Agency Best Practice in Regulatory Compliance

You know the drill: Pharma turns up the volume on the convention floor, and doctors tune out. A focus group hints at a new approach to breaking through.
Mar 02, 2006

NO ONE REALLY KNOWS WHAT A DOCTOR IS thinking most of the time, and those of us who are patients can be happy about that. We are comforted when physicians keep their counsel until they complete an examination.

But that physician's poker face is no help to exhibitors who meet doctors at medical conferences. On the outside, they smile and shake hands, but the thoughts and feelings they withhold can tell a very different story.

A focus group convened by Impact Unlimited, an events, exhibits, and meetings company in Dayton, NJ, sought to understand doctors' attitudes toward conferences, exhibit halls, and pharma companies. Thirty high-prescribing doctors participated in the study, including radiologists, oncologists, neurologists, cardiologists, and primary care physicians, all of whom attended at least one national convention in their medical specialty in the last two years.

Focus group facilitators showed these doctors arrays of photographs and asked to pick the image that best portrays their attitude, and then to explain why that picture of a car or building expresses their feeling better than others. The result? A rare glimpse into why physicians attend medical conferences and what they like— and don't like—about them. The results also provide an opportunity to understand the emotional and psychological motives behind trade show participation, and offer lessons for pharma companies in how to connect more effectively with doctors during face-to-face interactions on the exhibit hall floor.

Overwhelming Displays

So what do physicians really think as they walk the show floor aisles? The focus group showed doctors nine photographs of facial expressions and asked them to point to the image that best describes how they feel as they enter the exhibit floor at a conference.

If you imagined it was the ecstatic bliss of number A5 or the happiness, even delight, of A4 or A8, well, think again. Among the respondents, 10 doctors chose photo A3, the man holding his ears and clenching his teeth in agony of the apparent sensory overload. And another seven physicians chose number A2, the one they thought of as the "poker face."

"I am always overwhelmed by the exhibit hall," one radiologist said. "It is so confusing [to know] where to start, how to figure out if I've missed anything, and where to go next with your limited time ... it's a feeling of, 'Oh my God, how am I going to figure out what's happening here? What have I gotten myself into?'"

During the physician focus group, one word popped up again and again: "overwhelmed." Most healthcare professionals described the exhibit floor as an exaggeration of the marketing onslaught they experience in their daily lives—sales visits, DTC advertising, targeted print and Internet marketing—only taken to the max.

When exposed to that volume of information, doctors seem to respond much they way they do in their offices—by shortening face-time with reps. Most conference attendees spend only about four minutes per booth.

To make that time more valuable for doctors and sponsors, exhibitors should strive to present one consistent, memorable, integrated message. All components—including booth design, presentations, promotional materials, and reps' discussions with physicians—need to work together to deliver a uniform, simple message. Companies should ensure sales reps' training allows them to deliver that message, and that the take-aways are ready to go.

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