The Truth About Digital Marketing During—And After—COVID

Remember when COVID kicked in and you started getting all those invites for social catch-ups on Zoom? Maybe you attended a couple and thought, “Wow, that was actually surprisingly nice.” And then folks started integrating games to add a little something extra?

Well, how do you feel about them now? We’re not here to talk about this per se, but the declining engagement factor you have inevitably experienced is important.

COVID has notably accelerated digital transformation in healthcare by allowing the incorporation of new tools into previously rigid workflows. Just look at the rise in telemedicine, digital companion programs, and motion-activated technologies as examples. They have incredibly important roles to play across the patient journey, from pre-diagnosis through to ongoing monitoring.

But from a communications perspective, how do we balance digital engagement with traditional live interactions? Digital channels are not new to marketers, and they are certainly not new to our customers in their lives outside of work. These channels have the potential to make high-level knowledge ubiquitous, as well as the ability to build brands—but they require a thoughtful approach. Some guiding principles that can help drive success are:

  1. User experience first. Contextually how, where, and when users will be consuming any information online. Though it sounds simple, we can’t just take scenarios that work in-person and replicate them online.
  2. Personalization and humanization. The communication mix varies depending on customers. Understanding customers on a human level (as well as their preferences, needs, and interests) has never been more important. The good news is we’re used to building archetypes. We just need to think more about consumption preferences on top of key communication points, and how to engage in personal ways.
  3. Integrated, not 360. Building brands across channels is not about pushing the same message in each one. Allow different sides of the brand to show themselves in different channels, with each channel telling chapters that build your overall story.

Value Lost and Gained in Digital During COVID

Let’s look more closely at how digital channels fared this year, and how they can do better.

While rep visits have reduced dramatically (an April Sermo report found a 69% drop in face-to-face meetings in U.S.), we’ve seen virtual rep visits and e-detailing increase wildly (a stunning 50x from February-May, according to a May Veeva report), with impressive average meeting times of over 20 minutes. That amount of time, if representative, is staggering.

We’ve seen the biggest conferences go virtual. On impressive platforms, no doubt with a huge amount of work behind them. Those nice stock images of folks in business-casual attire in the conference center lobby holding screens, picking out sessions of interest, clicking on the virtual rooms, submitting questions, voting. The ability to join smaller working groups and collaborate with colleagues around the world. This is all great. It really is. But we have to ask where the real value has always been in these large conferences. Sure, getting to see hot-off-the-press data as it is presented is fantastic. But what is more fantastic is the debate that you have about it, with that friend you made at a night out at the same conference five years ago, after bumping into her in the foyer. Or the discussions you have with poster authors. For delegates, there is a great deal of value to be gained around the periphery of the official agenda. The human debate and interaction is an imperative part of understanding and contextualizing those data you just heard.

The number of webinar-style events has exponentially increased as a way to reach doctors during this period of responsible distancing. Though it’s hard to estimate quite how much they’ve increased, it’s a trend we are all seeing. Interest at the start generally was elevated. Some companies capitalized well, building channel-specific formats and maximizing the user experience. Others pushed traditional didactic formats online and dampened the experience—ultimately lowering the perception of virtual events in customers’ minds. Add in the fact that Zoom fatigue is very real, and the observed recent reduction in frequency and attendance of these broadcasts makes a lot of sense.

But they can be done well. Content, speakers and moderation, event timing, platform choice and configuration, delegate-faculty interaction opportunity, and promotion can all add up to an interesting proposition for customers. The key is having a meaningful reason to attend live instead of catching up on-demand. Virtual events have a role moving forward, but we have to overcome customers’ current state of general indifference and lethargy.

Digital Channels with Further Growth Potential

We have seen increases in e-learning-style activities. The best of these segment the audience not only in terms of type of content but also format of content. Understanding from the outset (or even learning through the platform) the content that customers engage with is key. Some might skew to engaging more with short videos from respected KOLs, others prefer to dive into details of the data presented, while others still learn through interaction with content.

That’s not to say that these modules should focus on only one delivery method, but having two to three iterations of a single screen that can be delivered depending on the preference of the user can really elevate engagement. By the way, that’s exactly what good reps do so well with the materials they have in their bag.

We’ve also seen a rise in the number of health-related podcasts, video, and social channels launched. This is an interesting space with the consumption of podcasts, for example, increasing rapidly in recent years. Pharma has historically been hesitant to venture into such arenas in the past, but is finding ways to put different types of content out there in less formal and perhaps more human settings that can build solid engagement. We can expect to see a lot more of this in the future.

Voice is still, it’s fair to say, in its infancy. The potential to add value in this space is huge, yet we haven’t seen huge strides in the industry just yet. The ability to triage simple questions and then optimize time with reps (be that virtually or live), for example, could be a powerful tool moving forward.

Digital in a Post-COVID World

There’s an interesting parallel between retail experiences and the rep-doctor relationship in a post-COVID world. Take clothing, for instance. Stores make multiple channels available to customers; customers decide the right mix for themselves. Do they want to be in the store, trying outfits on, and seeking advice from a salesperson? Or are they more comfortable exploring online, even “trying on” outfits through augmented reality apps and ordering remotely? Now that doctors have had a taste of life without reps, it will be for them to decide how much they want to bring them back in moving forward, and up to brands to make the right balance available to customers.

Which brings us back to where we started. We’ve all been doing Zoom socials, and they have their place. But do you know anyone who has said that they would prefer those virtual hangouts to meeting in person? I don’t.

Humans are ultimately social creatures. We crave interaction. We enjoy the opportunity to engage in conversations, to challenge, to question. Used correctly, digital channels are incredibly powerful ways to build customer knowledge, awareness, and recall. But as long as people are people, healthcare will depend on the ability to communicate in a human manner: industry talking with stakeholders, HCPs talking with patients. Digital communications will supplement those interactions, augment them, and perhaps make them more efficient—but they won’t replace them.


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