From the Couch to the Conference Hall—Marketing to the New Hybrid Conference Model

It is no secret that 2020 taught us about innovation and pushed us toward a more digital world. One of the main takeaways from this moment is that: we can do a whole lot more from our couch than we ever thought possible. Among those realizations, attending high-profile medical education conferences to learn about the latest research and treatment options in any given field.

When COVID forced all medical conferences in 2020 to go virtual across the globe, a variety of growing pains emerged for attendees and sponsors alike. While challenges existed, like with many pandemic-related obstacles, it also brought forth new opportunity such as the birth of a true virtual space within medical education, which many believe will have a lasting impact on the industry. Now we see the conference landscape continuing to evolve throughout 2020 and into 2021 with the introduction of hybrid meetings offering the best of both worlds to medical professionals.

As we shift toward hybrid meetings, and all signs point to them becoming a permanent fixture, marketers need to adapt their media strategy accordingly. With new technology comes an equally unique set of questions for healthcare marketers to ponder.

What is a hybrid meeting? What are the current challenges attendees and marketers face? What do we know about those attending virtual versus digital conferences? How do we measure engagement in an increasingly virtual world? What tactics are we beginning to see work with measurable success?

Let’s dive in!

The Virtual Meeting

Ever since spring 2020, medical conferences have been restructured to capture the virtual audience and have continued to be optimized by organizations through the early part of 2021.

For over a year, the standard conference experience has included virtual poster presentations, digital booths, self-led training, and “networking” breakout sessions, each with their own challenges and advantages which will play a part in shifting the virtual and live audience groups.


At first many healthcare professionals and researchers were concerned about their career trajectory due to the potential impact on their medical education. However, many conferences actually saw increased eyes on their presentations, with webinars growing 162% and attendance up 251% measured across approximately 100,000 events. One conference, the International Meeting on Advanced Spinal Techniques (IMAST), saw attendance increase by up to 75% on day one when compared to the previous year’s meeting and thus will likely continue offering a virtual option moving forward, according to Harvard Business Review.

This increase in attendance has been attributed to a number of factors including the global access of virtual platforms, the reduction of travel expenses (or lack thereof), as well as the convenience of being able to attend a conference while losing little time in the office seeing patients. The last point becomes vital as research shows that 81% of doctors are over-extended with their patient volume and simply do not have the time to travel to a conference—a key advantage to the virtual platform.

In addition to the ease of access, conferences have also been recording sessions, at first to prevent any technological issues, but now also to give attendees an extended period of time to review key findings days after the conference—offering another advantage to the virtual platform and professionals who are hard-pressed to attend virtual symposiums in real time.

As the average age of physicians is 51 (and one-third over 60), virtual options provided a safe and convenient alternative to in-person medical education. While advantageous in many ways, virtual doesn’t come entirely without challenges.


While convenience has been a highlight for attendees, the virtual format has its limitations. One major challenge has been the reduced networking experience. With the personalization of 1-to-1 meetings taken out of the mix and the removal of booth interactions, there has been little supplement for HCPs trying engage with their colleagues, make new connections, and learn more from the event sponsors. Engagement during key sessions has also been impacted with Q&As happening virtually at symposia and virtual advisor boards, which some argue actually hinders critical thinking.

In addition to the lack of networking, other concerns around engagement have been highlighted. Needing to shift to virtual quickly, many platforms required acclimation time for attendees, possibly reducing engagement across key content areas/with sponsors across the conference. Industry leaders also point out that 100% online participation from healthcare professionals allows multi-tasking, which calls into question how focused attendees are on information presented. Throughout the year, congresses tried to improve engagement by shortening the virtual sessions, however keeping users’ attention is still a work in progress. Tracking engagement can and should be measured through surveys and other means of follow-up interaction to truly gauge sponsor impact and overall attendee satisfaction.

The Hybrid Meeting

At the end of 2020, Mark Wildgust, PhD, VP of Global Medical Affairs for Oncology at J&J, went on record to say, “I think this has shifted our advancement of our digital sharing of clinical data in a way I don’t think will ever go back to the way we were before.” Now halfway through 2021, we have seen this realized through the increased number of hybrid meetings scheduled to take place during Q3-Q4 this year as well as the early parts of 2022.

