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Sign of the Times

It’s been quite a year, to say the least, and this has been especially true for the pharmaceutical industry where marketers have had to reinvent themselves almost overnight in order to adapt to the new virtual environment they (and the rest of the world) have been forced by COVID-19 to make their primary mode of communication with their customers. However, much of that adaptation was long overdue. Now that pharma’s digital moment has arrived, let’s look at five things we know about digital pharma marketing as it stands today.

  1. Crisis is an engine for innovation. Change is hard. Especially when the prevailing thinking across the industry has been “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” For years, while other industries were pivoting to digital marketing, most of pharma relied almost exclusively on face-to-face interaction with sales reps, in-person advisory boards, conventions, annual meetings, grand rounds, etc to deliver their crucial messages. Since the emergence of social media and other crucial digital channels, pharma has been content to merely get its toes wet. When COVID-19 hit, pharma had to take the plunge. It seems to have gone well. A recent survey from Accenture found that “82% of HCPs have seen pharma companies change what they communicate about, to include support that meets their most pressing needs1.”
  2. Content has been democratized. HCPs are now in the driver’s seat of their content journey. With social media and other platforms, HCPs now have the forums to have whatever discussion about a drug they prefer, and they will likely value that peer-to-peer conversation more than any carefully crafted marketing message. This is part of a larger trend in (and outside) the healthcare landscape towards platforms that equalize the historical power and influence imbalance between individual HCPs and the larger institutions (drug companies, medical schools, medical journals) in which they participate. For example, an individual doctor by gaining enough followers and sending the right messages could theoretically wield as much power and influence on a social media platform as say, an Ivy League medical school.
  3. We need to ride the wave. Content democratization also means that while individual HCPs have gained more power and influence than they used to have, it is the entire network itself that drives the conversation. As pharma marketers, we need to know what doctors are talking about on social platforms (especially Doximity, SERMO, and Figure1) and join the conversation, rather than seeking to drive the conversation ourselves. We need to think of ourselves as creators of high-quality content rather than salespeople. Additionally, we need to partner with HCPs to create native content for these platforms that enhances the conversation, creating real value.
  4. Innovation is more than a shiny new toy. From virtual reality to mixed reality to holograms to interactive smartphone apps, the last decade or so has seen an emergence of truly stunning technology. While technological innovation is still moving ahead, most of these truly groundbreaking technologies have become normative—it’s hard to amaze people with technology alone these days. Instead, we need to focus on innovative approaches to storytelling and design.
  5. Storytelling is still king. No matter how it's told, nothing beats a good story. We think in terms of stories, we communicate with each other using stories, and every culture across the world is comprised of stories handed down across generations. Stories strike at the heart of our humanity. For us in pharma marketing, the stories are already there—with the disease state as the villain and the therapy as the hero—we just have to tell them. Additionally, we need to tell our customers’ stories with authenticity, demonstrating the value they bring.

The new normal in pharma marketing can be described thus: the didactic is now interactive, the guided is now self-guided, the scheduled is now on-demand, and most in-person interactions are becoming virtual. In order to achieve and sustain our audience’s attention, we in pharma marketing need to continue adapting to this new paradigm. We can do this by creating authentic and deeply engaging content—incredible stories that demonstrate the immense value of our customers’ products.


  1. https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insights/life-sciences/coronavirus-changing-pharma-hcp-engagement

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