Medical congresses can learn important lessons from how consumer brands have adapted to a COVID world

What will medical congresses look like in ten years’ time? With the seismic disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one knows the answer to this critical question, but the smart money is on congresses being very different indeed.

Disruption brings threats and opportunities. COVID restrictions forced congress organisers to adapt quickly yet the rapid shift to digital has seen attendance skyrocket and geographical reach vastly extended. Meanwhile, in the world of consumer brands, the rate of innovation has been spectacular, offering many lessons for healthcare (see our six lessons below).

“With virtual attendees regularly rating digital content as good or even better than in-person, added to the convenience and cost-effectiveness of online attendance, it’s no surprise that up to 50% of HCPs have stated that they will not return to regular in-person events in the foreseeable future,” says Wayne Page, digital lead at virtual healthcare agency, The Difference Collective. “A key lesson that pharma has started to recognise is that digital events are fundamentally different and so require different solutions. When we look outside of pharma, the consumer world is approaching live, virtual and hybrid events in a very different way.”

Digital events are still in their infancy, but they grew up a lot last year, says Jonathan Boyne, communication director at Smyle, a creative agency that ‘sits at the intersection’ of digital and physical experiences. “While some brands stood around scratching their heads, others hit the ground running, including innovative companies like Samsung, Wella and Salesforce. Together with these brands, we have pushed boundaries and experimented at nearly 200 digital events, learning what works and what doesn’t.”

Delivering an engaging experience for attendees is a key principle, says Boyne, whether the event is digital, in-person or a hybrid. To help healthcare fundamentally rethink how it approaches medical congresses, we have identified six key learnings from these innovative consumer events.

Six lessons from the consumer world

#1: Cater to different learning styles

It is well-recognised that we all learn differently, yet events tend to use the same format for everyone. “One size definitely does not fit all,” says Dax Callner, Smyle’s strategy director. “Content that appeals to visual learners will not be as effective for the kinaesthetically-inclined, who absorb information best through practical activities.”

Creating content that focuses on the needs of each type of learner may not be as complex as it sounds. For example, it would be relatively simple to create an audio-only format for audible learners. “An audio format may also appeal to others, especially if they can listen while going for a walk or doing another task,” he says. “There’s no reason why you can’t offer more options linked to how people prefer to learn.”

#2: Entertain

One way in which we are all the same is our love of entertainment. “The sky is the limit when it comes to making content entertaining,” says Callner. “We’ve spent a lot of time in front of screens recently, not just Zoom calls but also in the evenings watching TV. If events don’t serve up something that is as compelling as a Netflix experience, then we will see it as a second-rate piece of content.”

“Some of our events are becoming hyper-interactive TV experiences, with TV-quality content served in an entertaining way,” adds Boyne, although unlike TV, these experiences can encourage participation. “The secret to really rich content is to distil it down – taking 60 minutes down to 15 minutes of incredibly valuable content. Pixar does this when making movies, paring back to the absolute essentials to maximise storytelling and entertainment. Every single pixel you see in their movies is there for a reason.”

Boyne mentions an event for haircare brand Wella that felt like a TV show. “In fact, it was two TV shows as there were two streams of content running simultaneously. If attendees got the urge to channel surf, we’d rather they switched to our other channel than lose them entirely. Engagement levels were through the roof.”

#3: Emotions matter

“What do you want your audience to feel? To feel inspired, to make them laugh, to leave them feeling passionate?” asks Callner. “It’s easy to feel disconnected through digital but considering your audience’s emotions can really help them absorb information and drive decision-making.”

The event business is theatre, he says. “Whatever information the event is conveying there are always emotional storylines that underpin it. Consider the deeper human element when planning an event, consider the emotional journey you want your attendee to go on and build it in.”

Boyne cites an event for Ferring Pharmaceuticals. “A short video sequence showed colleagues talking about their personal contribution and it really resonated. It made them feel proud of the part they played personally in the endeavour.”

#4: Measure… with a twist

As we embrace digital, there is so much data flying around that the key is to home in on what’s important. “We measure ‘return on emotion’ to capture the emotional experience of an event and facial sentiment analysis to understand what people are feeling,” says Callner. “Other key metrics are that we want to understand the impact of educational content, changes in brand perception and anticipated changes in behaviour.”

#5: Be playful

Infusing an event with a sense of fun can also be powerful. “I’ve been to pharma events and they’re not playful, but all adults like to have a good time,” says Callner. “You can create a kind of playground for adults to allow us to indulge our playful side.”
He suggests knowledge-testing games and contests that both spark a sense of competition and reinforce key content themes.

“We did a Samsung product launch that was designed in a gaming platform called Unreal Engine,” he says. “It allowed people to explore and discover the environment, which was really fun, although there were key messages along the way, of course. Gaming techniques transformed what could have been another boring keynote into a totally immersive experience.”

#6: Human networking

For many, networking is the Achilles heel of digital events, but it doesn’t have to be, says Callner. “Human beings are complex and have many interests, not just professional. Our approach to networking is to create profiles that go far beyond job title and ask about personal interests, hobbies, family and what issues participants care about.”

The resulting multidimensional networking profiles can then be used to matchmake people at events. “Linking like-minded people means we enable genuine, human conversations,” he says, adding that this robust technology-driven approach is also effective at physical events. “Half of us are introverts who find it difficult to just walk up and start a conversation. But everyone has a mobile device, so we can use technology to overcome these social barriers both in person and online.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives in so many ways. Yet, for all the devastation, perhaps it is the shot in the arm that medical congresses needed to drag them fully into the digital age. By embracing lessons from consumer brands, medical congresses have the chance to reinvigorate how they engage and even entertain their health professional audiences.

Hugh Gosling is a healthcare journalist and former Editor of PharmaTimes. He regularly works with pharma clients through The Difference Collective, a virtual healthcare agency