Why ‘Digital’ is still a top priority for pharma

Kay Wesley explores why digital is still so important to the pharma industry.

Many pharmaceutical companies are changing their marketing model. At varying speeds they are focusing on placing patient outcomes at the centre of their strategy, and healthcare professional engagement as the core objective in order to achieve those outcomes.

We don’t ‘sell product features’ nowadays, we don’t focus on pushing out logical facts and clinical data, we’ve recognised that to engage real people you have to focus on their real needs. You must articulate what your product is going to do to address those needs in a relevant and engaging way. You must make an emotional impact. (‘People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel’ Maya Angelou).

It is an interesting but perhaps now academic debate whether the empowerment of health stakeholders via digital channels, giving them a voice, forced the industry into this customer-centric mode of thinking, or whether the industry would have eventually got there anyway as others have done before it. Consider, for example, the transformation of the car industry from 1970s sales-focus to the insight-driven emotive brand marketing of today.

Generally speaking, this focus on the needs of patients and their health professionals must be a good thing. However, there is one component of this that is a little worrying, and that is the assertion I often hear that ‘it is not about digital any more’ it is about ‘multichannel’ or ‘channel agnostic’ marketing. We don’t need digital training, brand leaders tell me, we just need to ensure we’re focused on the customer. Another popular comment is that digital is just ‘a channel’ or ‘a tactic’, not a strategy.

“Most of the execution in digital channels coming out of this industry is poor to mediocre.”

Indeed I too am somewhat guilty of compounding the issue, having blogged about ‘Why your brand doesn’t need a digital strategy’.

‘Digital’ is feeling a bit ‘last year’ and pharma marketers, ever keen to innovate, are eschewing things with the ‘digital’ label and focusing on ‘engagement’, ‘social media’ , ‘mHealth’ and other more fashionable terms (even though SM and mHealth are themselves subsets of ‘digital’).

However, this is missing three fundamentally important points:

1. ‘Digital’ is a revolution, not a channel

2. We (pharma) are not yet experts

3. Your organisation DOES need a digital strategy


 Digital is a revolution, not a channel

Calling ‘digital’ a ‘channel’ is like calling The Industrial Revolution a ‘tool’. Like Western Europe in the 18th century, we are going through a social, economic and behavioural revolution brought about entirely by digital communications. The world is transforming (has transformed) around us. Governments are implementing ‘digital first’ strategies to engage in these channels wherever possible.

The concept of ‘shopping’ has changed beyond recognition. Banks, airlines, stockbrokers, recruiters and many others conduct 90% of their business in real time and without paper. The idea of scarcity of goods is a thing of the past. We have an endless choice of everything, everywhere, all the time, as Chris Anderson’s Long Tail philosophy articulates. Markets have fundamentally changed as a result. ‘Middle men’ are getting scarcer or having to re-invent themselves as service providers to support new direct-to-consumer models. Access to content of all kinds is constantly changing in form, media and device.

So for our industry, bolting digital on as a ‘channel’ is entirely missing the point. It requires a new set of tools, skills, processes and most of all a different mindset in order to transform our businesses for the digital economy.

We are not yet experts

The idea that ‘we’ve moved beyond digital to multichannel’ implies that we have mastered ‘digital’. Far from it. Most of the execution in digital channels coming out of this industry is poor to mediocre. If we find a ‘good’ example we trumpet it at international conferences and blog about it, as a rare occurrence.

I sometimes liken our communications to a three-legged stool, in that there are three major tactical areas. First the traditional sales rep relationship – we are generally pretty good at this but the opportunities are decreasing. Second, the scientific or promotional meeting. Again, we know how to do these, again, attendance is declining. Third, the many opportunities for digital interactions. This ‘leg’ of the stool is still too short, therefore the whole thing is disturbingly wobbly.

In other words, how can we do proper multichannel planning if our organisation is woefully lacking in capability in one third of the channel mix?

“This transformation is vital in order for your organisation to survive and flourish in the post-Digital-Revolution world.”

We must build capability – this means skills, processes, platforms – in digital channels. We must make the ‘third leg’ complete, only then will we have a solid platform from which to embrace multichannel planning.

Your organisation needs a digital strategy

This capability building is not just a question of training, although training is an important part and needs to be end-to-end, including your most senior leadership as well as medical, IT, sales and marketing functions.

Your digital strategy must be a roadmap for organisational change. Think about the differences in behaviour, tools, organisation and skills needed for the post-digital company:


This is a massive organisational transformation. You need to answer some very tough questions about how to organise, who to hire (and fire), what partners to use, how to remove roadblocks (including in senior management), how to build expertise quickly, how to reward people, how to change mindset and behaviour.

This transformation is vital in order for your organisation to survive and flourish in the post-Digital-Revolution world. You need a roadmap, you need an enterprise-wide strategy, and yes, it is still very much all about Digital.



About the author:

Kay Wesley is a digital and marketing expert considered to be a thought-leader in multichannel pharma. Kay was Global eMarketing Director of AstraZeneca for five years and now runs Kanga Health, an agency helping pharmaceutical companies with digital transformation and implementation.

With extensive cross-industry digital experience Kay has developed multichannel strategies in oncology, gastroenterology, respiratory, cardiovascular, neuroscience, diabetes and urology, has created a global pharma’s marketing communications excellence methodology and worked with several top pharmaceutical companies on embedding digital across brands and geographies.

Is your organisation transforming to flourish in the post-digital-revolution world?