The quest to understand drivers of product uptake and use is as old as marketing itself. While the key players haven’t changed much, the methods and dynamics of interaction have. In today’s hyper-connected health marketplace, there are no longer a few solemn gatekeepers of product information. Instead, multiple stakeholders play key influencing roles—both on consumers, and on one another—with new communications technology contributing to changing dynamics as well.

Furthermore, as Marshall McCluhan famously postulated, the medium can most certainly be the message, with digital media facilitating, enhancing and accelerating communications at an almost frightening pace. But don’t be fooled: The shift in influence has less to do with the tools we use, and more to do with how different stakeholders are leveraging those tools to drive the conversation. While the marketing communications “toolbox” has expanded—especially with the increasing impact of integrated public relations strategic initiatives—it’s (still) all about relationships—with a twist.

Today, savvy marketers are tuning in to the “how and when” of product-use influencers, just as much as the “who and what” to address an evolving trio of market drivers: disease states, treatments and issues that can become insurmountable obstacles if not prevented or resolved. That’s because, with critical influencers—healthcare providers, key opinion leaders, patient advocates, payers, media and patients themselves—sharing opinions and experiences like never before, a holistic approach to marketing strategy is vital. That’s why the drive to create conversations among key influencers has grown ever more important. With the 2014 planning season about to kick into high gear, it is clear that a cohesively constructed and executed digital strategy coupled with an integrated public relations approach will be lynchpins of effective marketing. With those foundations in mind, here are three major shifts in product uptake to consider—always with an eye on the mission to provide value to each stakeholder.

Decades in the Making

The shift in influencer roles has been evolving for the past several decades. Back in the 1980s, physicians were the ultimate decision makers for patient care; thus, marketing efforts were dedicated to educating, equipping and engaging the sales organization to speak with target MDs. But two things happened that changed healthcare communications forever.

The first was the pharmaceutical industry’s mass migration in the 1990s to public markets, where shareholders became an important stakeholder in product success, and where analysts were leveraging new tools to achieve unprecedented transparency on behalf of stakeholders—examining actual prescriptions written, filled and repeated.

This transparency heralded the second sea change in healthcare marketing and communications: In the 1990s and 2000s, better-informed patients—and payers and policymakers—began to find their voice and demand a seat at the decision-making table. In large measure, you can thank the FDA for providing their late-20th Century Guidance on Direct-to-Consumer Advertising. The product-use conversation was no longer a one-on-one dialogue between company and physician. Formulary decision makers became powerful players driving use and access. In turn, patients and patient advocates have in recent years empowered themselves to become educated and advocate for access to desired treatment.

Now, with multiple forces acting on product use—physician opinion and recommendation, patient desire for best-practice care, payer emphasis on cost containment—companies must reaffirm their place in the conversation as educators and providers of critical scientific data that speaks to quality patient care.

Rise of the End-User

The most notable and palpable shift in the product conversation centers around patients—literally. The conversation has now shifted to place the voice of the patient at its core. All other influencers—physicians, payers, advocates, media and policymakers—converge on the patient experience. Ensuring each audience is educated and hearing a unified message of product value is more critical than ever.

Both individual consumers and advocacy groups have increased their role and influence in the prescribing process, an increase that is accelerated and magnified by social media connections. As more and more patients are able to connect with other patients and the coalitions that advocate on their behalf—and in turn, advocacy organizations are able to mobilize supporters quickly and efficiently with a single tweet—the influence of consumers grows. Moreover, with blog platforms enabling end-users to share their product experiences with a wide audience, opinions—and questions—have a wide-reaching impact.

Identifying key patient influencers as part of an initial marketing strategy is key to understanding the environment in general, and the players at work in your space. Their opinions may be sought by others trying to understand the product and the condition. Just as importantly, their insights may help shape strategy to more effectively reach key audiences.

