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Article: Is medical conference marketing now a long-distance relationship?

John Branston, April 2020

As more medical conferences plan to go virtual, John Branston reflects on the results of a study conducted among several hundred medical specialists about the future of these events and outlines how conference research is still possible in the age of COVID-19

Medical conferences

As we all re-organise multiple aspects of our lives around new imperatives forced on us locally and globally by the coronavirus pandemic, it is worthwhile to think about how the short-term solutions we devise to achieve our objectives in the face of current limitations may have a long-lasting effects on familiar activities and behaviours.

One area where very significant changes may be long-lived is the field of major medical conferences. Some of the largest conferences, including ASCO and EULAR, are each planning their own inaugural ‘virtual-only’ conference in the coming weeks. The tools and technology to take major medical conferences online in some form has been around for a long time. No doubt the principle of delivering a ‘virtual’ conference has occurred to many in the industry before now. Suddenly we find ourselves observing a real-life testing ground of some of the key principles, which may give us early insights into the shape that conferences could take in the post-pandemic future.

One side of the equation is the conference offering; the other side is the potential behavioural shift among the audience.

With these thoughts of a changing medical conference landscape in mind, we conducted a quick poll among several hundred practising medical specialists, 75% of whom were planning to attend meetings that have been (or threaten to be) disrupted by the coronavirus. We found that: 

  • 84% would be keen to explore the option of attending a medical congress in a ‘virtual’ format (as an alternative to attending in person);
  • If making use of a ‘remote’ or ‘virtual’ conference format, 68% would just dip in to papers and presentations of interest; the remainder would undertake to review a broader range of presentations;
  • If engaging with a ‘virtual’ conference, only 22% stated that they would seek to access a key presentation ‘live’, with 50% more likely to take it in at a later date, whenever they had time (the remaining 29% stated that ‘either way is fine, it makes no difference’).

And in response to the key question ‘Do you think the virtual format is the future of medical conference?’

  • 64% said ‘Yes’
  • 36% said ‘No’.

The data shows a clear willingness – even a preference – for busy physicians to engage with a virtual conference. The feeling among some clinicians with whom we have spoken more conversationally, is that the coronavirus pandemic has also precipitated other important issues which were already threatening to have a bearing on individuals’ willingness to attend a conference in person. Not least of these is the growing awareness of the negative environmental impact of air travel.

Equally notable is the prediction that the viewing of presentations will likely take place at a time of the viewer’s choosing, rather than as a scheduled ‘event’. How often do we make a mental note of something we mean to watch, only for it to become a victim of other, more pressing issues?

So the technical challenge of providing remote access to presentations will probably turn out to be the easy part, given that familiarity and comfort levels with video-conferencing platforms have recently risen exponentially! Conference organisers will no doubt quickly settle on a new ‘business model’ that continues to facilitate scientific exchange and thought leadership. Unshackled from the model of a single, intense week of activity, there is the opportunity for organisations to remain top-of-mind across the year as a franchised vehicle for more frequent, ad hoc delivery of web-based content. Sponsors can then work to their own timeline and have a greater say in when data is published to maximum effect. What the industry needs to understand is the shift in balance in the marketing and communication mix that will result from this new way of doing things.

The key questions to arise are therefore twofold:

  1. How will the reach and impact of key presentations be affected if they are to move from being an ‘event’ to being accessed on demand over time?
  2. How can companies mitigate the move away from immersive, in-person engagement and networking in the nascent ‘virtual’ environment?

In the world of marketing research, we will play a key role in helping marketers to understand the new science dissemination landscape as it emerges. We will continue to develop the most effective ways to measure what physicians are thinking with regard to new announcements and how they evaluate the potential of new entities to change – and potentially disrupt – existing product markets.

Conference research was revolutionised nearly 10 years ago when we began harnessing the benefits of mobile research. Mobile has been powerful in enabling effective measurement of shift in attitudes and behaviours (via pre- and post-event longitudinal measurement), as well as high-quality, visual-enabled question techniques such as future-framing, patient Rx vignettes and visual recall.

Now it’s time to reframe our go-to research approach around the ‘new normal’. Given the likelihood of different modalities of dissemination being trialled, we will need to be agile in looking at how different methodologies perform to our needs. We believe large-sample online studies will play a significant role; these can be conducted globally in a very short time and will provide a great, cost-effective opportunity for the statistical analysis and comparison of how different cohorts of physicians react to new science, or to quickly look at the impact of announcements on projected market demand. ‘Tele’ follow-ups (Zoom or web-assisted telephone) will allow us to gain more qualitative feedback from tightly-screened respondents on the granular detail of the clinical implications of announced data.

We will be taking the best methodological ideas with us as we adapt our thinking to the new landscape. The business of communicating new science is about to undergo a step-change. Market research is the key to understanding that change and has the advantage of relying on tried-and-tested fundamental concepts to deliver an important and accurate assessment of how communications are working in the post-pandemic environment. Speak to us about how we can help you understand the reach and impact of your company’s message as customer engagement evolves in a new context.

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