Making the transition to digital-first commercial operations remains a work-in-progress for most pharma companies. It’s a technology, talent, content and skills challenge all at the same time.
And the challenge is urgent. The COVID-driven change has been so complete that the digital approach pharma was taking even a year or two ago is now redundant, says Mo Fors, Head of Global Commercial Digital innovation at Spanish based biopharmaceutical company Almirall.
“A transformation is happening around us,” he says, “We in the pharmaceutical industry can no longer act like ostriches. Digital is no longer a fancy add-on, it’s an integral part of everything we do.”
To overcome the absence of face-to-face meetings with HCPs in 2020, Almirall pulled out all the stops and quickly built a digital platform. Called the AlmirallMed Cloud, it has three key functions: AlmirallMed Live that hosts webinars, one-to-one video conferences and big group meetings; AlmirallMed Library which contains educational content and research, latest news and media and newly released books; and AlmirallMed Play where physicians can search video content on demand.
“The objective,” says Fors, “is to be with the physician anytime, anywhere and we already have thousands of HCPs accessing it.”
Content is king
And he adds that the onus now is investing in content that adds clinical value, as opposed to overtly commercial marketing type material. “This is one of the big challenges with virtual interaction. Content is king and if you can manage to put updated, high-quality, neutral content on your platform you are a winner because there is value there for the physician.”
The new content model involves a much more collaborative approach in which its consumers may also play a part in creating it or at least adapting it much like the wider world of digital content in which anyone can take, clip content from one source, add to it and make it their own, perhaps for sharing with peers or patients.
“Will your customer be a content creator as well? Will influencers partner with you? Ultimately we would like to see physicians starting to create their own content and share it on our platform,” says Fors.
“We need to create a community where everyone is interacting with the company – physicians, internal teams and you as a marketeer – to create a custom content experience that makes sense for each individual, because everyone needs something different. The mass content production approach, such as mass e-detailing does not work anymore.”
But creating custom content at scale does not mean having to start from scratch or invent new platforms, he adds. “Recycle. Make sure you reuse what is available. Use existing platforms like YouTube or Vimeo. Take what others have and recycle it for your needs. You can also leverage the same information set in multiple different forms: infographics, mini video pills, interviews, articles, etcetera.”
Pilot plenty, fail fast
Responding to the pressing demands in digital today also requires a new attitude towards agile innovation. Piloting on a mass scale is the way to go here, says Fors. “Keep pursuing tons of ideas in parallel. Many will fail. You need to pilot a lot and not be ashamed to kill a product. Test it and if it doesn’t work kill it. By piloting as much as possible you will find what works and what works in some territories, won’t in others.
Emerging technologies may also be able to help build new engagement capabilities and capacity at scale in digital, says Kite’s associate director of global medical affairs, oncology and cell therapy, John Wahba.
VR and AR technologies are likely to be part of the solution to adding new capacity and capabilities. A sci-fi sounding example is technology currently being developed by Microsoft could facilitate richer remote engagement.
A sci-fi future
Called ‘holoportation’ it is a new type of 3D capture technology that allows 3D models of people to be reconstructed, compressed and transmitted anywhere in the world in real time. This enables users wearing virtual or augmented reality displays to see, hear and interact with remote participants in 3D, almost as if they were present in the same physical space.
“There are technologies being developed that have the potential to significantly change the paradigm of medical engagements. We need to embrace innovation and adopt the mindset of a start-up,” says Wahba.
This start-up mentality can be fostered by actively cultivating links with startups.
To this end, Almirall has rolled out an initiative called Digital Garden to build a space for innovation and interaction with start-ups, says Fors. This allows the organisation to see what is happening externally by interacting directly with start-ups and exposing Almirall staff to a leaner, more agile model of doing business.
The start-up benefits by being able to access financial support and the experience of a bigger pharma company. “The goal,” says Fors, “is to ‘infect’ colleagues with a digital mindset and allow for contagion among their teams.”
Personalising at scale
In an omnichannel world, the other pressing challenge for pharma is to learn how to orchestrate and personalise the customer experience at scale, says Christian Velten, global head of medical customer experience at Roche.
“We are working on what medical customer services of the future might look like,” he says. “We are aiming for a coordinated, integrated approach across all levels and across all divisions and functions, following clear and fully understood customer needs.”
The old approaches today work like an orchestra of individuals playing different pieces, says Velten. “It’s like we have a room full of musical instruments and we have one musician after another coming in and starting to play his piece. We end up with a situation that might not be a total cacophony but it’s not very well orchestrated. We need to concentrate on the interplay, getting each individual musician to reach excellence but that might mean different training for different players.”
The answer to more harmonious orchestration is partly cultural and partly about training. “With our global and local initiatives we are trying to achieve two things,” he explains. “The first is to give everyone in the company a very basic level of understanding so we all have a shared understanding. This is not about building apps or websites, it’s about ways of working, mindset and cultural aspects.
“The second is to equip different people in different roles with the digital knowledge they need. Someone on a global level might only need to have an overview of digital initiatives, solutions, products and how those will be integrated locally. This is not about making everyone a digital expert.”
Like Fors, Velten envisions a world in the not-too-distant future where digital co-creation will be the norm. “In two years’ time perhaps we will be reaching out to our HCPs on a trusted level in terms of co-ownership of content. I would like to see a shift to a model where the physician, the patient and the pharma company have a shared purpose.
“What can we do together? We don’t want to do digital for the sake of doing digital, we see it as helping us becoming more customer-centric, helping us to develop more interactive, collaborative and flexible relationships from the early stages.”
The new era of digital-first engagement demands new approaches to scaling by harnessing technology, seeing content creation as collaborative and cultivating a startup culture