Multi-channel Engagement: A New Normal In Pharma Marketing

The 2015 Report of AffinityMonitor reconfirms that access to important doctors for pharma Medical Representatives (MRs) continues to decline. Now, fewer than half of all doctors are truly accessible to the MRs, down from nearly 80 percent in 2008. In other words, though MRs continue to be the best way to engage the average physician, this “best way” is steadily getting worse.

However, for physician engagement, all digital channels put together to rank the second highest. These include both digital “push”, such as, email or alerts sent to a physician’s smart phone – followed by telemarketing, direct mail; and digital “pull”, such as content that doctors can access on their own from the Internet, and peer interactions, like webinars.

With the new digital channels emerging, pharma companies will have a wider range of promotional and engagement channels to reach out to not just the doctors, but also other important stakeholders. Additionally, various non-personal marketing channels could also help pharma companies overcome the declining trend of restricted access to physicians for MR.

No single channel works for all physicians:

Although, no single channel works for all physicians, as each doctor has a unique preference for how he or she wants to receive information across various channels, most doctors will engage with pharma players in some way. The findings of this report are based on data compiled from more than 100 pharma brands, including engagements with 632,000 physicians across a wide range of specialty areas, and more than 123 million individual physician interactions.

The report suggests that by understanding those channels on a physician level, and targeting their marketing and promotion accordingly, pharma companies can hone the effectiveness of each physician engagement, and thereby improve sales and marketing productivity considerably, for excellence in business.

Similar trend in India with varying degree of difficulty:

Similar trend, though with varying degree of difficulty, can be noticed in India, as well. Over the past several years, many top pharma companies have been already experiencing the steadily declining quality of access of pharma MRs to many important doctors.

This is primarily due to the number of patients coming to these busy practitioners is fast increasing, and as the doctors are trying to see all these patients within the same limited time that was available to them, as in the earlier days. In tandem, their other obligations of various kinds, personal or otherwise, are also overcrowding the same highly squeezed time space.

Thus, an increasing number of MRs, which has more than doubled in the past decade, is now fiercely competing to get a share of lesser and lesser available time of the busy medical practitioners. Added to this, a gross mismatch between the inflow of doctors with similar prescription potential and ever increasing inflow of patients, is making the situation worse.

Reevaluating traditional marketing and sales communication models:

In this complex scenario, the key challenge before the pharma players is how to make sales communication with the busy medical practitioners more productive?

Consequently, many pharma companies, across the globe, have started reevaluating their traditional sales communication models, which are becoming increasingly expensive with diminishing returns from the MR calls.

As I discussed in some other article, a few drug companies have commenced using various interesting multi-channel digital platforms, though mostly fall under the traditional pharma sales communication process.

I shall now briefly glance over the trend of responses of the Indian pharma companies over a couple decades, to meet these challenges of change.

MR based Experimentations:

With a strong intent to squarely overcome this challenge, many Indian pharma players initially tried to experiment with several different MR based approaches, in various permutations and combinations. It was initially directed to make the prescription generation process more productive, by equipping the MR with a wide range of soft skills.

Some pharma players also tried to push up the overall sales productivity through additional rural market coverage to Tier IV cities and below. Quite a few of them succeeded in their endeavor to create profitable business models around the needs of hinterland and rural geographies.

These pharma players, though quickly realized that extra-urban geographies require different tactical approaches, broadly remained stuck to the traditional marketing and sales communication models. These approaches include, differentiated product portfolio, distribution-mix, pricing/packaging and promotional tools, considering most the doctors are not as busy as their counterparts in the metro cities and large towns.

Strategic marketing based experimentations:

Several changes were also made in the strategic marketing areas of pharma business, though most of these, if not all, were imbibed from the global marketing practices of that time. These were well captured in an IMS report of 2012. Some of these strategic marketing shifts were as follows:

  • Strategic Business Unit Structure (SBU): To bring more accountability, manage evolving business needs and use the equity of organization for reaching to the middle of the accessible pyramid.
  • Therapy Focus Promotion: Generally seen where a portfolio is specialized, therapy focused, and scripts are driven through chosen few doctors; generally, in chronic segment.
  • Channel Management: Mostly adopted in OTC /OTX business; mature products with wider portfolio width.
  • Hospital Task Force: Exclusively to manage the hospital business.
  • Specialty Driven Sales Model: Applicable in scenarios where portfolio is built around 2 or 3 specialties.
  • Special Task Force: Generally adopted for niche products in urban areas, such as fertility clinics or for new launches where the focus is on select top rung physicians only.
  • Outsourced Sales Force: Generally used for expansion in extra-urban geographies or with companies for whom medico marketing is secondary (such as OTC or Consumer Healthcare companies).

