The COVID-19 pandemic has remodelled our social, commercial and business relationships, perhaps definitively. The healthcare industry is no exception, and particularly in its marketing functions.
Accelerated digital adoption under COVID-19, exemplified by a 326% sales increase for video-conferencing company Zoom in 2020, presents a challenge and an opportunity for pharma. The challenge is to maintain communications with an increasingly diverse customer base whose channel preferences and expectations are shifting. The opportunity is to respond creatively to new patterns of demand and create marketing strategies fit for a digitally enabled, consumer-oriented landscape.
This means not only rethinking a traditionally rep-oriented model of customer engagement but moving beyond single-or multichannel marketing strategies to embrace genuine omnichannel marketing. Retail and tech giants Amazon and Apple have already accustomed us to co-ordinated and integrated cross-channel experiences in real-time, regardless of location or digital medium. These pioneers have set an expectation amongst customers that they can have the same experience in the healthcare environment.
With an omnichannel approach, life science companies can access new and existing customers in different settings and in different ways. Omnichannel marketing can help eliminate wasted effort, improve the consistency, personalisation and retention of messaging, and support innovative medicines whose complexity demands nuanced marketing geared to all available touchpoints in the patient journey.
Patients front and centre
While the pharmaceutical industry has been talking for years about patient-centricity, COVID-19 forced us to think more creatively about how we could continue to serve patients, and some digital services have been found to be more convenient and helpful. According to a survey we conducted earlier this year, 74% of physicians said they believed digital solutions have had a positive impact on the patient journey (1). Patients are embracing digital tools to forge new relationships with health systems and explore a broader range of information sources on health conditions and treatments. HCPs are also increasingly engaged with digital technology and media, a trend amplified by pandemic-related disruption of rep activity. However, there is also a desire by some physicians and patients to return to face-to-face consultations. A mixture of the two is likely to be the model as we return to a more normal way of life.
Adopting a hybrid sales model
Rep visits were already subject to tighter regulatory and institutional scrutiny pre-COVID, and, according to research conducted by Research Partnership with SERMO published in our Digital Health Trends report in June 2021, (2) only 46% of physicians would now prefer a face-to-face rep visit and of these, 28% would accept on-line. That leaves more room for HCPs, like patients, to delve into new sources of information outside pharma’s sphere of influence. One of these sources could be a new breed of key opinion leaders – the online influencer - physicians with huge numbers of online followers and the power to persuade and educate a new generation of doctors.
It is up to pharma to take control of this turning tide by implementing omnichannel marketing campaigns that provide a seamless, holistic experience, optimised to channel preferences, technology usage and changing customer needs or touchpoints. This model does not mean the end of face-to-face rep engagement, but rather a shift to traditional-digital hybrids. In future, sales representatives may, for example, focus on high-level interactions with HCPs for more complex products, perhaps working in partnership with medical science liaisons (MSLs), to deliver a more valuable and customised experience to physicians.
Omnichannel versus multichannel
What distinguishes omnichannel from multichannel marketing is integration and co-ordination. Both strategies employ a mix of channels, direct and indirect, leveraging digital technology and media alongside more traditional communication vehicles. While multichannel strategies have broadened pharma’s reach and options, though, the downside is a proliferation of channels that operate in isolation.
This fragments the customer/patient experience, prioritising channel diversity over content without considering adequately how suitable the content is for each particular channel, or how different channels may intersect both on and offline. The upshot may be repetition, overlap, mismatched intentions and saturation that disconnect customer engagement while squandering marketing investment and resources.
The picture is further muddied by key performance indicators and other metrics that provide channel-specific feedback to business silos with their own incentives for channel prioritisation. Without a single, centralised platform tracking the impact of marketing communications on the customer journey holistically across multiple platforms, companies will struggle to gain a full understanding of what drives customer motivation and decision-making.
Another danger, or perhaps note of caution, is that third-party tech providers could come along and provide digital healthcare portals that do the job of omnichannel engagement more effectively than some pharma brands, disrupting the landscape further.
Adopting a hybrid sales model Implementing omnichannel
Consequently, implementing and analysing an omnichannel experience is a daunting prospect. It takes forward planning, attitudinal change, re-organisation, cross-functional commitment and an overarching vision. It requires investment of time and money in a strategy whose benefits may only be visible in the medium- to long-term, particularly in markets where customer data to guide interventions are thin on the ground.
Moreover, channel volume and diversity are not an end in themselves. Fewer channels may be more productive if they are co-ordinated and integrated to optimise customer touchpoints in the right way, reinforcing those elements of the brand experience that resonate for a particular customer across the channel mix. Above all, omnichannel marketing calls for a truly customer-centric mentality, one in which messaging is not just what pharma wants to say but what the customer really wants to hear.
Not surprisingly, some pharmaceutical companies are relatively slow to commit. This reflects not just the complexity of omnichannel and uncertainty over whether, or to what extent, customers may revert to more traditional channels post-COVID. It also speaks to the risks of seamless cross-channel communications in a highly regulated industry. In addition, customers and stakeholders need to be reassured that omnichannel does not compromise data security and privacy, particularly if it relies on interactive relationships.
Nonetheless, omnichannel marketing could be the only way for pharma to compete effectively in the kind of real-time digital ecosystem established by more consumer-oriented sectors. Getting this right requires a deep understanding of customer needs and preferences from one channel to the next, and how these can be addressed through relevant, timely content tailored both to the channel and the end-user. Customised messaging and content must then be harmonised across multiple channels, without diluting impact, limiting scope for personalisation or disrupting the customer journey. Profiling of physicians and patients changing digital channel preferences and behaviours will be key.
Closer alignment between sales and marketing is integral to a seamless cross-channel experience and to the feedback loop of data and insights that enables omnichannel to adapt swiftly to changing situations and customer needs. Customers acclimatised to a multichannel experience will expect interactions not only tailored to their preferences but localised and conducted in real-time.
These strategies must also be sensitive to national, cultural and demographic differences. While digital is making headway in APAC and MENA countries, many of these have traditionally set store by face-to-face interaction. Age is also likely to determine how open patients or even HCPS are to digital experiences. And digital uptake may vary according to the type of product and its lifecycle status (e.g., innovative/complex versus established/genericised).
The first step in any multichannel marketing strategy is to think about how the business intersects with different customers and, more importantly, what these customers or stakeholders want out of that interaction, at each and every touchpoint in the brand journey.
At Research Partnership we design research programmes to answer evolving digital engagement questions such as:
Pharmaceutical companies must be equipped to measure effectiveness in meaningful ways that reflect the true holistic experience of omnichannel marketing. Rather than assessing outcomes per channel, they need to know what works in which context, and how that communicates throughout the whole customer journey. That way, companies can build an omnichannel strategy that not only offers customers and stakeholders a seamless experience but makes sure this translates into improved awareness, understanding, interaction and uptake.
To find out more, watch this webcast: Understanding changing digital behaviours: Insights needed for an effective omnichannel strategy
1. Research Partnership survey of EU5 physicians using Medepolls n=151, May 2021
2. Digital Health Trends report published in June 2021 using research conducted by Research Partnership and SERMO amongst physicians based in US, Europe and China, n= 388