Direct to Consumer: The Not-So-Cold Call - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Direct to Consumer: The Not-So-Cold Call
Think telephone outreach is out of touch? Think again. The phone is making a comeback.


Pharmaceutical Executive


Alexandra Drane
Phone-based marketing might not offer the wow factor of its newer Web-and text-based cousins; however, proposing that a computer handle calls offers an innovative twist. But this concept begs the question: Who wants to speak with a computer about his health?

Before you hang up on this approach, consider how a number of pharmaceutical companies are using phone-based, speech-enabled outreach to build share and to drive brand recognition and loyalty. A well-designed outreach program enables you to craft, deliver, and support one-on-one interaction with your target consumers—in their homes, at a time that's convenient for them. It's like a TV ad that comes alive and speaks directly with the person—learning as it goes so the next call can be that much more informed.




Let's say a young man is to receive a call about his new asthma medication because he hasn't filled his prescription yet. How can you get him to talk about his condition, when he'd really rather be out playing ball? Be respectful—explain up front why you're calling and let him guide the conversation. If he's ready to fill his medication but just hasn't had the time, offer to transfer the call to his dispensing pharmacy. If he's concerned about costs, tell him about free offers available on a drug-specific Web site. And if he says he's decided he doesn't need the prescription because he's been feeling better, offer feedback on the importance of staying on top of his condition.

Reach Out and Cure Someone

Some pharmaceutical companies have started integrating the phone into their multilayered consumer-marketing strategies through inbound-call screening programs that help people with a condition to self-identify, and with outbound-call efforts that target, assess, and refer those at risk to resources in real time.

Initiating a potentially sensitive conversation about a person's health can be tricky. Successful outreach is possible only when the underlying structure is designed to respect and engage the consumer. That means blending the science behind a flexible speech-recognition technology with a humanistic quality that recognizes that a real person—idiosyncrasies and all—is on the other end of the phone.


Prevent a Chilly Reception
The key is to provide relevant information that's put in accessible language and designed to be heard—not read. It also means respecting people by letting them control the conversation.

Since organizations are relying on a speech-recognition engine to act as the face of their brand, they had better pick one that's up for the challenge. Engines that are tuned specifically to the healthcare industry are better able to accommodate unique functions like communicating with the hard of hearing or even adjusting the pace of the call based on the patient's age and need.

It all adds up to outreach that respects, engages, enables, and ultimately inspires people to actually change their behavior.

Find the Undiagnosed

Pharmaceutical companies have long pioneered the use of innovative acquisition strategies to expand market share and build brand recognition. A major part of this effort, of course, is focused on helping people who have not yet been diagnosed with a condition to self-identify and take action.

Here's one real world example: A major pharmaceutical company launched an inbound calling program—powered by speech-recognition technology—and promoted it through direct mail flyers and point-of-sale displays at drugstores. People who called the number were engaged in a conversation around the target condition. More than 90 percent of the callers screened positively for the condition, based on their responses to a series of branching logic questions.

For this population, the system offered to share more information about a specific drug that might help ease the caller's self-reported symptoms—providing each person with just the right "dose" of information. Eligible callers were then offered a coupon for a specific drug. One hundred percent of the people with the target condition accepted the coupon.

Let's take another example: A manufacturer partnering with a health plan launched an outbound calling program based on demographics and claims data. The calling program reached out with tailored screening questions and information about a specific blood pressure medication. The goal was to help undiagnosed or at-risk members gain access to appropriate therapies. Subsequent review revealed that the number of patients in control of their blood pressure increased by more than 21 percentage points.

Insight at the Individual Level

Well-designed interactions can help pharmas identify and address common barriers to healthy behavior at an individual level, offering feedback and triggering additional support (such as a transfer to a nurse or a tailored e-mail) as appropriate. And as the system learns more about a person, future interactions can be even more helpful.

For example, you may learn when reaching out to a population of diabetics that Janet, a 40-year-old single mother of three, isn't taking her medication because she can't afford to and that Carlotta, a 40-year-old single Hispanic woman, is having difficulty communicating with her physician regarding concerns she has about side effects. You can use this insight to create campaigns targeted to single moms, 40 year olds, Hispanics, and so forth.

A "Call" to Action

Companies using this marketing approach are seeing response rates that far surpass direct-mail and e-mail initiatives.

One national organization aiming to drive requests for information about a depression medication shifted from direct mail to speech-enabled phone calls—and saw its response rate increase 27-fold. In fact, more than 95 percent of patients who interact with the phone-based program ask for follow-up materials. Another drug company found that phone-based outreach was more than 14 times more successful than e-mail at driving asthmatic consumers to a Web survey.

These aren't just flukes. Data support the fact that people are willing to interact over the phone about their health. Hang-up rates are low—between 3 and 7 percent—and once a person is on the phone with a well-designed program, between 85 percent and 90 percent of them complete the call.

Warm Up the Phone

Today, pharma companies are using the ubiquitous telephone to bring health education and assessments to life through real conversations, with content that's personalized to an individual's specific concerns. In addition, pharma is getting a better handle on how a population is living, thinking, and making decisions about their care. Do it right, and that cold call becomes something people can warm up to.

Alexandra Drane is cofounder and senior vice president of Eliza Corporation. She can be reached at

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