Customer engagement matters—a lot. According to Salesforce Research’s 2019 “Connected Healthcare Consumer” report, 69% of the nearly 6,000 healthcare consumers worldwide surveyed said that one extraordinary experience raises their expectations of other companies.1 And those expectations have risen even more due to the pandemic.

In Salesforce Research’s 2020 “State of the Connected Customer” report, 88% of the 12,000 consumers surveyed worldwide said they expect companies to accelerate digital initiatives due to COVID-19.2 And when it comes to healthcare, patients have taken a liking to using new digital tools and technology to manage their health. In Accenture’s May 2020 patient survey on “How COVID-19 Will Permanently Alter Patient Behavior,”  60% of the 2,700 surveyed said they would like to use technology more for communicating with healthcare providers and managing their conditions based on their experiences so far during the pandemic.3

Overall, across all industries, consumers expect better ways to engage with companies. Going back to Salesforce Research’s 2020 report, 54% said they believe companies should expand their customer engagement methods. Furthermore, 83% expect the ability to interact with someone immediately when they contact a company. People want real-time engagement from companies, and delays—no matter what the reason—will not be looked at fondly.

One place for that engagement can be social media, where usage has surged as a result of COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns. Between 2019 and 2021, Statista found significant increases in worldwide monthly users across a wide range of social platforms, including TikTok (38%), Pinterest (32%), Reddit (30%), Facebook (19%), Snapchat (17%), Instagram (16%), LinkedIn (13%), and Twitter (8%).4

So, as more consumers are turning to digital channels and social media to engage with companies, are life sciences marketers prepared to meet their higher expectations? To find out, PM360 partnered with LiveWorld, a digital agency and software company specializing in social media solutions, on a survey to assess the current state of engagement marketing within the life sciences industry. Respondents were all marketers involved in either digital or social media marketing within their respective life sciences company. The results reveal an industry that sees the transformation happening before them, but lacks the knowledge and confidence to know how to properly succeed in this new environment.

Acknowledging the Importance of Engagement

For starters, it is clear our survey respondents understand how important digital and social is becoming within the industry. Almost two-thirds (61%) view digital/social marketing as a high priority at their company. Additionally, 59% devoted more of their marketing budget to social and digital channels over the course of the past year. However, only about a quarter (28%) are “very confident” with their social marketing agency’s ability to create engagement. The confidence isn’t much stronger for their digital agencies with only 35% expressing that same sentiment for the partners they turn to for digital marketing services.

One reason for that lack of confidence could be an uncertainty surrounding what actually constitutes as “engagement.” It is a term that can mean different things to different companies, but LiveWorld’s Dawn Lacallade, Chief Social Strategist, VP, Healthcare Practice may explain it best when she describes engagement as a hierarchy.

“Engagement can start off simple such as clicking on a piece of content, but then it gradually becomes more active and involved as users begin to comment on what they see, then participate more by interacting through polls or quizzes, to then actively sharing the content with their own followers, before finally adopting the brand as their own and sharing their own personal experiences with it,” Lacallade explains. “The further marketers are able to escalate this engagement with consumers, the more value it will offer to the brand.”

But engagement is not just beneficial to the brand, it also provides value to the consumers who are seeking the right information. Often, patients turn to their peers on social media for help learning about their disease or treatment options. And while that is extremely valuable to patients, it also carries some risk.

“If you search for pretty much any medical condition on Pinterest, you will find quite a few conversations that lack any real science, in part because pharma companies are not allowed to promote content on there,” Lacallade explains. “Pharma companies play a key role in helping to balance the content on social platforms by creating content with highly credible medical information. That is why it’s so important for pharma companies to be engaged and to have a running dialogue with patients in social platforms where patients turn to for answers about what is happening to them.”

What’s Holding Marketers Back?

Even for marketers who understand the reasons why engagement is important, many—and I mean many—still feel limited by regulatory and compliance issues. An overwhelming 94% of respondents say they limit the number of social media programs by their company due to compliance concerns. Furthermore, 20% are not at all confident they even know how to develop social strategies that are fully compliant with regulations. Another 6 in 10 feel like they could, but would like some more guidance on how to do it right. For that large group, and the 20% who simply have no clue what to do, Lacallade offers some advice.

“Before you develop a compliance approach for a specific campaign, set up a learning session with your MLR team where you can provide an in-depth review of the platform you plan to use, provide a robust series of examples from other pharma companies, review recent FDA warning letters and highlight what mistakes were made, and try to get a general understanding about their concerns,” Lacallade says. “Once your MLR partners have some comfort level with the platform itself, then you can talk about how you’re going to apply it to the brand.”

Those compliance concerns are certainly holding marketers back from delivering the kind of real-time engagement that consumers desire. Currently, only 35% of marketers are willing to post a response from the brand to users’ comments. Instead, as you can see in Figure 1, most of our respondents (65%) use social media to encourage HCPs or patients to opt-in to the brand’s CRM program. However, 41% do allow patients and HCPs to comment on their social media account, it’s just that those conversations are permitted to occur among the users themselves without the brands getting involved.

How Did the Pandemic Change Things?

The biggest change to how marketers approach digital and social media marketing as a result of COVID-19 has simply been the need to increase the output of new content (Figure 2). Nearly three-quarters (73%) had to create new digital and social content in order to meet the increased demand. Advertising on social platforms, such as Facebook, also increased for 43% of our respondents who were looking for ways to connect with new audiences. And, encouragingly, 45% increased their use of digital tools in order to improve their customer engagement efforts.

In response to an open-ended question about how the experiences of the past year have changed their social or digital plans moving forward, one respondent even told us, “We need to look for more ways to engage authentically in a heavily regulated environment.” Another said, “Our plans have become more integrated across areas within the business. They are no longer digital plans or social plans. They are business plans that focus on our customers’ needs.” And yet another mentioned the “need for more budget to expand our footprint in this space and getting into new areas (like chatbots, for example).”

In fact, many of the respondents shared a similar desire to that one: the need to further their growth within digital and social with more funding, more engagement, and more authenticity.

“There’s a big opportunity to really capitalize on this channel that hasn’t been fully realized by this industry yet, but it is clear the desire is there,” Lacallade says. “And the opportunity goes beyond patients, but applies to HCPs as well, who have become even harder to reach as a result of the pandemic. This spans the entire spectrum of healthcare marketing and marketers are just starting to tap into the technology and techniques that will truly allow them to leverage the full power of engagement marketing.”

For more insights into engagement marketing, including what life sciences marketers look for in a digital/social agency, what marketers would really like to do on these platforms if given more time, what marketers most want to know about their audience, and what else they plan to change in terms of their digital and social strategies moving forward, then download the full survey report at www.pm360online.com/down/engagement-marketing-assessment.

References:

1. https://www.salesforce.com/news/stories/new-research-reveals-global-consumer-trends-for-healthcare-life-sciences.

2. https://www.salesforce.com/resources/research-reports/state-of-the-connected-customer.

3. https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/PDF-135/Accenture-COVID19-Patient-Treatment-Survey.pdf.

4. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1219318/social-media-platforms-growth-of-mau-worldwide.

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