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Bridging the Digital Skills Gap


The industry is crying out for pharma marketers skilled in the theory and practice of online communication. Training is the key, says June Dawson.

It is not often in such a tough jobs climate that people can write their own 'meal tickets' but this is fast becoming the case for those in pharma marketing. Marketing is experiencing an acute shortage of professionals and in particular, those practitioners who have the rather unique combination of science, marketing and creative digital communication skills. Professional headhunters will tell you there has always been a shortage of good marketing managers but this triple-skills combination is gold dust.

Pharma marketing has always been a small, clearly defined pool of talent and this, given the need to combine marketing proficiency with sound regulatory knowledge, is unlikely to change. It has consistently lagged behind other industries when it comes to digital proficiency but this is now being addressed. Many top companies are investing in bespoke workshop training on the more complex aspects of digital, from web optimization and search right through to pan-European launch programmes. 

Thorsten Poehl, Head of Corporate Talent Management at Boehringer Ingelheim, recently told me his solution was to recruit worldwide and bring in colleagues from affiliates who have shown that they are Web 2.0 natives. He is currently using a healthy mix of freelancers and in-house professionals to balance cost with company/product know-how. Poehl says: "Like many forward thinking companies, Boehringer Ingelheim is constantly investing in training worldwide. We are in the process of updating our training and our communication with special attention to social media and e- marketing."

The next generation of marketers across the industry will benefit from the investment in digital education and training that companies are now making. The pace of change in customer communication is driven by clever, increasingly fast technology and it won't be long before legislation bows to consumer demand and we will find ourselves selling direct to consumers in some form - pundits guess it could be within the next decade. This means a steep learning curve for many brands regarding consumer digital marketing.

Universities are sending out an ample supply of digital-literate people, but few have corresponding communication skills. The skills shortage is not insurmountable but even with the investment of training, many in the industry think the new breed of hybrid marketer, who is both brand, regulatory and digital literate, won't see a board director position for at least another five years.

Consumers are now streets ahead of advertisers in terms of online behaviour. For doctors, technology has changed how they source their information; you only have to look at how the multi-topic physician portals like Merck's UK-based Univadis and Doctissimo in France, which are increasing in popularity. Of the physicians surveyed in a 2010 Digitas Health study, 70% of UK respondents use health portals for the information they need and a significant number in mainland Europe believe their own portal use would increase.

While direct-to-consumer selling (DTC) is illegal everywhere except the US and New Zealand, patients are not prevented from viewing branded messages and video online. Material that is on the web and being pulled down locally really is beyond the control of brands, so the challenge is how to plan for it.

Three key areas
There seem to be three fundamental areas demanding pharmaceutical marketer focus over the next 12 months: better measurement, collapsing the divide between content and media, and improving the lack of personal relationships between doctors and reps.

Digital solutions are the best way of improving the lack of personal relationships between doctors and reps. A digital dialogue is flexible enough to cover all touch points, from patient-time web searches to out-of-surgery personal interest research, including mobile apps for the commute time between home and workplace.

There are two sides to social. One is to ensure that your learning module can be easily shared by including tools that let HCPs use it as a social 'object' to inspire connections and conversation with other colleagues. The other is to use your content to distribute your key messages and encourage conversation around relevant destinations. Established platforms are already available for such distribution and we encourage clients on how to make better use of them.

When it comes to measurement, some of the brightest minds in digital global marketing are working on the best metrics. We are sharing the latest thinking and tools with clients so they can see the benefits of optimization and begin to understand how to allocate budgets in this area.

Last month our analytics team ran a workshop identifying how social and search feed into each other. Few clients pay enough attention to this alignment. Social bookmarking, blogs, review sites and social-network listings increasingly influence search results. We examined the new avenues social media are opening up for pay-per-click ads and looked at how to create more opportunities for search to benefit each site (eg, Twitter search). Agencies are capitalizing on this interconnectivity to create more points of entry for brands. Now it is vital for clients to buy in. 

With the right combination of scalable social insights, experiences and ads, a social media program can go far, but it will fail to succeed unless proper measurement mechanisms are in place. 

Bridging the gaps
Agency and client partnerships can be strengthened during a skills shortage. In its infancy, digital marketing was seen by many senior marketers as threatening, so they hindered and, in some cases, blocked change. Healthcare marketers with five-plus years of digital experience working in European or international markets are now able to virtually set their own salaries. We should not allow history to repeat itself.

It is tough to attract the right talent but the industry is now far more active in working hard to retain its digital staff by rewarding and acknowledging achievement in a bid to stem the flow.

Thorsten Poehl believes the skills gap is about the right combination of digital communication and pharma's ethical and legal boundaries. "If you just think of the importance of rapidly processing adverse events reports and not being allowed to talk about products outside the medical community, the marketing industry may have an idea of the complex Do's and Don'ts that our professional marketers face. Apart from the usual marketing skills and experiences we look forward to candidates who have collected some experiences already with e-marketing, who will embrace new technologies with enthusiasm and are able to convey this enthusiasm to others."

Workshops can be tailored to topics as wide ranging as planning and strategy, market research, digital marketing and behavioural economics. Usually, the best investment is working alongside a client reviewing and recommending how the marketing function and process should be structured to deliver competitive advantage. Digital and in particular social has dramatically changed marketing dynamics and the relationship between the sales team, advertising, marketing and PR is still evolving as the business reviews its priorities.

How we use search, social media, measurement, mobile and the other marketing tools available will increasingly define the success or failure of marketing campaigns. Education investment is a good first step, but to ensure that digital continues to be regarded as an attractive area to work in we must strive to prove that not only is it the hot medium of the moment, but also the future.