Ask most pharmaceutical marketers about their organizations’ digital prowess and you usually hear the following:

“We are a very conservative.”


“We are risk averse.”


“We don’t encourage innovation.”

Sound familiar?

There is a general sense within most pharmaceutical and medical device companies that they lag behind other industries when it comes to innovative digital marketing and communications programs. In a recent survey conducted by the Digital Health Coalition of its pharmaceutical and medical device members, 70% of respondents said they believed they were slightly or very far behind other industries in the development and execution of all digital programs. In that same survey, 57% said the industry lagged behind others when it comes to online video, 82% when it comes to mobile media and 93% when it comes to social media.

These perceptions are not far from reality. Time and again, healthcare organizations have turned to digital communications as a means to reach, engage and convert different audiences to drive business results, only to fall short of expectations. All too often, programs are not integrated across multiple online platforms, lack the appropriate resources to ensure they are sustainable, or include content that fails to resonate with their target audiences. Clearly there is an issue.

Changing Your Company Culture

Though regulatory limitations or the complexities of creating a digital program in the highly regulated healthcare field are often cited as reasons behind these shortcomings, one key underlying problem is a lack of cultural readiness that enables the creation, development and effective execution of an innovative digital initiative.

In this, the pharmaceutical industry is not alone. Consumer products companies, traditional manufacturers and other consumer-facing organizations have likewise had their share of digital disappointments. The difference, however, is that many of these organizations have since taken steps to better equip their organizations to support innovative digital approaches. From Ford to Kraft Foods, the companies that are often cited as digital leaders are those that have created the right internal environment to support innovative mobile, online video and real-time communications.

In some cases, this has involved structural change and the creation of new, hitherto unheard of positions. For instance, to enhance its digital marketing presence, Kodak created a “Chief Listening Officer” position that reported to the Chief Marketing Officer, but also provided insights and guidance to corporate communications and customer service. By breaking down silos to create better connections between marketing, public relations and customer service departments, some organizations have established a consistent image and approach at every customer touch point.

In other organizations, this has involved the creation of extensive training and education programs. For instance, at the request of leaders in the C-suite, Proctor & Gamble created a dedicated, centralized “center of excellence” style team charged with developing company-wide approaches for everything digital—from mobile marketing to social media. These playbooks were then communicated through training and education programs throughout the organization and, most importantly, to the company’s leading brands.

All too often, change comes on the heels of a crisis. Dell, after undergoing the “hell” of being at the center of an online social media firestorm, recalibrated how it handled customer service, creating an extensive social listening command center charged with handling both reactive and opportunistic digital communications. Suffice to say, most of us would rather not suffer through a crisis to create a “culturally ready” organization.

How then do pharmaceutical and medical device companies create the kind of internal environment that enables the development, execution and management of innovative digital communications that provide a great customer experience?

Achieving Organizational Effectiveness

At the Digital Health Coalition’s Fall Summit, held at the Digital Pharma East conference in Philadelphia, we decided to tackle this topic head on. We invited Howard Jacobson, PhD, an expert in organizational effectiveness, to address the question of how we, as marketers, can help drive change within our organizations.

In his talk, Jacobson provided several pointers aimed at improving relationships between marketers and different gatekeepers, such as legal and regulatory. By understanding the needs and hot button issues influencing these gatekeepers, as well as knowing what words or phrases could be a sign of future retrenching, Jacobson suggested we could reduce churn, enhance development and increase success rates.

It was a simple message, and one that those of us who have led the charge to drive the use of innovative digital programs within large organizations know very well. We can drive organizational change by developing strong relationships with key internal stakeholders, influencing others and leading by example. Though change may occur at a slower rate than through restructuring or investing in a “center of excellence” model, better partnerships with key decision-makers can not only enable the development of creative approaches to reach customers digitally, but also create the right cultural environment for future innovative programs.

With a hat-tip to Jacobson for inspiring and influencing the following, I’ve pulled together six tips for pharmaceutical marketers to help not only in the creation and execution of innovative digital programs, but also slowly drive cultural change within an organization:

1. Develop relationships with key decision gatekeepers. It is important to routinely have conversations with your colleagues in legal, regulatory and compliance to better understand not only their perspectives on potential hurdles but also to help them learn more about what you are trying to achieve. Provide them with news of trends or developments and even consider inviting them to industry conferences and events. If a campaign or initiative is already underway, provide frequent updates, covering both successes as well as barriers that you have identified. Be a storyteller, and not only the story of your project, but also of the audiences you are trying to reach.

2. Understand the history of your organization. Many processes or rules that are in place in an organization were put in place for reasons that, over time, many people may have forgotten. Take time to delve into the past of your organization to learn more about the origins of why things work the way they do. Only by understanding the past can you help to influence the development of new rules or processes for the future.

3. Start small and build. There is often a greater comfort level to allow smaller, low-risk projects. When I was at Johnson & Johnson, we were able to create a broad, social face for the organization only by starting small with a corporate blog. As we gained greater experience, and as the decision gatekeepers we were working with gained greater confidence in our team, we were able to expand our social media presence. The major advantage of these small projects is that they can not only be completed quickly, but they also do not require a long-term commitment or a major investment.

4. Bring outside thinking in. The healthcare industry is notoriously insular. To encourage innovative approaches, bring in voices that are often not heard to provide a different perspective. Read about what other industries are doing. Seek the opinions of patient advocates, online physicians or entrepreneurs. If possible, share these insights with key gatekeepers—not in a confrontational way, but in order to encourage broader thinking.

5. Share the results. Whether or not a program is successful, be prepared to share what was learned with the broader organization. Doing so not only helps educate the organization, but can also help in the development of the next program.

6. Demonstrate courage. This can’t be overstated. When someone within the organization is willing to take a risk and, in doing so, proves to be successful, the ripple effect can be enormous. Not only are others thereby encouraged to quickly follow, but the key gatekeepers become more willing to allow innovative programs to proceed.

These are just a few things that each of us can bring to our jobs and to the projects we work on. Taking these small steps to build relationships and demonstrate leadership can not only help in the development of projects that may break new ground, but can also help lay the foundation for future innovation.

Creating an organization that is culturally ready to support and drive innovative digital initiatives can be accomplished through organizational restructuring or through an investment in the resources needed to create a centralized team focused on change. But it can also be created though smaller, more incremental changes driven by an internal change agent. By demonstrating behaviors that encourage partnerships with stakeholders, courage and vision, these change agents can inspire others to act likewise, particularly if they are responsible for the creation of a successful program. This knock-on effect could, in the long term, help to gradually change how the organization operates and enable the development of innovative digital media programs.

  • Marc Monseau

    Marc Monseau is Founder and Managing Partner of Mint Collective where he helps clients reach, engage and influence through digital channels. Marc is also a board member of Digital Health Coalition and was previously Director of Social Media for Johnson & Johnson.


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