I’ve recently had the privilege of moderating a panel with a few of the most brilliant minds from the biopharma industry. We covered a number of important topics regarding pharma marketing, and what really stuck out to me was how much “path dependency” there is in so many companies: Decisions once made in the past predetermine decisions we make now. Once we become comfortable with a certain set of strategies and tactics, we like to employ them over and over again. And while it’s good to keep a winning horse in the race and to keep honing skills we’re already good at, it can become a disadvantage when we only see the familiar and lose out on ways to improve.

When pharma companies market their brands, you can come across a lot of path dependency—the idea that “we have always done it this way,” or “this is how we do things.” For many, HCP interactions and DTC commercials are seemingly well-defined, predictable entities, and direct patient engagement seems like a complex and sometimes scary web of rules, regulations, and ethics.

However, the truth is that direct patient engagement can be done, has been done, and should be done for any pharmaceutical brand that takes its mission seriously. On our panel, we referred to it as the “mandatory minimum.” If you need to first get comfortable with patient engagement, there are a few cornerstone initiatives and tactics you should try first, and you can build upon those once you’ve seen the tremendous difference your initial activities have made.

The Fundamentals

One low-hanging fruit in patient engagement is market research, even in a more informal capacity. If you’re going to put materials out there, you should absolutely test messaging and creative with your audience; for example, with an advisory board. While one-and-done engagements are common and better than no engagement at all, consider convening your group of patients on a regular basis. An effort to stay in touch and follow up on patient feedback will anchor the brand much more firmly in the community.

Another minimum effort patients expect these days is a way to connect with the brand and other people living with the condition. One of our panelists mentioned the “ambassador bureau” her company is running: “This is more than asking a patient to speak or be in one video,” she said. Instead, they’re engaging patients in activities they are interested in and that the company needs, such as promotional opportunities, insight sessions, and speaking internally and externally. Ambassadors are welcomed into the bureau and then engage in the ways that they are comfortable with. This keeps the engagement level and ambassador sentiments high.

Captivating an Online Audience

Our round then explored some more advanced patient engagement initiatives. One panelist shared how they recently launched a form of online storytelling called “Captivate” for a rare disease product. The micro-site features a real patient with acute hepatic porphyria (AHP) who is also an artist. Visitors to the site see and hear the patient’s story come together at the same time as her artwork takes shape. Throughout several short videos, she explains how her art ties in with her patient journey. Through this beautiful, immersive experience, the audience really gets to know the person who is sharing her personal encounter with AHP.

When it comes to global patient engagement, we all agreed that it needs to revolve around disease education or market research. One global initiative that caught our audience’s attention was an AHP “Meeting In A Box” (MIAB) that the company cocreated together with a patient steering group. It is intended to help patient groups talk more effectively about AHP. It contains an educational slide deck which patient group representatives present in conjunction with an HCP, a handout patient brochure summarizing key points from the deck, a story from an actual patient, and a family mapping tool aimed at helping families identify family members who might be at risk of AHP. The patient steering group oversaw the entire project through to completion through a series of advisory boards.

More than Goodwill

In order to get started with patient engagement, the marketer’s main job is to gain alignment and understand hot buttons for the various stakeholders: Understanding why people feel a certain way goes a long way to finding a working solution. One common misunderstanding is that patient engagement programs are only about goodwill. They’re so much more, and there’s metrics to show how patient value directly generates business value.

One initiative that highlights this is the children’s book series that one of the panelists launched with her company. The books tell children-friendly stories about various rare diseases and are intended to help parents have a conversation with their children about the reality they live in, regardless of whether the parent or the child has the condition. “The series started with one conversation, and it grew organically from there,” said the panelist. For her it was obvious that the series had to be cocreated together with patients who knew firsthand what kinds of conversations they were having with their children.

The Patient’s Point of View

A point that was important to all the panelists was that while they were comfortable working in social media and using the web as an important channel for the cocreated content, this does not negate the need for the basics: A robust patient ambassador program, phone-based mentor programs, and cocreated starter kits—these things are fundamental to any patient engagement plan. Trying to pull off a 2.0 without having the 1.0 in place is destined to fall short of its goals.

The importance of keeping out the “ick” factor was also a consensus among panelists. Patients want to trust that your interest in them is genuine. This means keeping not only within legal and regulatory constraints but also doing the things that create patient value. The main way to do this is to approach your tactics and strategies from the patient’s perspective. Putting patients and their needs first ensures ethical integrity from the get-go. “Ask not what patients can do for you, ask what you can do for your patients,” as one might say.

  • Mara Lucas

    Mara Lucas is VP, Client Services at Snow Companies. Mara has a decade of experience in pharmaceutical marketing with knowledge and expertise ranging across multiple disease categories. She has launched campaigns and initiatives on behalf of biotech and pharma clients including Alexion, AstraZeneca, Eisai, Merz, Pfizer, Regeneron, Shire, and Supernus.


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