Pharma MNCs did more:

In addition, to increase sales revenue further, many pharma MNCs engaged themselves in co-promotion of their patented products with large local or global pharma companies operating in India, besides out-licensing. A few of them pushed further ahead by adopting newer innovative promotional models like, Patient Activation Teams, Therapy Specialists, or creating patient awareness through mass media.

Realizing quickly that patients are increasingly becoming important stakeholders in the business, some of the pharma MNCs started engaging them by extending disease management services, along with a clever mix of well-differentiated tangible and intangible product related value offerings, such as, Counseling, Starter kits, Diagnostic tests, Medical insurance, Emergency help, Physiotherapy sessions, and Call centers for chronic disease management, to name a few. Concerned doctors used to be reported about the status of the patients, who were not required to pay anything extra for availing these services from the MNC pharma companies.

Nevertheless, despite all these, declining productivity of the traditional pharma sales communication models continued, predominantly from the extremely busy and very high value medical practitioners/experts/specialists, as mentioned above.

The critical point that remained unaddressed:

At that time, pharma sales communication kept focusing on customer/market types and characteristics. Most companies missed the emerging order of unique customer preferences towards the medium of sales communication, and differentiated message requirements for each doctor. Not many pharma players could probably realize that MR’s quality of access to doctors for productive sales communication would emerge as one of the most critical issues, and become increasingly complex.

Leveraging technology for an effective response:

Amid all these experimentations with pharma sales and marketing models, a few companies did ponder over leveraging technology to chart a novel pathway for effectively addressing this emerging challenge. They tried to ascertain:

  • Whether the traditional sales approach would continue to be as relevant as opposed to digitally customized sales applications?
  • Whether MRs would continue to remain as relevant in all areas of pharma prescription generation process, in the years ahead?

First major venture in e-marketing:

Towards this direction, in 2013, Pfizer reportedly started using digital drug representatives to market medicines, leaving the decision in doctors’ hands as to whether they would want to see them.

Prior to that, in 2011, a paper published in the WSJ titled, “Drug Makers Replace Reps With Digital Tools” stated that pharmaceutical companies in the United States are downsizing their sales force with increasing usage of iPad applications and other digital tools for interacting with doctors.

Lot many other fascinating experimentations with pharma e-marketing have now commenced in several places of the world, many with considerable initial success. However, most of these efforts seem to be swinging from one end of ‘face-to-face’ sales communication with doctors, to the other end of ‘cyber space driven’ need-based product value sharing with customers through digital tool kits.

Blending the right communication-mix is critical:

Coming back to the AffinityMonitor 2015 Research Report, today pharmaceutical and biotech companies have at their disposal more than a dozen of promotional channels to include in their strategy, spanning across, from traditional methods to digital ones.

Some physicians still want to interact with MRs, others restrict MR detailing, as they prefer to get the required information from various credible websites, directly, and from their peers. One doctor may prefer to regularly use a mobile application for product information, while another similar physician may rarely wish to surf the Web for information to achieve the same purpose. Some others may simply not engage with any sales communication no matter what the channels are. Although overall accessibility to MRs is getting more restricted, some doctors are still more accessible than others, the report finds.

Segmenting doctors by their accessibility to personal promotion, such as, MRs and by non-personal promotion like other channels, including digital, allows pharma companies to identify potential gaps in their marketing approach.

For example, of the 54 percent of doctors who are less accessible to MRs, 15 percent show good accessibility to other channels. In other words, those doctors haven’t closed the door for good, just yet. Pharma companies can still reach them, provided they use the right approach, the report suggests. Drug companies would, therefore, require gathering specific information doctor-wise, and customizing both the medium and the message for effective brand value delivery, accordingly.

Sales and marketing avalanche too isn’t working:

This study revealed that a pharma company’s top 100 doctors receive as high as 423 contacts a year, and the top 10 doctors receive more than 600 each year. Given such volume, it’s easy to imagine how doctors can start to get buried under an avalanche of sales and marketing. It’s also easy to see how even the right message, in the right channel, to the right doctor, could get lost in all the noise, and may even create a bad customer experience for many physicians, the report concludes.


The decline in pharma MR’s quality of access to physicians for brand communication is now well documented. Moreover, ‘one size fits all’ type of message, delivered even by the best of MRs, is unlikely to be productive in the changing macro environment.

Therefore, the right knowledge of whether a doctor would prefer to engage through traditional marketing and sales communication methods by meeting with an MR, or would just prefer to get his/her required information through any digital medium, is critical for success in the new ball game. This in turn will help generate the desired level of prescription support for any pharma brand.

Still, a majority the doctors’ choices in India would, possibly, involve MRs, while a good number of other important doctors’ choices may probably be independent of them. Nevertheless, from this emerging trend, it’s clear now that multi-channel engagement would be a new normal in pharma sales and marketing, sooner than later.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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