Pharma’s virtual conferencing roadmap

With tightening budgets and pharma/physician relationships coming under increasing scrutiny, the resulting pressure has impacted the success of the traditional medical conferencing model. Len Starnes argues that the technology and incentives are already present to move it into the virtual arena.

Len Starnes


There can hardly be a pharma brand team on the planet that does not include medical conference participation in its annual brand plan. Participation at conferences and events is a core marketing, medical and communications activity accounting for millions of budgeted Euros annually. Hence, it is no surprise that the last three years have witnessed the pharma industry’s growing interest in virtual conferencing, particularly in the context of medical society events.

However, for the majority of pharma companies, interest has yet to translate into business-relevant strategies or initiatives. Why? I believe this is because the industry is unsure how to proceed and remains tethered by the concerns of misinformed compliance functions. In short, it needs a virtual conferencing roadmap.

Understand the business case

Like all good roadmaps, it’s wise to understand why the journey is necessary in the first place. Viewing the issue from a strategic perspective, virtual conferencing represents a crucial advance towards the digitisation of pharma companies, which, Accenture has recently estimated, could grow revenues by up to 35% and improve today’s baseline profitability by up to 61% within the next five years.

Taking one step down, the case for virtual conferencing is driven by these powerful market forces:

Brand team budget restrictions and medical society fees

Many medical societies are now demanding exorbitant fees for exhibition stands and all forms of sponsoring activities supporting their events, a phenomenon at which the pharma industry is evidently baulking. The European Society of Cardiology, for example, is currently seeking a sponsor for its 2016 annual congress mobile app. The price? €180,000, excluding VAT. This entitles the sponsor to display a single opt-in advertisement at the touch of an icon for just five days. It would take a foolhardy brand manager to attempt to estimate the ROI on such an investment.

Doctors’ evolving digital behaviours and expectations

These have been well documented and discussed over the last three years. Digitally-native doctors opt for physical conference attendance selectively; are more disinclined to travel; perceive conferences as interactive conversations and increasingly turn to online live and on-demand video for medical education.

EFPIA and PhRMA disclosure codes

These codes mandate that pharma companies publicly disclose direct and indirect ‘transfers of value’ to doctors and healthcare organisations. This means, for example, that patients can see which doctors are receiving payment from pharma companies for attending a conference. Not surprisingly some doctors have already expressed their displeasure at this prospect.

Inevitably, fewer doctors are likely to attend conferences, particularly international conferences, and fewer doctors are likely to speak at sponsored symposia. Ashfield Healthcare recently reported that 53% of specialists surveyed in 11 countries stated that the codes were increasingly restricting their ability to attend meetings.

Increasing sophistication of virtual conferencing technology

As technology improves so, too, do virtual conferencing platforms. State-of-the-art platforms can meet the demands of both doctors and pharma with live and on-demand video, real-time Q&A, audience polling options, global access from any device, and advanced metrics dashboards.

The race for multichannel dominance

Multichannel marketing is becoming the new marketing normal, driven by the belief that it is a game changer. Yet, crucially, excellence in multichannel depends on using insights on customers’ preferences and behaviours – and that includes preferences in medical education. Virtual events are set to become an essential new ‘core’ channel, indeed they may be already, as Amgen Europe demonstrated at the 2016 eyeforpharma Barcelona meeting.

Start with virtual educational events

The first step of the journey should be for pharma to gain experience and confidence staging virtual educational events, essentially creating analogous interactive environments to traditional conferences.

Some pharma and medtech companies have already made significant progress here, demonstrating the value of partnering with specialist healthcare vendors who manage therapeutically-focused platforms and who have established relationships with leading medical education institutions. These relationships are crucial if Continuing Medical Education (CME) and European Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (EACCME) accreditation are used to incentivise participation.

Pfizer’s use of PlatformQ’s CardioCareLive platform to stage a series of atrial fibrillation (AF) congresses supporting its Tikosyn new oral anticoagulants (NOAC) brand is a good example of this approach.


An AF virtual event led by the American Heart Rhythm Society in partnership with Pfizer run during an accredited AF online event from Johns Hopkins University.


Hybrid virtual-physical medical society conferences

The second step is not so straightforward given that medical societies are generally as conservative as the pharma industry itself, and deeply sceptical of new conference formats that threaten to disrupt their revenue streams. But this will change and, indeed, is changing, as societies are increasingly forced to respond to the expectations of their younger, digitally-savvy members.

Three broad options are currently open to pharma, with more likely to follow:

Independent virtual ‘highlights’ symposia

This approach aims to summarise concisely the latest data on new treatments and therapies presented at physical conferences. The emphasis here is on ‘concise’, enabling doctors, who are unwilling or unable to attend in person, to rapidly grasp clinically-relevant advances. It normally requires a team of experienced medical writers and a film crew attending the event to create rich articles and interview content.

A good example of this approach was M3’s use of its MDLinx portal and community to provide highlights from the 50th ASCO Annual Meeting to 16 European countries in four languages.


M3’s 50th ASCO Annual Meeting Highlights Symposium sponsored by a pharma, medtech and cancer charity.


Independent virtual ‘complementary’ symposia

The objective is to create a virtual symposium expanding on issues addressed at a physical conference. Access is normally provided to a global audience of HCPs immediately before, during or after the physical conference, remaining available on demand for many months thereafter.

An example of such an approach is Innovations in Hypertension Management: Renal Denervation, an international virtual conference sponsored by Medtronic and designed to complement the 2014 American College of Cardiology annual meeting. Some 2,000 doctors from 32 countries participated.

Pharma-sponsored physical sessions hosted on a medical society website

This is an emerging option. Essentially, it enables pharma to use medical society websites or community platforms to live-stream or provide on-demand access to sponsored physical conference events, such as speaker sessions or panel discussions. As such it offers pharma the benefits of additional trust and reach, but for a fee. However, some medical societies restrict these options to sponsored accredited CME programmes only.

The European Society of Cardiology is offering such options at its 2016 annual congress for €10,000 (excluding VAT) per webcast, for example.

The inexorable forces driving towards hybrid events will, I believe, force pharma and medical societies to co-develop fully compliant win-win collaboration strategies – embracing the benefits of virtual conferencing and based on new revenue models.

Reinvent the conference and events function

In parallel with this transformation, pharma will need to reinvent its traditional logistics-focused conference and events functions. These will require a new remit based on optimising and tracking virtual conferencing engagement, new job descriptions for staff with appropriate digital skills and expertise, and significantly closer cooperation with other functions such as multichannel marketing.

Get ready for change

Innovators and early adopters of virtual conferencing will assuredly benefit in the short- to mid-term. Yet, as all pharma companies strive to increase competitive advantage, coupled with the increasing speed of technological innovation, digitisation of conferences and events will inevitably become standard practice in the industry – probably sooner than we all think.




Further reading:

Virtual conferencing: a roadmap for pharma

The medical conference is dead, long live the medical conference

About the author:

Len Starnes is a Berlin-based digital healthcare consultant providing strategic and operational support to the pharma and medical technology industries, government healthcare authorities, medical societies, doctors’ social networks, management consultancies, and venture captialists. He has over 18 years’ experience of directing pharma digital operations at Bayer and Schering.

Contact him via: and follow him on Twitter: @lenstarnes

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