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Design Thinking in Multichannel Marketing


While marketers must work with less than perfect insight when devising their channel strategies, they can improve their success rate by applying Design Thinking, write Ilya Vedrashko and Parag More.

In the ideal world, life sciences companies would know exactly which healthcare professionals to talk to, what to tell them, how often to reach them, and which channels to use for the greatest business impact at any given moment. With the right approach, data, technology, and processes, companies can get ever closer to that ideal. 

Design thinking is an iterative process to finding solutions that is built on an understanding of users and their needs, motivations, beliefs, behaviors, and feelings, and then generating and evaluating many different options. It’s not often that the terms “channel planning” and “Design Thinking” are used in the same sentence, in part because it requires changing how we think about our audiences. For channel planners who think like designers, the audiences are no longer someone to message at – they are now users to design for. Even if what we are designing is only a simple banner ad on a medical site, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be - or can’t be - done with the user being central to the process.

Frame the communication objective

Formulating the communication objective correctly helps set the rest of the project on the right path. Usually, channel objectives are described in terms of reach and impact. “Impact” is a bit vague and can mean different things, so it’s useful to break it down into the specific types of response we seek to elicit. The three common ones are increasing familiarity (“I’ve heard of it”), increasing knowledge (“I know what it is”), and creating situational recall (“I know something that will work”), although there are many more.  

How and why people interact with a particular channel, as well as channels’ many properties, can make it more or less suitable for reaching a given objective. 

Understand the people 

Life sciences marketers must gather insights on the available communication channels with the same sense of empathy, curiosity and rigor that they reserve for messaging research. The common model for describing how people interact with media is very linear: exposure to a message leads to a decision and ultimately to an action. In reality, what happens to the message depends on the circumstances of the exposure and the mindset of the user. Would you rather have your banner ad on a page full of photos, or next to an academic article? A banner ad on a cluttered page that visitors scan in its entirety (think of a Pinterest board) is often more likely to be actually seen than a single ad positioned next to an article that requires intense focus

People seek out, retain, and manage information in different ways. Some physicians are information hunters: they search for answers to the immediate questions in front of them. Others tend to be information gatherers: they squirrel away bits of knowledge to be used when the need arises. In search for the answer, hunters rummage through a lot of information, filter it, and follow the “scent” – indications that a particular piece of information is worth exploring further.  Designing for hunters may involve reducing the initial exposure to only the most relevant key clues that will make it through the hunter’s filter. Designing for gatherers, on the other hand, may mean designing not only for the initial encounter, but also aiding successful information retrieval at a later time with memory aids.  

Assess each channel’s properties   

Traditionally, when creating their channel plans, marketers consider each channel’s systemic properties such as reach, cost, and saturation speed. However, it’s equally important to consider a medium’s human aspects – authority, searchability, memorability, and shareability. Past research shows that stories encountered in some channels are more likely to be shared than the same stories encountered in other channels. This expanded “downstream” audience can be an important part in calculating the total reach of each channel alternative.  

Iterate with the right data 

After the right channels for the job have been identified, the next step is to create an efficient plan. Creating a channel mix is a complex optimization problem that must take into account how different individuals use media while selecting the most efficient mix to reach thousands of people. This requires the right data and tools. 

Usually, the initial communication plan must be made with imperfect information and sometimes even without an historical frame of reference. Rather than importing more and more information that continues to be imperfect, it’s necessary to make an educated guess and move on. Even if the campaign starts with imperfect data, it doesn’t have to run on imperfect data forever. If you plan to reassess the campaign in six months, make an investment now into collecting the kind of data that will help you make better decisions later. Brainstorming, documenting, and validating hypotheses about what will work is the key to continuous improvement.

It is particularly worth investing in a system that keeps detailed records of each interaction with each customer across each channel. It helps you understand how different communication elements contribute to business results, and to model what is likely to happen under different scenarios. There are as many as 200 variables that can help predict a physician’s prescribing decision, ranging from rep interactions to the patient population to the geography to the prescriber’s past history. 

Build bridges between stakeholders

The records of customer interactions and variables impacting prescribing will come from different parts of the organization. Because data doesn’t tend to flow naturally from one department to another, the route for assembling and sharing data will need to be deliberately engineered. It will require investing in the proper technologies, inventing supporting processes, and finding people to tie it all together. One solution is to appoint an “omnichannel Sherpa” charged with facilitating intelligence transfer between the many partners a modern life sciences marketer works with. 

Although life sciences marketers must work with less than perfect insight when devising their channel strategies, they can improve their success rate by applying Design Thinking to the challenge. This entails understanding how and why people interact with a given channel, considering a channel’s systemic and human properties, reassessing their approach over time as performance data become available, and having the infrastructure in place to maintain a cohesive approach. 

Ilya Vedrashko is Managing Director, Omnichannel Strategy, and Parag More is Vice President, Research & Insights, both at Syneos Health.

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