The Time for Digital Architecture in Pharma is Now

Brad Davidson, PhD. Medical Anthropologist 

Research proves what most of us already suspected.

While the world, from healthcare providers and patients to Maasai warriors in Africa, has moved to digital as a preferred means of communication, a recent report by McKinsey titled “Closing the digital gap in pharma” finds that pharma sits well behind the curve.

As an industry, pharma is slow to adapt digital across every metric, from the absence of digitally-focused corporate structures that drive execution to persistence of brand planning and performance evaluation processes that make digital an afterthought. 


There’s legitimate reason this lag. The challenge of changing a multi-billion dollar industry mid-stream is made considerably harder by the very real pressure to succeed quickly at launch: pharma, like Hollywood, invests so much money and time in each launch that it is in some ways a victim of its own past successes, and cannot entirely be blamed for a culture of sequels (being guilty not so much of creating “Alvin and the Chipmunks 8”, but rather “blockbuster launch playbook redux”).

Despite the challenges and general trepidation, there is a clear way forward. It starts with finding ways to organically fit digital into the real world environment, and uncovering greater value as the real and virtual worlds are bridged. We’re here to offer the strategic nudge to get it done faster and better.

Building digital relationships 

The report finds that only 10 percent of pharma executives base their strategic decisions on a quantified, granular understanding of how digital affects their competitive environment and business model. Yet the reality is that digital communication is already a key element of just about every modern relationship—whether with a doctor, a patient, a spouse, or even a relative stranger. And this digital component often makes up in frequency what it lacks in personal connectivity.

That the industry continues to view in-person activities (large events, face to face meetings, and paper materials that should be reviewed in real time with the field force) as the gold standard by which other activities are measured is, frankly, frustrating.

In fact, every day we’re seeing examples of high-value interactions that healthcare professionals (HCPs) have with their peers and with experts in their field on clinical and practice management topics –all within a digital environment.  For example, after engaging with an exclusive presentation on cardiovascular health by renowned cardiologist Dr. Christopher Cannon, 61% of HCPs say that the digital content influenced how they manage their patients’ LDL levels.

The digital environment has the added benefit of giving these HCPs a forum to discuss the topic with experts in the field, as well as their peers. In this example, Dr. Cannon was able to respond directly to dozens of questions posed by members of this digital community. Just one example of how digital is building real relationships with pharma’s target audiences.

Understanding the digital journey 

The McKinsey report also cites the fact that nearly 40 percent of pharma companies admit they don’t understand the decision journeys that patients and HCPs undertake to access, interact with, and benefit from their products well enough to map digital touchpoints and align them with their digital strategy.

As the McKinsey authors state, “successful engagement starts first with developing a deep understanding of how patients and physicians want to interact and then designing ways to engage that fit those preferences.”

We’re already doing this kind of digital strategy planning—charting these journeys through the right mix of channels for optimal impact, as in our successful multi-audience engagement campaigns promoting formulary pull-through. This solution takes a two-pronged approach including an integrated suite of digital “push” tactics aimed at targeted HCPs promoting formulary/brand messaging, plus highly- segmented, localized, and co-branded formulary messaging delivered at the point of care on a healthcare consumer’s mobile device to drive demand.

Connecting digital to a larger strategy   

Digital can’t exist in a vacuum – yet as the McKinsey report points out, 60 percent of pharma companies admit their digital initiatives are only partly linked to their broader strategy. The problem, according to the authors, is that many pharma companies align on their strategy first and treat digital engagement as an aspect of execution, rather than as a central consideration in strategic planning.

Such connectivity is at the heart of the Aptus value proposition: that engagement requires coordination and planning, and that coordination and planning can only be done with the proper knowledge in hand.

In a pre-digital world, not only could you identify the channels required to successfully launch a drug on more or less one hand (journals, conferences, print ads, and field representatives), you could also assume that the people who were most influential for your brand’s success were healthcare providers. One audience, a small number of channels, and a regular calendar of events meant that the “channel planning” component of brand planning could, and did, come last, as an aspect of execution.

Today, however, the channels and audiences are much more numerous and complex, and the weaving together of channel, message, cadence, and audience is both a science and an art; creating a cohesive, high-impact, relevant digital strategy that forms the core of a larger communications strategy requires planning, data, and experience. The number of channels, and choices, is too large to simply pick those that are most convenient—we need a coherent strategy to take pharma to the next level.

We have moved, in airplane terms, from “stick and rudder” flying to something much more complex, variable, and challenging to simply throw together by intuition alone—we need the aid of a digitally native process, leveraging data about channel usage and preferences, larger patterns of behavior (like prescribing and persistency), and a coherent content strategy that leverages key information across multiple channels, times, and contexts. The process requires the kind of planning that our engagement architecture was designed around. If “digital first” is the goal, this is the place to start.

Key takeaway: While we agree with McKinsey that pharmaceutical companies lag the world at large in adopting digital at the core of their business, we believe that the true culprit is not simply a lack of “risk taking spirit”; rather, we believe that the will is there, but that a new, emerging set of expertise is only now coming into being.

With the right tools and insights in hand, the time for integrated multichannel engagement architecture—and the engine of evolution in digital marketing—is now.

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