To Mobile App or Not to Mobile App? That is the IT Question - Pharmaceutical Executive

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To Mobile App or Not to Mobile App? That is the IT Question


If we swallow the hype and decide that we all need to get onto the mobile app bandwagon, how do we go about it? Sven Awege of Pharma Strategic explains.

Over the last 20 years I’ve heard huge numbers of people get really excited about the latest fad. As a digital evangelist I guess that is to be expected. But are mobile apps (in pharma) any different?

Simply put, no (but read on until the end for the twist).

Personally I love the Gartner hype graph. It really does fit the cycles that technologies go through (where innovation overtakes conventional wisdom). The bit that really gets me excited is the part coming out of the trough of disillusionment. This is where we see a more mature understanding and approach, and the headless chickens have already run off to the next buzzword, leaving the professionals to industrialize solutions.

Currently I’d say mobile apps, in the pharma industry, are on a rapid slide-down after the hype. We’ll see many (more) projects die painful and internally ‘mediatized’ deaths as the true value propositions start to appear. This is also the phase when we need to anchor mobile into the bigger picture of multi-channel engaging communication, where pharma starts changing how it sees its customers with some serious behavioral (and budget) changes associated.

But for now lets assume that we’re looking for a shorter-term business case of a marketing driven mobile app initiative.

Initially this type of project seems like it should be easy to define and execute. In reality, the environment in which we work will dictate otherwise, meaning that we should not go into this with our eyes shut.

Firstly we need to ask the question: Why build an app in the first place?
We must do the legwork (market research + mingling, spending actual time with the customer) to really understand the activity, concerns, and real needs.

So we’ve identified some real unmet need, and an app is the best answer (we’re getting excited here). Before asking our agency to start developing there are some more important questions to be asked, such as: Is pharma a credible stakeholder in providing this app/service?

Surprisingly, the answer to this question is not always no! (we’re getting excited again).

Among the plethora of different actors out there pharma can have a valid reason to provide an app to a target audience. Check that your app fits this scope to avoid a huge waste of time and money (and possibly brand reputation). Screen the thousands of medical apps out there that have already been developed and tested by doctors – some really good pharma apps do exist (great source: iMedicalApps).

If it already exists have you considered partnering (not as exciting as building your own, but might also save some big headaches, and they probably already know your customer base needs better than you)?

Also remember that there are other trusted healthcare stakeholders that already have quite complex medical apps (e.g. Medscape) – check with your brand team that their great idea is not already in front of a doctor on his trusted third party (I’ve had this scenario several times with brand teams, I open Medscape and the famous “calculator” is already there!).

So now we know that there is an unmet need with an app solution, and pharma is the right player to bring it to the target audience.

What next? Strategic framing
I can’t stress these next points enough:

1. Clearly define the objectives and achievables (behavioral change, visibility…)

2. Align the measurables needed (make sure you can actually measure them)

3. Define what types of “actionables” will arise and review feasibilities of scenarios

4. Define the apps lifespan timelines (updates…)

5. Define the business owner (not IT owner)


OK, can we now brief the agency….not quite!

There are a bunch of additional considerations that you need to be aware of that should be clearly articulated and defined. Many of these involve discussions with IT (what type of architecture, native vs web vs…), Quality (documentation, script testing…), Medical (is this a medical device…), Regulatory (which guideline does this refer to??), Privacy (you are going to track people, do they know…) internal partners.

OK, now I’m arriving at the topic that I wanted to focus this article on, but got carried away with all the important stuff above (that I tend to take for granted).

How to choose the best solution for this app

Here is a rough guide. Clearly each project is slightly different, so don’t shoot me if your case does not fit exactly. Often it is advisable to go through this with your business integrator (and digital team) first to firm up your ideas.

1. Define the requirements of the app

• Basic app functionality

• Are enhanced user experiences required (use the accelerometer, camera, agenda…)

• Should it be platform/device specific or device agnostic

• Does the app require offline access (by the way, the 5MB story has solutions)

• Does content need to be PW protected

• Do you need detailed analytics

• Is monitoring support available

2. Think about how you are going to promote and distribute your app
(AppStore, Reps, Banners, eMails, Portals, partners…) If you’ve got this far and have all the answers then it is a simple issue to decide which route to take.

Mobile app options:

1. Mobile optimized website
 (another debate here on optimized for mobile, vs two distinct sites vs responsive design — great article on Dose of Digital)

2. Native app
 (iOS, Android…. forget the rest, even Windows 8 for a year)

3. HTML5 web app 
(almost like a native app, but not as fast/smooth, and has some limitations, and serious advantages in pharma)

4. Hybrid app 
(smaller niche use in pharma)

So why have I not added a decision tree here to help make sense of all the above?

(sounds simple enough!)
Your IT team will have their own angle on these issues and internal hoops to jump through, technological leaps are common so some factors can change dramatically in importance in a very short period of time. And hey, maybe you’ll ask specialist independent consultants to help out! Any constructive feedback is more than welcome. Looking forward to hearing from you.

So now for the twist
The apps are not the breakthrough, but they are changing how pharma interacts with different stakeholders. There are tens of thousands of apps out there, with over US$1 billion spent in healthcare start-ups last year alone in the US. These players are all trying to capture the attention of our target audience in ways and on a scale in which we have never been confronted before, potentially pushing pharma further from the “trusted partner” position it once had.

My cut — 90% of these will not survive, but they will leave a mark and change our landscape forever. If pharma is to regain credibility and trust we need to be in on the ride, rather than observing from the sidelines. Pharma is all about investing wisely and managing the pipe. That mentality should stretch beyond R&D, where mobile might be part of the equation.

About the Author

Sven Awege helps healthcare stakeholders deliver innovative outcomes as the founding partner of Pharma Strategic. He has been a digital evangelist since the start of the Internet, combined with 10 years of Pharma including sales, marketing and finance roles. With a strong focus on multi-channel communication, he writes about business issues from the marketing and sales perspective at Pharma Strategic.

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