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The difference between multichannel and omnichannel pharma communication many have overlooked

difference between multichannel and omnichannel

“Multichannel” and “omnichannel” are high frequency buzzwords in pharma marketing circles. The world’s population is stocking on mobile devices and digital experiences, and these experiences are becoming continuous. The overwhelming success stories of how enterprises in different industries have exploited this is pushing life sciences companies to consider these learnings and decide what to adopt for the future omnichannel pharma communication.

Not to mention that physicians and patients expect it from pharma.

All this is largely discussed at events like Eyeforpharma and Digital Pharma East, to name a few, but there still seems to be ambiguity about what omnichannel really is. Is it the same as multichannel? Here is the actual difference that many have overlooked – but which can make or unmake the eventual outcomes.

Digitalized populations expect more engagement… where is pharma right now?

You can’t easily draw a line between the digital and non-digital part of your life anymore. With the levels of web and mobile use in the world, nearly everyone is living online and offline at the same time – which means digital experiences materialize all around you in the form of purchased goods or office talk. As of Q1 2020, there were 4.54 billion internet users worldwide, and 4.18 billion mobile internet users, who spend 6 hours 43 minutes online daily – about 40% of the entire waking life.

What’s more, it’s mobile that accounts for 51.98% global online traffic, meaning you shouldn’t visualize your target audience sitting at a desktop computer – they’re most likely staring at a gadget while doing everyday activities.

Speaking of target audiences, physicians are no less digitalized than everyone else – only they rely on technology for their practice, as well. According to DRG Digital, who has carefully tracked the trend over the years, by now 85% HCPs use smartphone in their practice, spending about 4.4 hours a day on professional purposes alone.

This is already being reflected in pharma marketing budget allocations – but with some peculiarities. Compared to the previous year, a survey reports average marketing budgets increased up 16.3% – with about 52% marketers readjusting the ratio of spending on field force vs. other channels (excluding events). However, 60% out of these are actually boosting the reps’ part of the strategy.

Meanwhile, outside pharma…

…things are developing in a different direction. Starbucks, for example, makes it possible for customers to earn points in their loyalty program not just on the spot but using the mobile app and the website, while target audience is carefully filtered out and addressed via an array of channels. Yet who has ever complained about Starbucks getting repetitive? Examples are multiplying, especially in retail, but also affect banking, real estate and other industries.

This could not have passed without noticing in life sciences, of course. Providing omnichannel communication has merged with the desire for cost-efficiency, brand consistency and, above all, customer-centricity. Industry leaders are actively discussing the various models of implementing multi- and omnichannel customer engagement – and the practical models often look extremely different from each other.

While multichannel has been around for a while, though, “omnichannel” is a newcomer… and it is important to understand how it differs and what additional potential it has.

What is omnichannel, anyway?

What is an omnichannel approach? In most publications and presentations on omnichannel pharma marketing, so far, the term is more or less used interchangeably with “multichannel” and implies something like, “The more channels of communication you have, the more likely you’ll get through with your key message. Add another channel to the mix!”

This is not the thing. Omnichannel is, to put it simply, an integrated form of multichannel – “multichannel done right”.

What’s wrong with multichannel as it is

Simply adding one channel to another, and so on, and so on may produce unexpected effects. While several years ago, when most people were using 1-2 digital channels, for example, email and web, or web and Skype, or an app and email, a marketer was justified in thinking: okay, by this channel we will cover X% of the audience, and this one will be for the Y% left behind, and we ignore the overlap. Now, the situation has changed.

Imagine you are a physician, and on a Monday you see a banner:

On Tuesday, you get an email from that same pharma company, clearly sent to several thousands of your peers:

And then on Wednesday, a rep comes, telling you exactly that. Let’s suppose the message really interested you, and on Tuesday evening, you took the trouble to navigate the website, learning more details.

Still, what is the probability of you listening to the rep for more than 2 minutes?

This is a common problem with today’s multichannel tactics:

  • Some of the target audience get flooded with the same message;
  • Some only receive incoherent scraps of brand communication.

As early as 2017, when the boom of channel-adding was happening across the industry, a survey came up with oncologists in the U.S. claiming that 68% of the times, the reps show them information they had already seen. The figures were not much different for other specialties, almost never lower than 51% of visits.

