Integrated marketing became a buzz word in the early 1970s. 40 years on, babies born today are ‘data natives’, expecting a world that is ‘smart’ and which effortlessly responds to their needs, preferences and habits. So how is pharma keeping up with the digital revolution? 

Talk of marketing strategy has moved through multi-channel and people are now talking of strategies such as omni-channel, but: “It is a question of nuances and the reality is that you have to integrate channels whilst understanding their distinct value and properly resource what you do, such as developing an applied content strategy,” said Alex Butler joint MD of digital marketing and communications agency, The EarthWorks. 

Butler was co-hosting a session with GSK’s Global Digital Director Kai Gait, who was last year’s PM Society Digital Pioneer, at a Showcase to launch the 2014 PM Society Digital Media Awards. Now in their sixth year, these are still the only digital healthcare awards in the UK and celebrate innovation, quality and results achieved in this arena. 

The emphasis on digital in pharma has often been one just as focused on cost efficiencies as it has been on developing new marketing and communications models. But why would you be proud of investing relatively small amounts of money compared to other investments when the digital landscape has changed and it is now likely to be the most important communications channel you have with your customers?

"Partnership is the way forward"

Partnership is another untapped opportunity. Butler suggested that a company looking to be the big name in diabetes could do worse than talk to Nike. Look at the way the sports giant has built a sustained relationship with Apple – and it would seem that Nike will be integrated at launch with the much anticipated Apple Healthbook application, that will form a suite of biometric sensors built into the operating system of Apple devices on launch of iOS 8 – there are tremendous synergies for pharma. However, it doesn’t seem to be happening, yet.

Gait picked up the thread: “One organisation is partnering with Google because it wants to move everything to the Cloud in order to bring separate parts of the business together as one. They aren’t building the infrastructure themselves as it’s not an efficient way anymore. Partnership is the way forward. Pharma can learn from this.”

Moving on, Gait said: “We are seeing a continued push for closed loop marketing – a constant stream of 24/7 data – but collecting insight, interpreting it and then acting on it takes a change of mindset and we aren’t there yet.” He warned of a sense that pharma spends a lot of time listening, but fails to convert the data to knowledge or action.

“We are seeing a continued push for closed loop marketing – a constant stream of 24/7 data – but collecting insight, interpreting it and then acting on it takes a change of mindset and we aren’t there yet”

“When we talk about multi- or omni-channel in pharma we are trying to connect the channels. But this activity doesn’t need to rely on a big sales force. All we need to do is connect the data.

He cited the Meningitis Keep Watching campaign by Ruder Finn/ Novartis Vaccines which picked up several gongs at last year’s PM Society Digital Awards. “It was emotive, it tugged on a few heart strings and it connected across multiple channels through PR, Mumsnet, Youtube…”

Pharma needs to break out of its silo mentality and agencies can really help in this. Data on campaign performance and what the reps do, for example: “Help us to see how it all comes together,” Gait appealed. “At the end we really need to have a purpose for any activity – who is it for, what is it for and who ultimately is the end user,” he explained.

Butler flagged personalisation as another key battle ground for companies wishing to lead in digital marketing and communications. Historically companies have used unsophisticated methods of building a long term understanding of the customer, such as with cookies. Although internet providers can share data on household usage, the multiple devices owned by individuals has made this strategy unworkable. However, building a sustainable personal relationship with customers has never been more important. 

The big investment now, Butler noted, is in the development of ‘Interest Graphs’: “We have moved beyond Amazon-style purchasing behavioural data, that is quite a blunt instrument, towards compiling detailed maps of individuals’ inputted information, online behaviour and individual engagement with content. This can produce truly bespoke and personal environments for people that even bring back the serendipity many feared would be lost from the online environment.” 

“It would be impressive to do this in pharma, but it is still sales-led and there is no link between the rep and their interaction and the customer at the point of prescription,” Butler explained. “Look at the AMEX Centurion card. It tracks your habits and preferences and sends high-end gifts tailored to what you interact with and do. This same principle could be applied in pharma by, say, providing high quality clinical information based around a customer’s actions,” he claimed.

"There is a person at the end of every message"

In an audience of over 100 delegates, only one company is sending completely personalised email campaigns. Gait commented: “That’s poor. But at the same time we know it would make medico-legal explode! 

The industry needs to rewire itself for those 60 items of sign off instead of one and to understand that there is a person at the end of every message. Content must be based around the individual because that is what creates the engagement. If you know nothing about your customer and don’t directly engage with them as an individual, you are on a hiding to nothing!” 

Gait conceded that it is challenging to achieve this level of data about individuals and suggested an alternative method is to segment your information and split test, work out what works better and the best triggers to create a greater impact. He warned, however: “Companies have to embrace digital. Reps will not be at the forefront for much longer and we will have to create bespoke interactions in a different way. The sign off process currently is built for print and it will have to change. Find the enlightened people and take the time to help them understand and you can achieve this!”  

Moving on to social media, Butler said: “All media is socialised in some way and so talking about it as a separate entity is ridiculous!” It is not about gathering followers in a world of ‘click farms’ and ‘bot followers’, but working out how you can engage with communities in a more strategic way to achieve your aims. Many companies now have invested in detailed mapping and analysis of the online environment, enabling a more focused engagement with people. “It’s all very well being out there, but if you don’t have anything to say, what is the point?”

Pharma has thought about providing bespoke quality information to audiences, but it hasn’t done it yet. With digital media, speed and real-time response is also crucial. Ideally, that means having published content designed to engage an audience as a response to a particular event, within a minimum of 10 minutes. However, Gait demonstrated how GSK is engaging with audiences responding to comment to good effect within 24 hours and their ambition is to bring this down to two hours. He also flagged the importance of being able to manage enquiries coming from all markets and in every language, suggesting that companies put in place robust processes for this. 

