Nearly six in 10 life sciences product launches are now in specialty or rare disease categories.1 Emerging pharma companies in these therapeutic areas need to educate physicians about niche diseases and their more complex biochemical interactions. Yet 75% of physicians say they want to either maintain or increase the pandemic-driven shift to remote interactions with pharma representatives.2
In this era of limited in-person access, biopharmas are rewriting existing go-to-market playbooks and exploring digital-first ways to launch medicines in a more virtual world. While it’s rare to orchestrate a drug launch exclusively through digital means, companies that lean more heavily on digital solutions gain an advantage.
For the best chance of reaching commercial projections and driving differentiation, new pharma brands are embracing a digital-first mindset to connect the right information with the right customers at the right times. This intelligence can make small and mid-sized companies more effective than those with greater resources.
The Opportunities—And Value—Of a Digital-First Approach
Digital has reinforced industry resilience by successfully opening up new ways to engage with physicians, such as compliant emails and video calls. Across Veeva’s customers, pharma field teams send 2.5x more emails than they did pre-pandemic and now use digital content in virtual meetings 85% of the time (versus in only 30% of their face-to-face meetings).3
Especially as precision medicine fuels most growth in the industry, thought leaders and key opinion leaders (KOLs) continue to want more clinical data and look to medical science liaisons (MSLs) to deliver content through virtual scientific discussions. By sharing and coordinating this important information across medical and commercial teams, pharmas can also help educate healthcare providers (HCPs) to ultimately drive better patient outcomes.
To ensure a successful launch in this increasingly complex environment, pre-commercial teams are planning early—up to 24 months prior to launch—so they can trigger key tactical and strategic initiatives at the right times. Companies with real-time insights into KOL and HCP interests, channel preferences, engagement history, and content consumption will be well-poised to optimize their launch execution and reach for more specialized therapies and narrower patient populations.
Building a Launchpad for Agile Decision-Making
While sales reps might not make their first contact with HCPs until after regulatory approvals, setting a foundation of digital capabilities and data insights well before that will help them set the right foot out the gate. Companies can start by integrating plans and prioritizing tactics across channels. Next, they can derive analytics and performance insights by integrating multiple data sources, and then use that data to continuously enrich decision-making based on key indicators of launch progress.
Step 1: Orchestrate Omnichannel Customer Journeys
Initially, pre-commercial medical teams must focus on how to best align with scientific experts. By analyzing the digital footprints of KOLs, such as their research collaborations or speaking engagements, companies can develop an understanding of their influence networks. This insight helps emerging biopharmas more quickly reach the clinicians who will be most critical at launch and plan digital events to engage them. Teams can use this data to uncover new opportunities, adapt their plans, and orchestrate meaningful interactions.
After a treatment receives market authorization, sales teams must focus on driving awareness with HCPs, establishing mutually beneficial relationships between reps and physicians, and then extending those relationships through digital engagement. When done well, physicians will better understand where a new product may serve as the best option to treat their patients. To achieve this result, sales teams need to carefully prioritize both digital and in-person interactions.
Multichannel thinking is beneficial for both HCPs and pharma. Virtual meetings expand the number of calls reps can make and enable them to connect with HCPs who were often unreachable in the past. Reps who engage virtually make 15% more calls and reach 25% more target HCPs than they did before the pandemic.4
Many forward-thinking biopharmas are also extending the value they provide to these HCPs by offering new digital channels for two-way, on-demand engagement. This makes it easier for HCPs to connect with experts, request medicines, and instantly access patient-facing materials online—especially critical in rare diseases.
Step 2: Analyze Impact Across Various Data Sources
Once their omnichannel foundation is solid, commercial teams can streamline customer targeting, field training, and resource allocation by linking all the streams of quality data that surround a launch. Both medical and commercial stakeholders will benefit from having a single, consolidated view of historical and planned HCP engagement. Teams can then evaluate account plan progress, learn the digital receptivity, and access preferences of their target HCPs, and update their approach with a think-and-act-fast mindset.
This was true of G1 Therapeutics’ first rare disease launch earlier last year. Tracking and improving field performance was crucial when launching the company’s new cancer therapy. To prepare, G1 put data solutions in place so its field team could identify the right patients and HCPs and monitor the effectiveness of their targeting and promotional efforts.
“Understanding your business and how you’re performing is just as critical to a startup as it is to a large pharma company—maybe even more so because you have less resources,” shared Alvin Coleman, Senior Director of Commercial IT at G1. “When you are relying on fewer people, you want to have the right data and tools to get management the information they need to make critical decisions.”
Step 3: Use Data to Demonstrate Value and Create a Flywheel for Success
Even after a successful launch, digital strategies play a crucial role in helping companies extend their reach to new targets they can educate about a particular disease state. By feeding continuous post-launch learnings into a central location that distills that intelligence, teams can use AI to recommend next-best actions for sales calls.
Keep in mind that smaller pharma companies have to maintain agility and patience as they work to gain traction. It’s important to maintain a thoughtful balance between in-person and digital engagement, and then refine and optimize it over time. Other valuable tactics at this stage might be to set up customer journeys or host digital events such as HCP video trainings or Q&As with scientists.
Digital Intelligence: The Lynchpin for Launch Success in Rare Disease
The most successful digital-first launches will be those that do all of the above to empower modern reps and MSLs with the insights and technologies they need. Commercial leaders, particularly in specialty medicine, should help their teams extract key signals from engagement data. By better understanding HCPs, they can optimize their channel usage, personalize messages, and deliver best-in-class engagement via consumer-grade digital experiences.
These digital strategies in the hands of reps with real relationships can be a game changer. Most importantly, a well-executed hybrid launch ultimately helps accelerate patient access to critical products that allow them to live healthier, longer lives.
1. “FDA Shows Sustained Support of Rare Disease Product Development During the Public Health Emergency,” U.S. FDA, March 1, 2021.
2. “What Doctors Want and What This Means for Biopharma Now,” BCG, July 2020.
3. Veeva Pulse data, August 2021.
4. Veeva Pulse data, U.S. Market, June 2021.