The (Life) Science of Digital Connections

Mar 01, 2012

Digital marketers in the pharmaceutical space are an ambitious group. Many get frustrated with a restrictive regulatory environment, and jump ship for other industries such as consumer packaged goods or electronics, where social media is just that—social—and phrases like "adverse event" or "off-label discussion" don't quicken the pulse. Those in pharma with the courage to stick it out are moving the needle by increment, and their success is the result of careful measurement. In our industry, past is prologue: To keep pace with technology change and deploy the newest tools to attract providers and other customers, there has to be a strategy based on careful analysis of the actual performance of the most recent service innovations. This is true not just for social media plays, but also multichannel executions targeting HCPs, or a physician finder on unbranded disease awareness sites for consumers. Success is also founded on an integrated approach. Content is still king, but distribution models that maximize the accessibility of good content are increasingly important. Pharm Exec's sister organization, The Center for Business Intelligence (CBI) says, "At its core, digital marketing is about making connections. For pharma, bio, and device manufacturers, this is defined by the connections with patients, physicians, and payers."

Those connections can't happen unless marketers understand where, and when, these groups (and the individuals comprising the groups) want to receive information. To put all these themes together, CBI will sponsor its 11th annual iPharmaConnect conference on March 26 to 28, "Digital Innovation for Marketing Decision Makers in the Life Sciences Industry." In preparation for the event, Pharm Exec spoke with two experts—Jim Currie, director of marketing services for PamLab, and Baber Ghauri, chief medical officer at Saint Mary's Medical Center—to help gauge the impact that advances in digital technology are having on the day-to-day practice of healthcare.

Drivers of Successful Online Engagement

What is the most influential piece of new technology and its impact on the healthcare industry?

Currie: Smart email. I see this technology—no longer cutting edge—as still being vastly underutilized. The capability to allow a physician to interact with a sales message and dive deeper into technical clinical data and be "tracked" all the while is extremely attractive. In doing so, we can significantly increase market penetration (broader reach) into white space as well as improve message frequency among our core targets. In my view, the key is successfully incorporating the micro-activity data into our traditional sales process. This involves having the sales force and leadership rethink their paradigm in terms of what data points are true indicators of physician perception shifts. The answers aren't always the obvious or intuitive clicks. The answers also aren't the blatant call-to-action buttons. Learning the subtleties of which parts of the message and which bits of data will aid sales is the dance that marketing analytics needs to master.

How can social media improve the physician/patient relationship?

Currie: In one of the simple examples, it seems that many patients are counseled in the office and yet seem to "forget" the information by the time they get home. For example, I observe lots of social media posts from women diagnosed with MTHFR polymorphism (creates folate issues in many problem pregnancies). It's clear they got the diagnosis in the office setting. It's frightening how they reach out for advice or explanations from the social community. The answers range from the obscure to the completely misinformed. If offices or specialties had a better sense of these online discussions, I think they would alter their in-office counseling or provide followup calls to clarify the information and the next steps.

How can pharma sales reps leverage mobile and social media technologies to their advantage?

Currie: Not sure. We have a strict policy that our employees/sales force may not engage in social media around our products. However, a good sales rep can certainly invest time within certain disease state groups or communities to better understand the questions/concerns/issues/fears of the patient at large. I think having that insight brings a sense of relevancy and a sense of urgency to conversations within the office setting.

What are the biggest challenges that industry faces with deploying a mobile marketing campaign?

Currie: I think the technology and vendor support is in place ... still waiting for demand and utilization in the marketplace to catch up.

What are the benefits and risks of a truly two-way conversation between pharma and patients, as can take place on websites such as Facebook?

Currie: I am not yet convinced the conversation needs to be two-way. Patients (as consumers) are indeed empowered to have these conversations in other industries/categories. I think the empowered consumer is a wonderful thing. However, I view regulation in our industry as a necessary constraint. Medical issues are often too complex to be boiled down into an online conversation. Such medical discussions too often blend into a diagnosis-style conversation that belongs between doctor and patient, not with industry. I do not think the reward warrants the risk at this time.

How can pharma measure ROI of mobile-based and social media marketing efforts?

Currie: Show me the volume. If your patient base wishes to hold the conversation via mobile or through social media interaction, the beauty is in the measurement of these tools. The metrics should be the cleanest and clearest of any we have in pharmaceutical marketing. If we fully understand our brand and the lifetime value of our consumer/patient, then the ROI calculations should not prove cumbersome.

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