Digital channels are key to success in tough economic climate

As pharma marketing budgets come under increased scrutiny, Dr Tim Ringrose highlights the benefits of digital channels to pharma in communicating with its target audience.

We are now firmly in the age of digital media; doctors like other consumers rely heavily on digital sources of information for professional news, views and information, and some argue that they have, in fact, become more important than traditional sources such as printed journals, conferences and sales representatives.

As the face-to-face pharma sales model grows increasingly unsustainable for many brands, other than for a small number of high prescribers and key decision makers or influencers, pharma cannot continue to work in the way that it has done for decades. Instead, it must embrace the digital age and find new ways to engage with its target audience via the online channels that they are using.

While doctors have clearly embraced the internet, capitalising on digital channels requires a quantum leap for many companies in the pharma industry, which currently spends only six per cent of its marketing budgets on digital, according to Cegedem Strategic Data, and continues to devote most of this budget to brand.com websites.

“While doctors have clearly embraced the internet, capitalising on digital channels requires a quantum leap for many companies in the pharma industry…”

Research suggests that this reticence is due to a lack of strategy, a lack of conviction about the value of digital, and anxiety about regulation and compliance. Credibility is also a problem, with data suggesting that only three per cent of doctors think online pharma company resources are credible and 42% saying they never visit their websites.

Overcoming these digital hurdles will not only stand pharma in good stead for the economic challenges that lie ahead in 2014 and beyond, it will also enable it to capitalise on new opportunities. Such opportunities include the growing interest and investment in key therapy areas, such as oncology and diabetes, where many pharma companies are looking to carve out a niche for themselves alongside established players.

Providing target doctors with timely, tailored, digital information and educational resources prior to a product launch can be a particularly effective way of helping newcomers to establish credibility in the disease or therapy area and then continue to engage with doctors throughout the product lifecycle. It also lends weight to established brands.

The immediacy of digital channels can also make pharma companies fleet of foot which is of particular importance in the fast growing area of orphan drugs, where excitement about their potential means that traditional barriers to market are beginning to dissolve. Indeed, some companies with orphan drugs are now finding it hard to keep up with the speed at which new licences can be granted. The knock on effect is that pharma companies may have less time to get their sales and marketing programmes in place. Digital channels can help them overcome this problem since they enable them to reach the target audience quickly and precisely, and in a very measurable way.

“So what do doctors want from pharma and how can it fulfil their needs online?”

So what do doctors want from pharma and how can it fulfil their needs online? Evidence suggests that while many doctors would like to access the wealth of information and scientific data that pharma companies hold, they often find it hard to do so because pharma tends to promote itself rather than share its expertise and data. Furthermore, doctors prefer to source medical information via independent sources hence they rely heavily on peer reviewed journals, independent online networks and government websites.

One of the key reasons they use these online resources is to keep abreast of the latest news and developments in disease and therapy areas. Conferences or congresses are a key part of this, but many doctors struggle to find the time to attend them all. Since doctors frequently rely on the internet to help them catch up in real time or post-event, there is a golden opportunity for pharma to engage with them in a timely and relevant way by sponsoring conference highlights.

Doctors are, of course, obliged to complete CME as part of their medical training and many choose to do this online. There is a clear role for pharma to support them in this area by, for example, providing clinical paper summaries, case-studies or educational self-assessment activities.

“…pharma marketers need to obtain a deep understanding of the type of information that doctors need…”

Contrary to popular belief, doctors do want information about new products and services. However, all they really want is to know whether these products are better, safer and/or cheaper, and they can ultimately see through marketing spin. Pharma can help by providing doctors with short snippets of information rather than promotional and lengthy e-details.

Ultimately, pharma marketers need to obtain a deep understanding of the type of information that doctors need and then marry those insights with information that they can provide that also meets their commercial objectives, either directly or through relationship building activities. By delivering much of this information through independent, online channels that doctors regularly use and highly trust, pharma can really begin to capitalise on the opportunities afforded by the digital age.

pharmaphorum-google-plus

About the author:

Dr Tim Ringrose is CEO, M3 Europe. He trained in nephrology and intensive care in Oxford before joining Doctors.net.uk in 2000. Tim has led the development of services provided to doctors and has had considerable experience working with a wide variety of healthcare clients to deliver market research, targeted online communications and educational programmes to doctors.

Closing thought: What do doctors want from pharma and how can it fulfil their needs online?