Virtual Events: Q&A with Jenna Sherlock of Veeva and Neel Edeling of Lundbeck

Ahead of this year's Veeva Commercial & Medical Summit Connect (November 18), Pharmaceutical Executive’s senior editor Fran Pollaro spoke with Jenna Sherlock, senior manager of commercial strategy at Veeva, and Neel Edeling, global customer engagement lead at Lundbeck, about how HCPs’ expectations for convenience, flexibility, and personalization are reshaping the industry’s approach to events.

COVID-19 saw pharma-sponsored events decline by nearly 75%, bringing a permanent change to face-to-face interactions, not just in terms of volume but also approach. While in-person events are slowly resuming, it’s clear that virtual events are still a part of biopharma’s future.

Pharm Exec: How did COVID-19 affect pharma-sponsored events?

Jenna: Events management in pharma, as with all business interactions, has drastically changed since the onset of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, events were predominantly face to face, siloed and one size fits all. Once the first lockdown started, many events simply didn’t take place. Then the trend towards digitalization accelerated. There has been a multiplication of channels over the past two years, as HCPs have enjoyed increased flexibility in how they participate in events.

Neel: Before COVID, virtual events from the sales rep perspective didn’t happen. There were marketing or medical led webinars a couple of times a year but that technology was never placed in the hands of the rep. They were never told: “you can do this if it suits you and your territory”.Now we are enabling the platforms that HCPs want to engage through - mobile, Zoom, webinars, email…

Would you say this is the end of the large, physical pharma event?

Jenna: We are seeing a return to physical events in some regions, such as APAC and the US where restrictions are more relaxed. This is where we’re seeing an emerging trend for hybrid events with more of a mix of on-site and digital.

In Europe it’s been slower to go back to face to face. Local regulations mean that some cannot get back, so virtual events are important. Market share for virtual events is expected to grow by 24% from 2021 to 2028.. It’s not just a fad that will be replaced by face to face. It’s not going to disappear, but physical events will remerge, so this hybrid model is what we expect to see more of.

What is the current feedback about events, in general?

Neel: Events used to mean sacrifice for HCPs: of their time, energy, and resources. Now, rather than trying to get everyone to travel for four hours to a venue, they can stay in their office and still listen to that content and that speaker. We must adapt to a different way of learning and consuming information. The workforce now consists of a younger generation that embraces digital.

Jenna: If you think back to events a few years ago, you’d have a one-off event and the content became a memory. Attendees had to be at a certain event, on a certain day, in a certain place. That could also mean closing their practice for a day to get to it.

Our customer data shows that over 90% of EU HCPs expect to continue or increase virtual engagements. Preferences have evolved now that people have been able to experience the convenience of digital meetings. Digital far better suits HCP schedules. Pharma companies need to be able to say: “join however you like – you won’t miss content and engagement – you can still hear this KOL speaker.”

What advancements have been made for improving audience engagements?

Neel: We have had an opportunity to innovate and push beyond expectations. We should challenge ourselves – this is a chance to look at what’s actually possible that’s never been done before - it doesn’t have to be within the usual expectations. Technology can offer a more vivid engagement online, and virtual reality could be part of the experience. We can use online space and omnichannel – meaning via a variety of platforms - to create specialized events faster.

If we think about life before mobile phones, we couldn’t imagine then how we conduct business today. So, we have to imagine the possibilities of what could be created in future.

Jenna: Improving engagement is all about recognizing the HCPs’ need for flexibility and personalization and a simple way of engaging. It’s providing HCPs with relevant and personalized engagements, that are accessible - how and where they want to engage, and with content that is relevant to them. Digital tools can help all parties find the message and consume the content.

Neel: One of the considerations for us is how we deliver a conversation that’s relevant in the right context. HCPs typically don’t have a lot of time, they have lots of work to do every day, so what’s the best way for them to receive information; what will help them make their day go better?

There are so many diseases and specialities and the goal for us all is to ensure the patient gets the right treatment. So, we have a responsibility to spread information. I have never come across a specialist or doctor that doesn’t want to hear about special patient cases from an expert or KOL in the field. Using digital channels we can have more frequent meetings, with a smaller number of attendees and we’ll see this more specialized approach increase in the future.

Where does compliance come in with virtual events and how are sales reps embracing the technology?

Neel: For events, we now have the tools like Veeva CRM Events Management to automate the more tedious side of things – compliance, governance, paperwork – not a small task. I love having that aspect taken away. Digital also enables a faster speed to market from start to finish, and transparency throughout.

It’s interesting to hear reps’ perspectives of these tools, how they find the workflow around managing the event. The field force has the connections, relationships, conversations - we can help how they have those conversations and ensure they own the relationship with specialist.

Jenna: Enabling the field force is something that had never really happened before. We can make sure reps have all the tools they need to continue doing business in this evolving environment and it’s key to ensure the sales team are informed, trained, at ease, and not threatened by technology. We must provide the sales rep with education, so they’re not overwhelmed taking on new tools, and give them a close understanding of what’s possible. We want to empower reps so they don’t feel threatened.

Neel: I agree – we must provide training, introductions to new tools, like the event management tool that we are implementing. Enabling reps to facilitate that is amazing for them - digital tools allow sales reps to get support with the HCP relationship and be there to help facilitate the KOL in certain geographies - it helps them to feel more relevant in online events.

Jenna: Lundbeck is adopting an important approach in making sure events are part of the overall engagement strategy. They can’t be happening in a silo, on the side, they have to fit within that overall customer experience planning. Otherwise trying to engage remotely through calls and events – if that’s not coordinated and part of harmonized effort – that’s where there’s risk of disconnection and fragmented experiences from the HCPs’ perspective.