At the outset of the pandemic, some viewed virtual speaker programs as a temporary substitute for in-person events. Since then, however, the advantages and opportunities afforded by the virtual and hybrid formats have proved too valuable to let go.
A December 2020 study conducted just nine months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic revealed that virtual and hybrid events were likely here to stay. In fact, 79% of companies reported that they planned to continue hosting events with online options even after in-person gatherings resumed.1
Today, we’re living in the “new normal” we spent the last two years talking about. Change happened quickly, creating challenges for facilitators, sales teams, and speakers to navigate without a playbook to work from. Having tested new strategies and tools for delivering speaker programs, facilitators have unleashed new opportunities to build their brand and engage with diverse audiences in virtual and hybrid environments. They can include advance practice providers who haven’t historically been the primary focus. They can reach providers in less populous regions. And they can share better outcomes from these engagements.
Susan McNair, Vice President of U.S. Operations at AXON Communications, has seen this trend on many new projects. “Request for Proposals (RFPs) at the start of the pandemic all focused 100% on virtual/hybrid speaker programs,” she explains. “As the world re-opened, we were not surprised to see that RFPs still require virtual/hybrid interactions. Our clients have seen the cost effectiveness of hosting virtual programs. In addition, when live programs are executed, adding the virtual component extends the reach of the program and the enduring opportunity.”
The Post-Pandemic Evolution of Speaker Programs
The pandemic has unquestionably transformed the modern speaker program. The situation demanded adaptability, flexibility, and a quick shift to new technologies. It also catalyzed more collaboration between pharma speaker bureaus, healthcare providers, and other stakeholders on a global scale—dissolving geographical barriers for a wider exchange of ideas, data, and best practices.
The shift to virtual and hybrid events introduced new tools into the facilitator’s arsenal. These tools have sparked a resurgence in HCP engagement—unlocking new ways to interact and report on these interactions.
Consider, for example, physical-to-digital transition points, such as QR codes. In just a few years, this signage has become a ubiquitous and welcome sight at in-person events—the result of two years spent blending our offline experiences with online tools and content in real time.
Changes like these aren’t limited to speaker programs. They’re reflected in the broader pharma brand-building journey, which is now “more virtual” in each phase of awareness, education, peer review, clinical trials, and advocacy. Field representatives now rely on online journal clubs, virtual speaker programs, and expert one-on-one sessions—all facilitated through a screen. Congresses are also hybridizing as they support remote participation and experiment with ways to do more outside the confines of a conference hall.
In some respects, the pandemic has elevated the format of the speaker program itself. It’s expanded what was once a small window for peer engagement into a bigger, multi-faceted vehicle for it. The most innovative companies are pushing this format even further to provide, among other things, valuable market research by using new engagement tools to collect crucial feedback from experts in the field.
To support these efforts, program facilitators are recognizing the value of a comprehensive, 360-degree feedback approach that gathers insights on content and speakers from all sources, including field representatives, audience members, and the speakers themselves. They’re turning outputs back into inputs to inform and continually improve their programs.
The Components of a Successful Speaker Program Today
While the emphasis on captivating content and easily accessible experts has intensified, the base ingredients of an effective speaker program remain the same: knowledgeable speakers; strong, evidence-based content; and thoughtful execution.
1. Knowledgeable speakers
To cut through that noise, a speaker must genuinely know a product and therapeutic category inside and out. The litmus test here is the ability to engage in genuine back-and-forth conversations with audience members and encourage them to feel comfortable asking questions.
Speakers must also keep pace with rapid market developments. One aspect to consider is “just-in-time” training and review. Speakers are usually contracted and trained in compliance and scientific content at the beginning of the year. But given how fast the market moves, a gap between speaker training and being scheduled for a speaker program can open, during which new information may emerge. To address this, pharma companies are establishing ongoing relationships with speakers, giving them real-time access to the latest information, periodic quizzes, study updates, and relevant news.