This has us wondering: What is a hybrid meeting? The present day answer: a true combination of virtual and in-person activities. Currently this means providing audiences with the choice of attending meetings virtually, especially as cross-national vaccination guidelines expand, as well as offering live interaction for those who feel comfortable and prefer face-to-face interaction.

What Does This Mean for Marketers?

It’s easy to see the advantage of virtual meetings for sponsors. Key presentations now have a much greater audience than ever before, extending across the globe, without the need to engage everyone in real time. As the literal attendance of these conferences grew, so did the number of channels, giving marketers endless options for engagement. Now with some attendees back in conference halls, the access and options have only grown. This begs the question: How can messaging be optimized and personalized for this new normal?

Understand Your Audience to Drive Engagement

In recent studies it has been found that most physicians are open to receiving useful messaging from pharmaceutical brands and are up to five times more responsive if those messages are personalized. This is key as we move into the next phase of digital advertising and hybrid medical conferences.

Conferences previously provided an inherent hyper-targeted audience of healthcare providers seeking education, allowing marketers to target their key specialty audience with pertinent information in one location. While conferences have broadened their audience within their respective digital platforms, one could argue they actually have become further segmented.

Based on the benefits of live and digital meetings outlined above, marketers can tell more about their target audience’s objectives based on their presence or absence from a live meeting. For example, those attending conferences live are likely attending for a purposeful reason whether it be to connect with colleagues or take advantage of the personalized interaction at a specific event, according to The Drum. In the same way, those who are not attending the meeting, will likely be more interested in the virtual presentations available and focusing on new innovation or clinical data in the industry.

Using the above, supported by a strong verified first-party database, brand marketers can ensure they are sending the messaging that their target audience is the most receptive to. For example, if the HCP logging on virtually is interested in the clinical data, safety and efficacy may see more engagement than an alternative message.

The more we understand the objectives of HCPs attending these conferences, the more we will be able to continue to personalize their experience and provide them with appropriate medical education.

Add Surround Sound to Your Campaigns

As important as message affinity is, getting the message to your target audience is arguably more important. Throughout recent years, the pharmaceutical industry has transitioned from a “multi-channel” approach, or use of multiple promotional channels, to an “omni-channel” approach, or use of multiple promotional channels in a cohesive way. This same concept being implemented across marketing campaigns should also be included within your conference campaign—or as we call it, adding “surround sound.”

Similar to message affinity, markers should use what we know about the hybrid model to help inform their omni-channel campaign. For example, those who are not attending the conference live can be targeted at the household level through an effective connected TV campaign or a dedicated clinical email summarizing key presentations that may have been missed due to a conflict. At the same time, those who are attending virtually may be multi-tasking on their device which could open the door for programmatic mobile and tablet banner or video display engagement. Those attending the conference will likely be best targeted through standard banners outside of scheduled conference events where users are likely not engaged in a session.

The Road Ahead

With all of the dynamics that have gone into the rapidly changing medical meeting landscape, congresses continue to be an effective time to reach key audiences with vital medical education. To support this evidence, in 2020 our team saw up to two times the industry standard for engagement in a campaign targeting virtual attendees at CHEST. That said, the key to maintaining engagement with HCPs as we move toward a now increasingly hybrid world, is to ensure campaigns are able to deliver the right message, at the right time, in the right way.

The upcoming innovations within the digital healthcare landscape are bound to get more exciting—look to add some surround sound to drown out the competitive noise and embrace the fact that the hybrid evolution has arrived.

  • Devin Kanach

    Devin Kanach is an up-and-coming healthcare digital marketer, with experience across the agency, publisher, and data branches of the industry. Serving as the Marketing Director at TI Health, Devin marries his medical education and industry experience in order to synthesize streamlined communication with leading pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers, along with their respective agencies, around key solutions needed to further promote positive patient outcomes.


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