more, by eradicating costly in-person interactions – be that travel expenses for sales reps and doctors, dining costs, and low fixed outlays for producing video content that can reach a large audience – and switching to digital communications, strategies become far less costly for organisations. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, such cost-efficiencies could prove integral to success.

A trusted partner

Successful digital transformation strategies should focus on delivering a strong value proposition for the physician, an improved patient experience for the user, and a proven return on investment (ROI) for the purchaser.

By carefully considering every aspect from channel selection, to customer profiling, campaign and personalisation, campaigns can be efficiently planned and implemented, with the ability to learn in real time enabling positive results to be seen quickly.

As a result, pharmaceutical enterprises can give HCPs more of what they want and need, at the most appropriate time and via their preferred channel – providing a recipe for success both during the current unusual situation and following the imposed lockdown.

Lorenzo Vasini is chief growth officer at Paragon DCX