Navigating Medical Conferences in the COVID-19 Era: A Focus on Engagement

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During these challenging times, it's possible for pharma teams to stay connected while their customers are socially distant. They simply need to follow some new rules of engagement.

Doctors come to conferences to share new data, interact, and learn. These events are just as important to pharmaceutical teams that want to connect with doctors. COVID-19, however, has caused events to be canceled or shifted to a virtual format, often sacrificing interaction at the altar of learning and data sharing.

Coronavirus is the first major disruption to in-person events since 9/11 and SARS, which occurred 20 years ago. We remember those incidents causing people to stay at home from events and limit their travel. Back then, however, social media, mobile video 5G internet, and other new technologies that help facilitate real-time collaboration were just fantasies. 

During these challenging times, it is possible for pharmaceutical teams to stay connected while their customers are socially distant. They simply need to follow some new rules of engagement.

You can’t replace physical contact

Live conferences provide an opportunity for more than just scientific release; they offer an opportunity for engagement, among colleagues and with experts.

In the wake of the first COVID19-canceled conferences, Michael Thompson, MD, PhD, offered his input. Thompson, an oncologist, is also a key physician influencer and digital opinion leader. He has authored more than a dozen peer-reviewed papers on the topic of social media in medicine and has more than 19,000 Twitter followers. Though he values the power of online media, Thompson still sees the unique benefits of in-person meetings.

“I think people feel a real need to connect that is not met by teleconferences or web conferences or social media,” says Thompson. “I agree those technologies complement and at least in the short term over the next few months will replace meetings. But there are many drivers to annual meetings beyond just the information transfer that could be obtained remotely. We need other humans around us in a special environment.”

Most major medical meetings that were scheduled to run through June already have been canceled, moved to a virtual format, or warned of some pending disruption. The organizations that run meetings do not have a choice. Participants who attend meetings are unable to get there, companies have travel bans, most large cities are limiting assembly, and many states and countries are in lockdown. In addition, doctors and other healthcare practitioners are needed in their clinics or are preparing for the frontlines, and attending massive group events could compromise or sideline them. For the foreseeable future, there will be no in-person events.

Content doesn’t need conferences

Creating virtual spaces where scientific assets can live allows evidence to register in the world. Existing is not enough, and virtual content may fail to engage participants in the way that the original live conference was designed.

In exploring this theory in more detail, our pharma insight company, Watzan, used its analytics and media platforms to test three key questions: Will content still be produced, what happens if the conference is canceled, and will doctors still engage? Here’s what we found:


Content will still be produced. We analyzed the number of stories that medical communities share over a period of time. We looked across communities in multiple specialties-oncology, diabetes, cardiology, infectious disease, and urology. Story counts from the beginning of January through mid-March showed no reduction. In contrast, there was a slight rise in the final week compared with average days over the prior two-month period. Notably, novel content was presented, such as Type 2 diabetes or immuno-oncology for advanced squamous cell carcinoma. That tells us three things: Fresh content continues to be shared, communities of doctors remain active on social platforms, and they are still sharing new science to improve the standard of care.

It’s also evident that stories come out even if events are canceled completely. For this, we looked at the National Basketball Association. The league canceled the season on March 12. On March 13, Watzan logged 720 unique stories from 430 different sources in only half an hour.

We also believe doctors will still engage. The first conference to cancel with little-to-no notice was the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI). It was an important test case as there was little time to coordinate a robust virtual event. We tested if doctors would engage with CROI content, and they did. Engagement was 250% above our normal engagement guarantees. Those results echoed tests we ran in the first half of March. In what could only be described as the most difficult of times, all our programs beat their full-month engagement guarantees in half the month.

All of this suggests to conference planners, medical affairs teams, and brands that they need to continue to create content. Audiences still want to engage with the science, including digitization of the original asset (e.g. poster or oral presentation), a forum for interactivity and dialogue, a mechanism for optimization, and a tool to facilitate expert exchange.

When supported in this way, physicians gain access to a virtualized experience that may not match the one they would have had “in the real world,” but that checks all the boxes of interaction, learning, and sharing data that is compatible with their new environment and needs. Partnering with organizations with the experience and global reach to develop and implement such initiatives is crucial to ensuring that expectations are exceeded.

The importance of #connecting

By some estimates, one-third of U.S. doctors have a Twitter account. That percentage is even higher among oncologists. Oncologists on Twitter have developed a taxon of hashtags to organize topics, such as #ASCO20 and #LCSM, to share content on social media all year long.

Hashtags are the silver lining in the COVID-19 era. Doctors connect content to hashtags and brands can use new technology to turn hashtags into the ideal media for their messages.

A meeting provides a common hashtag. As the meeting is diminished, the hashtags people use become less consistent. This means that new platforms are needed to find and engage an audience with the content that communities want.

Some platforms can define audience and content from groups of hashtags or keywords. For example, a brand could define a non-small cell lung cancer audience using the tag #NSCLC or with terms such as “lung cancer,” “non-small cell lung cancer,” and “non-small cell lung cancer.” It is a place where companies can create content and users can find it. Uploading components on multichannel platforms enables busy clinicians to access it at their own pace.

What’s on?

Meetings are consistently rated as the most valuable source to professionals for updating their knowledge. Beyond providing an opportunity to share content, Watzan is dedicated to uncovering what matters to key audiences and what is happening in our market. Whether you create your own meeting or use technology to piece one together, it is the data that drives strategy between meetings.

As you analyze meeting data, consider who the key influencers are, which publishers had the greatest impact, what topics resonated most, how your drug or clinical trial performed compared with the competitive set, and when your audience tunes in. The answers to these questions will provide insight moving forward. You can also take advantage of tools that can provide projections based on whether your meeting is held live, if it runs virtually, or if it doesn’t happen at all.

One thing is clear: The playbook for this generation’s events is still being written. But as long as you continue to create content, make it fun, place it on platforms for asynchronous use, integrate it into your own virtual meeting hub, and use new technologies to connect content with your audience, you will get the answers you need to drive strategy. In the words of Thompson: “[Meetings] will be back-at least the good ones.”

Charles Benaiah is chief executive officer of Watzan. Matt Lewis is global chief data and analytics officer at MEDiSTRAVA