Pharma: Experts’ Handholding is Pivotal in Digital Marketing Transition Phase

“Pilman – A Tapan Ray Website on Helathcare” completes 10 years, today. 

Inspired by some of my dear friends, I created this website on January 14, 2009. Since then, reasonably well-researched articles, penned by me, on various aspects of health care, and the pharma industry, appeared in this blog – on every Monday morning of every week – uninterrupted – not even once. It did not just happen, I took a vow to make it happen with the same zeal, consistency and frequency, in the first 10 years of its launch – come what may. 

During this period, I have been humbled by tens of thousands of my dear readers, from all over the world, who went through these articles –  spending their valuable time. Today, with all humility, I bow my head before each of my readers to make it happen. After Ten years – a time has now come for me to decide what next. Thank you so much, from the very core of my heart.

Talking about digital marketing in pharma is virtually a fad now. It sounds so modern, sleek and is a great attention getter, especially in the tradition bound pharma industry. Advertisements of umpteen number of training programs are spilling all over. Even those who never worked with digital marketing in pharma, or possess any basic theoretical knowledge in this technology, are jumping into the fray. Some trainers claim to impart subject knowledge in the pharma domain, while others assert facilitating quick implementation of digital marketing by pharma executives.

Thus, the question that follows, why is the sudden interest in digital marketing for pharma by such trainers? What is happening in reality after these trainings? Is one blind man trying to help another blind man in this area, or it is a competition for sheer eyeball grabbing? Some friends in the industry do say, the common thread of ‘imparting training’ of this nature on digital marketing – outside any pharma company, is possibly the intent of ‘making a quick buck, while the sun shines.’

To me, this sounds too blunt a statement, as I reckon, expression of such a view will be unfair to formally qualified digital experts with proven experience of success in the pharma domain. Some of them also offer handholding young marketing professionals, with reasonable accountability, as they gradually transition from the traditional pharma to an integrated digital marketing model. In this article, I shall focus on this area by affirming, while digital softwares, tools and their applications aren’t anything new in pharma, making an integrated digital marketing process work effectively, is indeed a new necessity in the industry.

Digital tools and applications aren’t new in pharma: 

As I said, digital tools and applications aren’t new in pharma. For example, many Indian companies have already implemented likes of ‘Enterprise resource planning (ERP)’. This is basically an integrated business process management software that enables the organization to run their business processes, including finance, accounting, supply chain, sales, manufacturing and human resources, in an integrated environment. Some companies have also introduced field-staff reporting in digital format and online. Nevertheless, digital marketing in pharma being a new necessity, let me elaborate below what is digital marketing, and what it is not.

What is digital marketing and what it is not:

As defined by The Financial Times Lexicon, digital marketing is:

  • Marketing of products or services using digital channels to reach consumers. The key objective is to promote brands through various forms of digital media.
  • Digital marketing extends beyond internet marketing to include channels that do not require the use of the internet. It includes mobile phones, social media marketing, display advertising, search engine marketing, and any other form of digital media. 

And what digital marketing is not:

  • Digital marketing is not just yet another channel for marketing It requires a new approach to marketing and a new understanding of customer behavior.  

Pharma’s transitioning to integrated digital marketing is critical:

There isn’t any doubt today that transitioning into an integrated digital marketing for pharma is critical.

The paper titled, ‘Time for Pharma to Dive into Digital – New Medicine for a New World,’ published by AT Kearney advises drug companies to act now or get left behind. The paper makes some interesting observations to drive home this point, some of which are as follows:

  • Digital is changing the way healthcare is delivered, as pharma customers transitioning fast into the digital world.
  • Effective customer engagement in cyberspace with digital tools will increase customer reach, lower costs, improve sales, and enable greater value creation.
  • Necessary technologies are readily available for digital customer management in a cost-effective way.
  • Regulation, while not fully resolved, is becoming clearer.
  • Reduced effectiveness of traditional promotional expenditure makes the transition to digital marketing both critical and timely.
  • Digital disruption has rejuvenated many businesses. It is time for pharma to do the same.

In reality, many traditional pharma companies are still apprehensive:

Digital marketing sounds great. There isn’t an iota of doubt, either, that this new ball game help achieve many business goals with precision, in the complexity of pharma sales and marketing. When conceptualized and implemented creatively with hands-on involvement of both digital and pharma domain experts, its benefits could be exponential, instead of being incremental. All strategic business communication can be accurately targeted and delivered to precise stakeholders for better, faster and quality engagement, yielding desired outcomes.

