A digital pharma day: innovation comes to town

Paul Tunnah


Last week I found myself attending not one, but two digital pharma events, which provided an excellent opportunity to check the pulse of the industry when it comes to online engagement.

The annual DigiPharm conference, organised by Health Network Communications, has become one of the key European networking events on the digital pharma conference circuit. I only managed to make it for the second full day of the event, but it gave a good flavour of what’s going on around the world. In contrast, the UK PM Society’s annual Digital Media Awards is a slightly more locally focussed event, but always provides excellent insight into who’s winning the creative battle when it comes to the best online innovation. Given it kicks off in the early evening with a drinks reception it’s also a slightly more alcoholic affair!

DigiPharm has faced the same accusations as many regular events with some suggesting that it presents the same old faces year after year, with little new commentary to provide. However, my experience this year suggests this is very firmly not the case. True – there are some regular speakers who you’re likely to have seen before at the event (and indeed at other events), but this is because they’re the key individuals driving innovation in this space and always worth listening to.

“…this year there were some highlights hinting at genuine change happening in the pharma industry.”

Sadly I don’t have the space to cover every presentation so don’t be offended if I don’t mention yours – the truth is that all the presentations were informative and presented a broad variety of different perspectives.

But this year there were some highlights hinting at genuine change happening in the pharma industry. Silja Chouquet did an excellent job of driving home the message of patients, patients, patients by showing some snippets of her epatient interview series. Many of the interviewees are familiar names to those using Twitter, but how many people in pharma can genuinely say they’ve taken the time to engage with them? The audience was interested, if a little uncertain about how regulators might react to closer patient contact. The key message – regulations shouldn’t stop pharma talking to epatients and it’s good on both sides if they do, just don’t promote to them.

A full house at DigiPharm Europe 2011

Paul Wicks, from PatientsLikeMe, presented an interesting perspective on how online patient communities can go far beyond being support groups and actually be powerful research tools to shape disease understanding, whilst Andrew Widger described how Pfizer is using a coordinated multi-channel approach to engage with HCPs and patients, producing central content for use by affiliates as appropriate. Len Starnes also did an excellent job of taking us outside our comfort zone and into the realm of physicians online, highlighting the impressive growth of doctor communities not just within the US and Europe but also in the emerging markets. Care to engage with 2m doctors sitting within a Chinese online community? It’s out there right now and growing fast.

But on day two it was John Pugh that stole the show for me, not just by using a snazzy dynamic presentation that made you wonder where the next “slide” was coming from, but also for the sheer creativity and innovation around the new game that Boehringer is launching. Syrum bears much resemblance to Farmville, but puts the player in the role of the drug developer – from understanding new compounds and researching them right through to commercialisation. However, John was keen to point out that Boehringer is not looking to make money directly from Syrum, even though it’s been designed like many of the commercial games.

“Syrum bears much resemblance to Farmville, but puts the player in the role of the drug developer…”

So why do it? Well, John summed it up pretty well when he declared that the 8,500 followers that Boehringer has on Facebook, or even the 20,000 following Pfizer, simply isn’t good enough. Compare that to more consumer focussed industries that have hundreds of thousands of followers and he has a point. Surely better education around the role of pharma will lead to better engagement with patients to everyone’s benefit? Maybe the clever use of gamification through Syrum could be a turning point here – watch this space.

And so onto the PM Society awards in the evening, with a chilled glass of champagne on arrival being just the tonic for a warm day in London more reminiscent of mid-Summer than late September. The digital awards are into their third year now and have already proved a real showcase for talented creativity within pharma media. With well over 400 in attendance this year at the Brewery in East London it was a full house and it wasn’t long before the awards were underway after an excellent three course dinner.

This year’s presenter was comedian Hugh Dennis, most well-known for his recent work on Mock the Week and Outnumbered. His natural comic delivery got everyone warmed up nicely, but it was intriguing to hear of his background as a marketer at Unilever, so he clearly had a good understanding of the audience. The only disappointment was that he didn’t do his trademark “walk like a raptor” piece from Mock the Week on stage – something which, when I tweeted this the next day, led to an amusing exchange with the show’s Twitter channel!

Hugh Dennis warms up the audience at the PM Society Digital Media Awards 2011

Innovation and creativity was to be found in abundance during the award presentations, with many categories being hotly contested and too many recommendations to mention. But overall, Creative Lynx walked away with top honours, winning five of the eleven company awards, thereby continuing a winning streak from previous years. On the pharma side Alex Butler from Janssen must have been pleased to see his Psoriasis 360 creation walk away with a hat-trick of wins, a fitting end to his career with the company as he moves to work on the service side.

In full, the winners were:

Representative led digital selling tool: Creative Lynx for Janssen (Shaping Futures, Enabling Lives)

Self-directed digital selling tool: eBee/Hive for Gilead (VIREAD Virtual Consultation Application)

Digital patient communications programme: Creative Lynx for Janssen (Psoriasis 360 Social Media Campaign)

Digital tools for use in a clinical setting: Nitro Digital for Sanofi &amp, Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust (Stop the Clot Tool)

Healthcare professional educational programme: Creative Lynx/Doctors.net.uk for Janssen (Psoriasis eLearning Programme)

HCP website: Doctors.net.uk for Nutricia (Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy (CMPA) Microsite)

Internal communications: Creative Lynx for Astra Zeneca (Closed-Loop Marketing Application)

Digital solution for congress / symposium: Litmus MME/The Technology Studio for Pfizer (iQ Science)

Integrated campaign: Creative Lynx for Janssen (Psoriasis 360 Social Media Campaign)

Craft Award – Film and animation: ebee/Hive for GlaxoSmithKline (alli Visceral Fat Animation)

Craft Award – Innovation: Torre Lazur McCann for Janssen (Shaping a future video)

Digital Project / Account Manager: Gemma Tinsdale from eBee

So with congratulations to all finalists and winners the awards were over and the party truly began in earnest. No doubt there were a few sore heads the next morning!

“…it’s good to see the fear of failure being pushed to one side in the pursuit of at least #failbetter…”

So, my key reflections on the day were that DigiPharm shows signs that there is real innovation going on in the pharma space when it comes to digital engagement. The realisation that “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got” is clearly kicking people into action as they realise that the current situation (especially when it comes to pharma’s PR) is simply not good enough. As for the PM Digital Media Awards, talented agency creativity is clearly in abundance, which will no doubt deliver real, meaningful results when harnessed with the right innovators within pharma.

For sure, some people won’t agree with all the new initiatives and they won’t all work as well as their drivers would like. But that’s not the point – it’s good to see the fear of failure being pushed to one side in the pursuit of at least #failbetter, meaning that even if it doesn’t work out it provides a valuable lesson and moves the industry forwards.

But I’m sure at least some of these innovative efforts will work extremely well, so don’t be surprised if you see some of this year’s DigiPharm innovators appearing on the stage at next year’s PM Digital Media Awards.

About the author:

Paul Tunnah is Founder and Managing Director of www.pharmaphorum.com, the dynamic online information and discussion portal for the pharmaceutical industry featuring news, articles, events / company listings and online discussion. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

For more details of events by Health Network Communications please visit www.healthnetworkcommunications.com.

For more details of the PM Society please visit www.pmsociety.org.

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