Digital Alternatives Define New Sales Force

Teams must adapt techniques to embrace new technologies in order to remain successful
Oct 01, 2010


Bill Cooney
Consensus is growing that today's pharmaceutical sales forces must be revamped into smaller, more flexible, and science-based groups. As reps undergo this fundamental change, they must also change their tools and techniques. This includes medical speaker programs, which will have to evolve to stay relevant in the new world of pharma sales.

Following decades of growth that peaked in 2007, speaker program activity has fallen sharply over the last two years, down by 30 percent or more at most pharma companies. This has occurred even though speaker programs, when done right, are among the best examples of pharma programming, beneficial to the medical community and addressing the core need of clinicians to learn more about medical advances directly from esteemed peers.

Speaker programs are in decline due to the same forces that are currently reshaping all areas of pharma sales: cost, regulations, and access to healthcare professionals. If speaker programs are to resume their place as primary channels for peer-based marketing, the format must change in response to this new environment.

While almost all major trends in the medical marketplace are now adverse, one trend that is favoring speaker programs is the boom in digital media. Clinicians of all types are accessing various websites as their primary source for medical information in daily practice. To survive, speaker programs must leverage this phenomenon.

There are many ways to do this. Several pharma companies have piloted programs featuring speakers at video studios, broadcasting over the Web to audiences gathered at restaurants or hotels. These programs have been successful in various ways, save one: They haven't generated any cost savings. Other programs have been designed to connect with several hundred target clinicians in a single, live, Web-based event. This format can lower costs, but too often has failed to reach attendance goals.

An alternative Web-based format is desktop-to-desktop (D2D) speaker programs designed around small groups, brief sessions, and a large number of scheduled events. This format avoids the expense of studios and venues, and provides more flexible audience reach compared with one-time "big event" webcasts.

Digital alternatives for speaker programs must address the various forces that are redefining the pharma sales force, as follows:

Cost Control

The new economics of healthcare have caused every major pharma company to undertake unprecedented measures to cut marketing costs. Local speaker events are a major area of spend, and costs often fall in a range of $400 to $600 per attendee. Unfortunately, the studio-to-venue webcast model does not provide lower costs compared to local events. The D2D format substantially lowers costs by eliminating facility and A/V equipment expenses at studios and venues, as well as major dining costs. This can result in substantial savings of 70 percent to 80 percent.

Tougher Regulations

The D2D format is inherently compliant with various regulations that have targeted "transfers of value," including meals, with spending caps, reporting requirements, and a ban on meals at venues in two states, Massachusetts and Vermont. D2D speaker programs can be implemented with no meals and no reporting requirements for attendees. Looking ahead, this is of great importance considering the pending Physician Payment Sunshine Act (PPSA), which will require medical product companies to report payments of money or gifts, including the value of meals, made to individual physicians.