“An effective speaker program demonstrates the speaker’s disease state expertise,” according to Dr. Ramachandra Malya, a practicing nephrologist and sought-after speaker. “To that end, pharmaceutical companies need to ensure that speakers receive thorough training; they get exposed to relevant news, publications, and study results on a continuing basis; and they can convey their experience presenting a patient case that resonates with their peer audience. Following a time organization rule of 20/20/20 for presentation/case discussion/Q&A has high impact because it balances information sharing, practical application, and audience engagement.”
2. Strong, evidence-based content
Companies are starting to use engagement platforms to record and refine speaker presentations and create a library of referenceable information sources. With a patient case library, speakers can personalize their presentations to reflect real-world examples they know and treat, ensuring relatable and authentic content.
Involving speakers in content development naturally enhances expertise and motivation while allowing companies to review and approve content for relevancy and alignment with funded studies—activities that years ago demanded lengthy manual work.
3. Thoughtful program execution
Convenience, ease, and comfort have become crucial aspects of post-pandemic program execution, especially as people have grown accustomed to hybrid and digital modes of working. Healthcare professionals appreciate—and increasingly expect—virtual engagement opportunities that save them travel time and facilitate more frequent knowledge exchange. The salesforce has also adapted to using digital tools to navigate large territories and “no-see” institution barriers.
Program leaders are discovering that the engagement tools they use to facilitate asynchronous engagement can enhance live event execution, too—incorporating visual components, breakouts, polling, and role-playing to improve content retention and results. Immediate follow-up actions, such as sharing relevant articles and videos, or sending automated reminders weeks later, reinforce the learning experience.
As the speaker environment evolves to embrace larger-scale regional programs with virtual components, it’s empowered pharma teams to create leaner, more expert-driven and “expert-accessible” speaker bureaus. For example, since hybrid programs lack geographical limitations, more speaker programs are merging larger didactic segments and smaller group discussions into single engagements. And as a result, they’re encouraging better information sharing, insight exchange, and interactive discussions.
Managing Logistics and Compliance
The evolution of speaker engagements is forcing changes on the administrative side, too. In the context of logistics and compliance, three key areas have been impacted most: training and content, validating business rules for compliance, and integration with existing systems.
The shift towards digital systems has meant that validation rules can be set up to ensure speakers undergo the required training from a compliance and scientific content perspective. Furthermore, these systems can prevent speakers from being scheduled for programs until they have completed the necessary training, ensuring no one steps onto the stage—whether physical or virtual—unprepared.
To avoid concerns around off-label discussions, companies are also using presentation builder tools that provide speakers with the latest approved slides. Plus, this supplies a documented audit trail for the presented materials. You can also establish validation rules when building slide decks to ensure that important safety information is always included, for example.
Finally, teams must integrate their various systems to manage different aspects of their operations. Essential components include expense management systems, CRM systems for handling follow-up engagements, and speaker management systems for training. By implementing the right system integrations, teams can have confidence in the accuracy and consistency of data across all tools while also connecting the dots between data sources to generate new insights.
A Few Speaker Program Best Practices
While so much can be said about the exciting evolution in speaker program management, I’ll close with five best practices helping teams elevate the quality and impact of their speaker programs right now.
First, keep speaker bureaus lean. Focus on the speakers requested and utilized the most by representatives, as they are likely the most trusted by their audiences. Use 360-degree feedback to ensure speakers are trained in content and presentation skills, measure their performance, and develop relationships with them throughout the year.
Second, offer hybrid and virtual programs. Prioritize sharing important information with targeted providers over worrying about the venue or meal. Ensure the content is relevant, resonates with the audience, and that speakers are engaging and provide opportunities for peer exchange.
Third, train your speakers well. Use role-playing and other techniques to assess speakers’ strengths and weaknesses. Provide opportunities for practice, feedback, and transparency to invest in their development. Consider hiring experts to evaluate their performance and improve their teaching and communication skills.
Fourth, measure and share outcomes. Focus on integration with existing systems to incorporate peer-based learning into every step of the HCP journey. Operationally, address the full circle of the process, ensuring that all aspects are measured and accounted for.
And finally, support the field. Provide toolkits for easy execution, ensuring representatives feel confident about managing programs. Be transparent about target audience segments and expectations for follow-up steps. Equip sales representatives with templates and guidelines for communication, and help them understand the ROI of these programs compared to other engagement methods.