Nevertheless, the reality is, as I sense through my direct interaction with pharma friends, many of them are still apprehensive of imbibing an integrated digital marketing, going whole hog. They carry ‘a fear of failure’, if… the initiative doesn’t work, for various reasons. Moreover, any possibility that they may even lose what they currently have for such disruptive measures, makes them quite edgy, as well.

Is the apprehension totally unfounded?

As I fathom, the answer is no. They have a genuine reason to think so, because they carry the can and prefer to avoid any kind of possible risk in the performance of their respective business. They may not be totally happy with the traditional model with decline productivity. But are not also willing to make any unfamiliar drastic change by replacing the traditional marketing model by a cohesive digital one, spanning across the organization.

Nether, do they want to take any such decisions where the requirement of employee competency for success will call for a drastic overhaul, which is understandable. Be that as it may, their feelings and the associated views can’t be brushed aside, either, – as they have been at the helm of pharma business with envious track records, since long.

Precise process, timing and the end-goal of digital marketing needs clarity: 

Interestingly, they all understand and agree that the transition from traditional to digital pharma marketing is inevitable. But they are not very sure about when should this transition commence for the India pharma business. Also, what are the sequential steps for the organization to move in this direction with least risk and chaos.

Many of them are also not quite clear of the end-goal of this process, which I think should go beyond offering just good drugs with unique features and benefits, to creating a unique full-service patient experience, with cutting-edge and ethical sales and marketing practices.

When to commence and where to start?

The following two pertinent questions that often arise need to be deliberated before a digital marketing initiative is undertaken by a pharma company:

  • When does a company to commence digital marketing?
  • Where to start with minimal risk exposure?

When to commence it?

Now – is the obvious answer. This is because, as I wrote in my article of June 11, with increasing number of pharma stakeholders using and interacting in the digital space, ‘consumerism’ is fast becoming a strong prime mover, even in the pharma industry. In tandem, patients’ longing for better participative treatment experience, at affordable cost, is turning into a major disruptive force in the healthcare space.Pharma players in the country, require to be on the same page, soon, to deliver sustainable results, before it’s too late.

Where does the transition from traditional to digital marketing start?

The answer will depend on marketing practices followed in a particular company, which digital experts will study and come out with an organization-specific action plan. Whosoever is the initiator of the project, the company CEO should be the final decision maker, with his total involvement in the project, for multiple reasons.

However, in my view, for those who are risk averse, it will be prudent to demonstrate that important marketing strategy when executed on integrated digital platforms, pay handsome dividend. Thus, I reckon, instead of replacing all traditional practices with a totally new and harmonized digital model, in one go, it may be better to add new marketing activities on digital platforms – having the potential to add significant value to the business, for example:

  • Capture and analyze useful information from various sources and functions within the organization, as inputs for marketing strategy formulation, by using state of the art digital tools and analytics.
  • Select those areas of sales and marketing where switching over to digital mode will add speed to the operation and the decision-making process. In any case there should be a parallel run of the traditional process and the digital one, for a pre-fixed time frame, to tighten the loose knots, if any.
  • Trying out social media under expert guidance. When used in innovative ways, it helps immensely to actively engage with targeted stakeholders, including patients, for getting a positive digital ‘word of mouth,’ besides important feedbacks.
  • Using mobile-friendly, well-targeted emails or text messages with useful, well-researched content eliciting response, either as feedbacks on selected business activities or on any other area useful for the business operation.

When ready for digital transformation across all functions of the organization, the CEO should solicit help of well-qualified professional digital experts, preferably from within the organization. If adequate resources are not available internally, experts in digital technology with a proven track record of success may be engaged from outside, equipped with high-quality pharma domain knowledge.

Conclusion:

As I said, digital interventions are not new in pharma. However, a well-harmonized digital marketing is. There could be many starting points for the transition from traditional to digital marketing. However, I reckon, low-risk initiatives to this direction – having the potential to add significant value to the business, would be prudent to start with.

Thereafter, the new and robust digital marketing platform – well-coordinated with all functions, need to necessarily undergo parallel pilot runs. The objective is to resolve the glitches in the new digital system, if any, minimizing business risks. The awareness and the need of digital marketing should preferably generate and be felt from within the organization. The trigger factor may be many, including the professional digital experts recently recruited or the CEO himself, who will decide how to cascade it down the line for effective implementation.

The name of the game is making the concept of digital marketing work effectively in the marketplace – separating the men from the boys, in the midst of cut-throat competition within the pharma industry. To take this giant leap, mere lip-services of external general advisors won’t be enough, and may not work, at all. This process requires a new approach to drug marketing digitally, involving a thorough understanding of patients’ and other stakeholders’ behavior. More importantly, in the transition phase of its implementation, handholding by high quality professional digital experts, ably supported by pharma domain experts, is pivotal for success.

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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