“We are still compliant,” he said. “People are still saying we need more PMCPA guidance. If you need further guidance you haven’t read and understood the code properly!” he commented.


On new technologies, Butler warned; “Everyone is building apps, most aren’t used,” he said. Excitement about Occulus Rift virtual reality headsets and Google Glass plays to those who love innovation and they are being touted as the future of healthcare. But how many people will have a virtual reality headset in the next two years and who is building the software? 

Ruder Finn’s top tips for a PM Society Digital Media Awards winning entry:

  1. Demonstrate a true change in knowledge or behaviour as a result of your campaign – outcomes not outputs.
  2. Articulate the passion and commitment of the team and a belief in your campaign as a worthwhile winner within your entry (judges respond if they buy into what you are doing.)
  3. Set realistic KPIs and demonstrate how you have met or exceeded them. Ruder Finn genuinely set them at the outset, met and smashed measurable objectives and their entry was therefore credible. (The way they set them was to look at other similar campaigns and see what could be a realistic goal, then to stick to it and beat it.)
  4. Ensure your strategy is credible and demonstrates that it was based on true insights – was digital really the right channel and who was the audience you were trying to reach? (Don’t just use digital for digital’s sake... the Ruder Finn strategy was based on research insights about where they could find their target consumer.)
  5. Create an award winner in the first place! Think big and conceive a concept that pushes boundaries.

Mobile health offers the opportunity right now to overlay disease information with inputted data and the contextual data that can be collected by a smartphone and other wearable devices that could revolutionise patient support, disease management and even clinical trial design.

“Innovation is the application of new ideas and technology and it is the application that is the important part,” observed Butler. “It is not an innovation if it can’t be applied and this is where we are at with a lot of mobile health at the moment. Devices such as Jawbone can already track mood, nutrition and sleep and essentially know everything about an individual. With the advent of IOS8, which will almost certainly have a biometric suite that apps can tether to and use, the landscape will change overnight.”

With mhealth comes the potential to understand how nutrition impacts a chronic condition in an individual. If you are travelling, your device may be able to warn you about pollution and tell you how you can better manage your condition. 

“All this can be done right now,” Butler explained. “So producing apps that three people download on a specific condition? No. We should be looking to use technology to enable more post marketing trials,” he said, “and integration will be increasingly important, so you see a diet-tracking function on your iPhone joining with a device such as Dario to manage diabetes. There are more opportunities in this space than ever before and partnership is a real opportunity for industry. Agencies have a role in tapping into this to improve healthcare,” he suggested. One of the dangers is when you see applications that simply ask a patient, such as someone with MS, to input reams of data themselves, it needs to do the hard work for the patient and predict and manage the disease better in real time or it won’t work. Patients are not data entry workers on a pharma company’s behalf.

Gait commented: “If you look at the industry as a whole, we are saying we are doing more digital but actually we are equipping more reps with iPads. Pharma does digital on top of traditional channels, but it isn’t perfectly integrated – we are building on top of it. It isn’t wrong to equip reps with iPads, but the biggest challenge for them is accessing doctors, so is making them digital the right investment? I don’t know!”

“Can pharma play? It better had or we aren’t in the game anymore.”

“Can pharma play? It better had or we aren’t in the game anymore. We have to be in this mHealth space,” Gait warned. “The future is in our hands and it doesn’t have to be the most comprehensive, budget breaking project in the world! Think about how you run the project over two years, have iteration phases, take out what fails and keep trying to make it better. The key thing is you think about the budget in year one, two, three and beyond, because you are in it for the long-haul and that they need to fund it on a continuous basis as your customers will still be there.”

“Finally, be simple. It doesn’t have to be new tech. Think about SMS - it may be ‘old school’, but it has massive reach and penetration. Look to what is effective and can make change happen,” Gait concluded.

Caryn Kavovit, Head of Sales & Strategic Partnerships, Boots WebMD, went on to talk about giving patients what they want online, before three of the 2013 PM Society Digital Media Awards winners presented their entries providing insight into the hallmarks of success.

Winning ways

Ruder Finn’s Charlotte Collins and Beth Williams presented the agency’s 2013 three-times winner for Novartis Vaccines: Meningitis: Keep Watching, which was a multi-channel, multi-stakeholder initiative that achieved a significant impact on its audience, evidenced by market research before and after. Their presentation is available to download here.

Presenting their winner with IDIS: I did this with IDIS, Langland provided a fascinating insight into the way that the project was developed to define and meet with an audience in an emotive and innovative way. The film, which won the Craft Award – Film and Animation, generated an impressive return on investment. Interestingly, Langland had filmed the making of the film as well as implementing the project, from almost before the idea was conceived through to the final stages, making for a more informative entry. 

Finally, HAVAS LYNX’s David Hunt presented their winning entry: EGFR Patient Pathway Mapping Tool, which was successful because of the demonstrable impact it had on patients’ lives. It looked at how a treatment pathway in NSCLC could be optimised digitally and reached out to educate the stakeholders that could effect that improvement. 

Reflecting on their 23 PM Society Digital Media Awards over the past five years, Hunt commented: “When we started entering we were 50 people in Manchester. We are now 200, with additional offices in London and New York and it is fair to say that the PM Society Awards’ made a significant contribution – the standard is high and technologies diverse. They have challenged us to keep pushing ourselves and evolve as an agency, while we make the next step.”

The PM Society Digital Media Awards are open for entry until Thursday 19 June 2014 and the winners will be announced at an awards ceremony on Thursday 25 September.