The same goes for advocacy organizations. These groups are dedicated to advancing quality care for patients, and are sought frequently by media, patients, policymakers and payers to understand the value of a product. Whether or not you perceive these groups as natural allies, engaging with them early is critical to building trust and a sense of inclusion. Your commitment to delivering value to patients is a natural starting ground.

Acknowledging individual patients as self-advocates is a crucial part of driving product use, as well. Where are patients turning to learn about their condition and treatment options?  As with so many stakeholders today, the answer is “multiple sources”—including their physicians and pharmacists, online resources like WebMD, advocacy organizations and other patients like themselves. Considering whether each of these sources is well informed when patients seek input is truly the lynchpin of successful product uptake.

In fact, that question can, and should, be asked of all key audiences.

Interconnected Influencers

Today’s key stakeholders include the usual suspects, but their connection to one another—to end-users, prescribers, formulary designers—is magnified and multiplied exponentially. In order to drive product use, each of these audiences must be considered, not only in terms of engagement strategy, but as potential resources for other stakeholders. Ensuring the product story is consistent across all channels and audiences is more critical than ever. Equally vital to product success is answering the questions, “What would I want them to know if someone called seeking information on my product—and who might be making that call? A reporter, analyst, payer, patient?”

In addition to patients and patient advocacy organizations discussed in the previous section, consider the following key audiences and how they connect with one another:

Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs): KOL influence remains important. As the clinical influencers who teach others at medical conferences and train tomorrow’s prescribers in hospitals, their statements and experiences carry significant weight among the medical community. They’re also frequent sources for media and even payers.

Payers and managed care organizations (MCOs): These groups play a much larger role than before in driving product use. Differences in co-pay tiers, and of course coverage in general, can make or break the frequency of product uptake in clinical practice. Early engagement and education about product value to patients and physicians is critical, though it doesn’t guarantee a perfect outcome.

Healthcare providers: From physicians to nurses to pharmacists, these professionals have their fingers on the pulse (sometimes literally!) of the patient experience. They interface directly with the end-user, counseling patients and writing prescriptions. Their influence on product use remains critical. Who are they turning to for information and guidance?

Professional associations: With the rising empowerment of patients and patient advocacy groups, these organizations are no longer the sole influencers of the prescribing process. However, their role in driving clinical guideline development can create a “make or break” dynamic for prescriber uptake.

Media: Always important sources of information, media have become even more influential as both consumers and professionals turn to news sources for updates and information. The blurred lines between news and opinion—with the increase in both amateur and professional bloggers, and journalists expressing personal opinion by way of Twitter—make key media outlets and reporters important to product use. Of course, it is important to recognize that the media are themselves conduits of information, and develop their POV from other key stakeholders, such as financial analysts and advocacy associations.

Holistic Outreach: Engage Early, Engage Often

If all these sources of influence seem like a lot to manage, you’re right. That’s why successful marketing strategy begins far in advance of a product milestone. Not only are outreach strategies forming as early as phase II of drug development, companies are working to identify, assess and engage key influencers more than a year in advance of product announcements.

Early efforts must be taken on with a singular focus on education—not selling or persuading. The goal is to inform: Sharing important information on the condition, history of the marketplace, and (potential) value of a new treatment option, to keep stakeholders in the loop on developments. By ensuring that all key players’ questions are answered, marketing/communications teams can help ensure that each influencer is prepared for any potential inquiries about the product from media or payers and that they feel included and informed well in advance of a company announcement.

In today’s environment, considering all key influencers and the way they communicate with the company and one another will enable successful marketers to demonstrate value at every turn. By considering the holistic picture of influencers—the “who and what” plus the “when and how” driving product use—marketers can help advance business objectives by increasing treatment access and use for patients in need.

  • Lee A. Davies

    Lee Davies is Director of Client Services, Health Practice at Makovsky. Lee oversees Makovsky’s media relations efforts. He previously served as the Director of Global Media Relations at Merck & Co. where he represented the company as a spokesperson for oncology, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and women’s health.

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