Omnichannel is essentially the manner of organizing multichannel to bring coherence and integration into the mix – and a lot more.

Omnichannel vs. Multichannel approach compared

Instead of thinking in channel-based terms and metrics (“We send emails across our email database once in X period”, “On average, a rep has Y visits a day”), omnichannel suggests something new.

This something is asking the question, “Where has this particular customer seen that message before?” and then, “What should they ideally see or hear of next?” – a more customer-based approach that tries to look at brand communication from the HCP’s perspective.

Achieving this way of thinking is not just reconfiguring the CRM, though. There are several factors that make it possible:

  • Integration of data from different DBs and channels
  • Access to these data across departments and authorized decision-makers
  • Streamlined communication between responsible managers and departments
  • Possibility to map customer journeys and expertise in doing so
  • Connection between the systems used, merging processes into a single flow

As a result, the true omnichannel approach is markedly different from “just multichannel”:

As an example, in multichannel, rep-triggered emails are usually managed through the same CRM that the other field activities are, while mass mailings (emitted by the marketing department) may be handled through an email sender service. Without direct integration between the two, merging the data on two types of email is a matter of periodic meetings or manual reporting – hampering efficient decision-making even on the minute tactical level. In omnichannel, though, not only are these two integrated and tracked together per account and other settings but are also juxtaposed with other channel data. The result? A possibility to look at the brand through the HCP’s eyes.

Building an omnichannel customer journey

As the figure of the HCP becomes central in the picture, the omnichannel marketer’s primary visualization is not just a dashboard with cumulative figures but a customer journey map. This is a representation of the possible route that the customer follows on the way from encountering the key message to making the decision.

The notion itself has been around for a while, but it’s naïve to think it could be linear – e.g. a customer sees the message on a banner, AND THEN encounters further proof on the website, AND THEN is targeted with an email, AND THEN given exhaustive information and gently encouraged to prescribe by a rep. In reality, the customer always has several possibilities for entry, several possible scenarios of what happens next, and several possible exits.

Think in terms of customer journeys that matters. Download a short ebook giving a glimpse of omnichannel art.

The unpredictable customer experience can be modeled

This is where modeling such journeys based on behavioral patterns and target audience parameters becomes instrumental – once you take the possibilities and odds into consideration, you can allocate the effort to promotion for different links in the chain.

Note that different decisions are taken under widely different circumstances and involve different channels. This allows creating content that pulls the levers where necessary, in a precisely defined way – without extra work and resource allocation. In this way, omnichannel approach becomes cost-efficient in terms of content.

Connecting the platforms

While the environments for the different links in the chain are different, there needs to be a way of integrating them into a single ecosystem. This is done by establishing integrations and using APIs between the various platforms that manage different types of interaction with the customer – CRM, Marketing automation platform (Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Adobe Campaign, Oracle Responsys, etc.), content management platforms, additional tools and services (Webinar platform, Survey platform, Messengers and so on).

At the head of these “limbs” is an integrated data pool, drawing on data sets obtained from different sources. This can be technically implemented as a database or a “data lake” – manipulated by a Business Intelligence (BI) platform or otherwise compiled into actionable insights. This sort of omnichannel data integration allows to fine-tune interaction tactics across channels according to the customer journey map updates.

Benefits of omnichannel customer communication

Before we continue to look at how much of this is already happening in pharma, let’s quickly summarize the why of the question. What are the tangible benefits of omnichannel marketing?

  • Cost-efficiency:
    • Due to greater ROI on each interaction flow, as the touchpoints are more directed
    • Due to only the necessary content being created – KPIs for each material requested from the agency are more precise and measurable, as content is more “specialized”
    • Long-term – the brand reputation increases as the audience develops the habit of interacting with the brand
  • Consistent brand messaging
  • More flexible strategy
  • Greater customer satisfaction
  • More frequent and meaningful interactions in a clear, organized but dynamic pattern
  • More meaningful metrics and KPIs
  • Convenient management and coordination via a single center

For each organization, one or more of these considerations may be dominant, of course – influencing the way an omnichannel network is starting to be built.

