Even those pharma marketers lucky enough to look at fancy, convenient CRM dashboards of new generations, generously afforded by the global office, will admit one thing can’t be measured directly. This thing is called audience engagement; as important as it is, we can only deduce what the doctor really thought by peering into other metrics.

Pharmas have been trying to engage physicians for a time now, and we’ve all seen the outcomes, in turn, derided and praised. What’s surprising, however, is that while there are tactics (like tablets in reps’ hands) that are universally acknowledged, they end up providing very different results in different individual cases, from department to department. What makes HCPs truly engaged remains the subject of learned guess at times.

The problem is, general marketing community tends to associate engagement with the more “easy-going” direct-to-customer setting – the one where social media strategies have recently taken over. In life sciences, at the other hand, the decision-making is not supposed to be impulsive; the whole informational landscape is way more professional and serious. Really serious. Besides, even in B2C we have seen how poorly vanity metrics correlate with actual engagement.

Is there a way to create a pharma marketing strategy that will ensure genuine interest –not just polite nods? There must be one. Doctors have appreciated the possibilities that digital tech provides, and are really waiting for value. Yet, according to statistics, 43% still can’t name even one pharma that provides sufficient digital support in their work. Ninety per cent would make up a depressing fact; but as it is now, this means, of all things, opportunity.

Analyzing the channels, message and preferences

To understand how not to “kill” engagement, we will need to consider what pharma is already giving to physicians (something must have triggered expectations!) – and what the doctors’ opinions are on these points. Based on this insight, the marketer will be able to make the right strategic decisions in terms of both message and channel choice.

As of now, the two most wide-spread pharma-HCP communication channels are, of course, eDetailing with reps, and emailing. Each of these has its own pros and cons as to engagement levels reached.

Opinions are very different about eDetailing, ranging from “is it dying yet?” to absolute optimism. The reality is, this channel lives on and is capable of providing real value. In general, 44% life sciences companies are planning to increase their budget on reps – and there are reasons. Even though two years ago, 46% physicians were reported to say they “could definitely imagine work without reps around” – and pharmas were encouraged to strengthen websites – we have seen that in 48% cases a doctor is more likely to access an online resource after a rep has told them about it. eDetailing can be a rewarding experience for HCPs!

What makes it engaging is, first of all, talking with a real person, not a chatbot or impersonal UI. The other side of the medal is, of course, the all-too-obvious selling agenda and pushy conversational tactics. These are rooted in the false assumption by reps and marketers that these visits are the only touchpoint (so time to act right now). Once this channel is strongly endorsed by others, and the funnel is formed, eDetailing can become more informational in nature. And this is what the doctors want.

Of course, the informative side also has its issues: several minutes in a stressed-out setting in the middle of the day are not enough for providing all the content that the HCP needs; which, in turn, leads to the reps presenting similar (more “impressive”) content from visit to visit. Accordingly, marketers need to consider engaging the doctors with content appropriate to the channel and setting (see below for a possible solution). During a F2F visit, it is the rep’s skills with their tablet that helps maintain fresh interest.

What makes an email engaging for the physician who receives it? The biggest advantage here is, ironically, eDetailing’s most obvious drawback: timing. An email can be opened at any moment and does not have the element of intrusion. Statistically, as of July 2017, 51% emails were opened on mobile devices; at the same time, this percentage is not an absolute measurement – there are other numbers. This means that the emails are often opened for the first time on a mobile, subject lines and some content is inspected, and the interesting emails are then re-read on desktop.

How is this relevant for engaging busy physicians?  Emails can serve as doorways to more substantial interactions, where pharma gets the chance to provide the information that reps couldn’t fit in those several minutes. It may be a link, an invitation, or something else.

It’s interesting that the general rules on email marketing apply even more strongly in healthcare sector. Personalized emails are more likely to engage; then there’s the fact that often time, the person who receives the email is unwilling to take the further steps toward interaction because it looks like some “commitment”. Again, if emails serve as a gate towards interaction – not immediate purchase – this is easily overcome. In U.S., the #1 ranking wish as to the emails the audience expressed is less promotion, more information. However, a good marketer will afford such an attitude only when emailing is not the only channel to influence decision-making.

Content: providing value and not exaggerating it

At this point, it would be unfair not to say anything about the content used in interactions. After all, it is content that’s supposed to engage! To put it briefly, the three things to consider here will be:

  1. Information.
  2. Form.
  3. User experience.

If the marketer wants real engagement, some effort should be put into analyzing what the particular HCP audience wants. The one-size-fits-all approach is making product-centered presentations and online pages proudly quoting the most impressive passages from clinical trial endpoints. It is by no means “bad”, but to push engagement to a new level, it will take more. For example, it pays off to consider what healthcare practitioners are interested in when browsing websites.

Next comes the form. Visual appeal and convenient structuring are at the core in this respect. Additionally, as eDetailing has shown over the past several years, interactivity matters a lot. As shown by research, 52% physicians say interactive content makes rep visits much more valuable.

This is closely connected with user experience. If the doctor is to interact with content, the interface should not distract from medical data, otherwise the whole thing is perceived as an overblown marketing effort – so it is important to impress, but not too much.

Bonus note: tone of message! According to reports, 62% rheumatologists think that the information on pharma websites is too promotional. The choice of specialty here is very indicative: family doctors typically handle the overtly promotional tone better, especially when dealing with OTC products, whereas specialists tend to prefer less exaggerated colors. They know how great your brand is; now they want practical details. The easiest way to engage them is to adjust the tone – but not give up on promotion when necessary.

Assembling the best points in remote communications

So here’s the situation: physicians do want to be engaged, but hate the sales push, especially when it’s concentrated within one single interaction and compromises the informative nature of communications. Solving this problem is the key to fostering the real, genuine engagement. In practice, this means pharma’s active influence on decision-making should appear “dispersed” across the channels that supplement each other, leading (not pushing) towards decisions. To achieve this effect, a good strategy should consider broadening the funnel and promoting interactions along a channel that combines the good points from both eDetailing and email campaigns.

Remote interaction with reps is easily the best variant for this purpose. On the one hand, it combines the convenience of email with the interactivity of eDetailing. On the other, remote calls can be followed up by either of these, sewing together the interaction with the brand.

There is a curious observation overlooked in the pile of data on how HCPs go online. 58% of US doctors use or are interested in using a voice assistance program to look up medical information. This is a clear attempt to combine live communication with the un-intrusiveness of web browser and relaxed atmosphere outside of open hours. Now, imagine a rep online doing the job of that voice assistance program. Even more helpful, isn’t it? This is why remote detailing platforms met a hearty welcome with many physicians. It has also been reported that 60% of healthcare practitioners are now attending online conferences more often than previously – much for the same reason.

To include remote detailing into your pharma marketing strategy, there is much less effort to be put than it seems. It is no longer an experimental tactic; solutions for remote communications are already quite elaborate. You can look up more practical details about establishing this type of platform here – and start implementing solutions to launch a winning engagement strategy.