Still Evolving: Pharma’s New Pathway For Digital And F2F Customer Engagement

Last year – probably left with no better choice – the pharma industry, in general, had to take an unprecedented interest in digitalization of business processes. It happened faster than ever, especially in the marketing domain, along with a few others. Large research studies, across the world have vindicated this point. However, such digital transformation initiatives of last one year, is far from getting over. These are still like a work in progress. Primarily because, the extent of sudden changes in healthcare customer behavior, overall business environment and market dynamics, are still unfolding – slowly and gradually, though.

Consequently, the future drug marketing roadmap for the ongoing journey isn’t clear, just yet, especially in the area of striking a critical balance between virtual F2F (Face to Face) and in-person F2F customer engagements. Which is why, ascertaining the extent of personalization of customer contacts, customer-centric content development and their preference-based channel selection, may take more time. Accordingly, the framework of a strategic blueprint will need to be continuously updated during 2021, based on robust data.

Charting and analyzing the trend for each critical interface related to customer contacts – based on credible data, has already been initiated by renowned professional agencies. The findings of the same are also started trickling in. Some of which are on the expected line thinking, whereas a few others aren’t so expected, by many.

In this article, I shall dwell on some of these critical trends related to striking a right balance between virtual F2F and in-person F2F customer engagements for commercial excellence in 2021 and beyond. The purpose is to encourage marketers for keeping eyes on the ball, always. This is critical while formulating robust digital marketing strategies – charting a new pathway for reps’ digital empowerment – from here on. Let me start by quoting an important research study.

Digital initiatives helped staying relevant in uncertain times:

Several other research studies, including the Veeva study on ‘Industry-wide digital acceleration’, published on September 23, 2020, highlighted pharma’s digital efforts to stay relevant during a year-long uncertain times, like the last year. Even today, the industry’s digital channels, mostly related to customer engagement, like doctors and patients, are drawing similar importance of the top management.

The research underscored, healthcare sectors in emerging countries, such as India, Vietnam, Indonesia and China are increasingly relying on digital return in a post-pandemic world. Interestingly, digital engagement has now unlocked access even to those healthcare professionals who were declining F2F access to many pharma companies.

‘Slow return of in-person interactions’ – what does it mean?

While the increasing use of digital channels in customer engagement was true during last year, the recent APAC Veeva Pulse Data also shows signs of a slow return of in-person interactions. The top 5 therapeutic areas that have started to reopen include:

  • Respiratory,
  • Cancer,
  • Infection,
  • Diabetes and
  • Cardiovascular.

The study shows that F2F interactions dropped dramatically between February and April 2020 but increased back to pre-COVID numbers by July 2020. Curiously, at the same time, virtual engagements and meetings also continued to increase significantly. Thus, the question to ponder and address properly is – If in-person F2F interaction is increasing alongside digital, what would it mean for healthcare engagement while moving forward?’

Is it a signal for the hybrid customer engagement model in the future?

While doctors are realizing the benefits and ease of user-friendly digital engagement, this may not mean that virtual visits, meeting and engagements are replacing F2F in-person interactions, lock-stock and barrel.

Thus, it now needs to be established by more and larger studies, whether a customer engagement model with an optimal mix of digital and F2F in-person engagements can be more effective for better commercial outcomes, now and in the days ahead. The point that needs to be ascertained first is – what will this optimal mix be – between digital and F2F, which I reckon, will differ from company to company – mostly based on therapy areas they represent. 

F2F engagements may increase from the past year, but not as old normal:

Except initial turbulence, with incredible resilience the pharma industry navigated through the choppy environment during the pandemic, with the skillful application of digital technology. The most recent Veeva article, published on January 07, 2021 captures this point.

It articulated, with companies continue expanding digitalization to accelerate cost-efficient commercial operations and yielding greater productivity, the new operating models will reshape the industry and drive powerful transformation for years to come. It is, therefore, unlikely that the traditional ways of in-person F2F engagement with doctors, patients and other stakeholders will come back soon in its old avatar, if at all.

Increasing scope for a two-way digital engagement with pharma customers:

Veeva Pulse data also observed the initiation of pharma’s two-way digital engagement with health care customers last year and an expanded potential of the same in the current year and thereafter.

Although, virtual meetings increased more than eightfold and rep-sent digital communication by sevenfold since January 2020, these channels have primarily been used for outbound customer engagement.

This leaves some untapped opportunities to explore, by creating new inbound digital customer-engagement channels. The aim is to make it easier for doctors and patients have greater access to companies, its reps or designated individuals, for information and services that they may want. Most importantly, this has to be – as they need it – when they need it – and the way they would prefer having it. Inbound digital engagement channels will also demonstrate a greater company focus on ‘customer-centricity’.

Expanding towards inbound digital engagement for customers has started:

This shift prompts a change in the traditional mindset of pharma marketing leadership. The process will be gradual, ongoing and having a bias on contemporary customer needs. The steps to follow should preferably be initiate – evaluate – expand, while taking every significant step.

For example, as reported by Fierce Pharma on February 08, 2021, global pharma major Novartis is aiming to personalize its interactions with healthcare professionals and deliver “what they need in real time” to support their decision-making process. Novartis, reportedly, is also setting out to change the way that they are “interacting with not only physicians, but healthcare systems, and how they think about the patient journey.”

F2F shifts from ‘in-person interaction for all’ to ‘as per customer preference’: 

Be that as it may, pharma’s digital strategy requires to be craftily woven with the company’s field-strategy. Thus, the reps must be digitally well trained in delivering brand values consistently, across digital channels and platforms, as recent studies indicate.

Far from traditional F2F field sales models of in-person meetings for all doctors, the hybrid F2F model requires personalized engagement, based on customer preferences. Some customers may prefer reps to engage only through digital channels, whereas many others may like a mix of virtual and in-person engagements. With the expanding reach of digital technology for all, these preferences will keep changing with time.

Conclusion:

In 2021 and thereafter, accelerating digitization of critical pharma domains, such as marketing, is expected to reduce operational costs and boost operational efficiencies. In tandem, it will help gain deeper insight into customer behavior and market dynamics, fueled by newly acquired digital capabilities. These include, faster generation of customized data or collation of relevant and credible information collected from multiple sources, and their error-free prompt analysis. In addition, prudent application of digital technology in all selected areas by astute pharma professionals, will help reduce, if not totally eliminate, currently practiced and human error-prone, mostly repetitive manual processes.

The pan industry shift toward digital channels is here to stay and is expected to accelerate further for other strategic reasons too, such as, to add more flexibility in attaining greater efficiency and effectiveness for customer engagement. It goes without saying that factoring-in all such key success factors, companies will draw their respective current and future digital marketing strategies. That said, recent data indicate, customer engagement may call for a mix of virtual and in-person F2F engagements. The same report highlights that going back to the old normal of in-person F2F engagements for all doctors could probably be a far cry. Similarly, the initial success of e-customer engagement is unlikely to replace in-person and in-clinic F2F engagements of sales reps completely.

However, the point to note is that the industry scenario in this area is still evolving. Currently published trends indicate, different customers, like doctors, patients and hospitals, will have different preferences of engagement with drug companies, in different communication platforms. Thus, pharma’s new marketing pathway, as discussed above, will entail striking an optimal balance between digital and F2F customer engagement, which will vary from company to company based on several critical factors.

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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