Available channels and their limits

One more benefit of this approach is that omnichannel allows transcending the inherent limitations of each channel, making the message heard in its entirety, adjusting the tactics to the idea, not idea to the channel.

Here are the most commonly used channels – and their limitations:

Channel Specifics Quantitative restraints
F2F calls Prone to chance and restrictions 2-5 minutes duration

Limited frequency per week

Mass mailing Need for send list segmentation Length of subject line (open rate)

Consent (GDPR, etc.)

No interactivity

Rep-triggered mail Tied to specific trigger events (like a F2F visit) Amount of approved blocks in the template
Social Knowledge of platform specifics Limited message size

Short term availability

Limited reach

Webinars Careful preparation required, platform needed Time of actual participation ≠ entire webinar time
Mobile apps Clear technical requirements before development needed Typically used by a limited share of users (e.g. treating a specific condition)

With omnichannel, these limitations do not influence the holism of your message at the higher level – the audience is able to hear all of it, with argumentation and answers to their questions – like a band playing instead of just one instrument.

The two roads to omnichannel pharma

So how real is all of this for pharma communications today? The vision has already crystallized in other industries; now the task is to transplant it to pharma, and the pathways differ. As of now, the possible strategies to implement omnichannel gravitate towards two paradigms.

Paradigm 1: “Multichannel rep”

This approach relies on the state of things at hand, which is largely rep driven. In hope of a smoother and more gradual transition, strategists keep the medical representative in the very center of what’s happening, but work on “arming” them with modern tools. The mix looks something like this:

  • More advanced CRM and CLM
  • Reps are empowered with insights and analytics in the CLM (think Veeva’s extensions to iRep functionality, like Timeline view)
  • Communication largely remains rep-centered, e.g. reliant on rep-triggered emails, rep-reported insights, etc.
  • Using ML features (recommendations, predictive analytics, etc.) in the CRM.

On the one hand, there is a clear advantage: smoother transition. On the other, as CRM and generally sales force efficiency remain in the lead, there are clear risks to overlook or silo the other aspects of interaction, notable websites, apps, social, etc. At one point or another, integrating these may present bigger problems exactly because so many eggs were put into one basket.

Paradigm 2: Journey-based approach

Another approach is more predictive of the future: making the transition to journey-based thinking the initial priority and start implementing the integrations, systems and channels to build a basis straight away. Field force remains important, but not the center – this spotlight role is given to the customer experience itself, embodied in journeys:

  • A marketing automation system is at the core
  • Product managers design and launch journeys (and content) together with digital experts
  • Rep call is just one of the communication channels and is planned as part of a journey in the marketing automation system
  • Large number of diverse channels are used with maximum personalization

This allows to achieve the right omnichannel mix and mindset already at the initial stage; at the same time, careful analysis and planning needs to be done for in-built flexibility and scalability of the ecosystem.

Making it scalable is completely possible – it’s not necessary to construct everything at once; however, determining where to start is a matter of collaboration between the enterprise and omnichannel experts who can lead through the change in the easiest way.

Areas of special attention: when do you really need professionals on board?

The good thing is that starting to implement omnichannel, whatever your individual chosen pathway is, does not have to be dramatic. Viseven omnichannel experts prefer to organize the process in such a way that the customer company does not have to hire a large number of specialists – and will not have to later, even when scaling to more and more accounts, territories and projects.

Instead, we are focusing on a relatively small well-trained team, able to delve into the project and automate the largest amount of processes possible. In this way, the enterprise gets the omnichannel toolkit that satisfies the immediate needs fast, and can be grown organically into a larger ecosystem whenever necessary.

Where exactly is such expertise most required? Here are the strategic points:

  • Establishing the omnichannel architecture and infrastructure;
  • Integrations for omnichannel data management;
  • Creating the single center of control;
  • Journey building (optimally achieved with engaging FTE expertise to immerse in the target audience specifics);
  • Content creation and development.

Illuminate your brand for the audience and provide them the omnichannel experience they deserve and expect. Be at the forefront of change that is affecting the entire way life sciences build dialog with HCPs and patients – and let a team of skilled experts assist you, providing technical expertise, elaborate journeys and sound advice along the way.