So, patient centricity. By now, almost everyone in pharma has their own reasons to try and implement this – and the industry has even taken steps. Not that the notion means one and the same thing to all companies – but one thing is clear: the most necessary precondition is engaging patients in communication.

It’s symptomatic that a survey conducted in October revealed 100% of respondents (i.e. both pharma and agencies) to believe the industry “could de more” about patient engagement. This covers even those who don’t seem to take the issue as one of primary importance (98% said it was) – which is to say, even those who are not actively working through possibilities to complete the HCP-pharma-patient triangle could possibly have some vague ideas. This is, in fact, as understandable as counterintuitive. As life sciences communications are exploring the multichannel universe, practically any type of connection can be tried out for the purpose of reaching the patients. Some attempts will fail, but some will produce reproducible results – in the end, given how pharma is expected to work more with patients after all the talk, a savvy manager has to experiment.

The misinterpreted channel?

Enter email – one of the almost default channels in any strategy. The fact that it’s habitual for the audience is a mixed blessing for the marketer – on the one hand, it’s easy to get overlooked, on the other (if you act right) it’s possible to sew together all the other interactions. Email has generally shown very good results with physician engagement – with 68% preferring to be contacted via this means (compare to 11% who chose talking to reps). Additionally, rep-triggered email practices can help integrate the overall experience.

But you can’t use the same methods for patient engagement as you do with HCPs, can you? On the other hand, neither can life sciences act like retail, just emitting promotional mass mailings or even targeted ads – it’s not just about marketing, it’s about getting insights, interacting and collaborating broadly.

Many have already started emailing efforts to reach patients and overcome the initial misconceptions and naivety. It’s time to sum up the experience, contrasting what a manager might expect with what actually happens. In a way, this surprisingly affects the general view of email as a channel.

Starting from the most fundamental assumptions:

Expectation: “It will mean bypassing HCPs somehow”

Reality: It mostly works in very tight collaboration with HCPs

When “extracting” the concept of patient engagement from the confused bundle of ideas several years ago, it was natural to isolate it in its own right, so to speak. Incidentally, “theorists” tended to erase HCPs from the vision altogether. Talking to physicians is one thing, and now there’s also that brand new thing – building a productive dialog with the patients, which is completely different. Right?

It turns out, whenever this isolated vision is applied to practice, things become severely limited to OTC and awareness campaigns. Which is not “just the way it is” – given the potential of email as a channel, having the HCPs involved is, in many cases, exactly what a manager will want.

the importance of patient education materials

Recently, the PM Society Patient Engagement survey defined the aspects most worthy of consideration:

  • 57% – using patient insight to help shape healthcare professional communications;
  • 51% – using patient insight to help shape brand strategy;
  • 49% – patient advocacy groups.

These priorities are very understandable – and clearly require to plug the HCP’s office in, as well.

Instead of simply mass mailing patients, then, one may consider the scenario in which email is used to link pharma & HCP, HCP & patients, and – consequently – pharma & patients. The former two links are already there in place, while the third can be established by providing relative content.

As shown by 2017 research, about 79% physicians use patient education materials provided by pharma (+advocacy groups) – and 56% expect to receive these from pharma. The dialog that reps have established with the doctor can be the starting ground for getting to know what type of content will interest the patients – and can be redirected/forwarded to them by the HCP alongside recommendations.

Expectation: “It is going to be less serious, less professional and more promotional”

Reality: No one wants condescension instead of real benefits

Compared to the heaps of information required to tell a physician about a product – regulatory, legal, MoA, primary/secondary endpoints of clinical trials, you name it – it may seem that very general educational information plus product promotion is enough for patients. In practice, the patient audience is much more demanding than may seem – something that many a manager will confirm.

Just ads, even when targeted, are not enough to establish a dialog – it’s not like anyone is going to engage seriously and provide insights because they liked the visuals of an email. Besides, patients can be very serious about trying to know more about their condition and therapy options. Healthcare providers are a primary point of reference, of course – and since it is possible to work in collaboration, the email content may as well be more focused on more than just promise or general trivia.

There are examples of incredibly involved and real-world interactions between pharma and patient advocacy groups, too. A case has been described when insights from IBD patients served to outline – and partially solve – an infrastructure issue. These cases and the like raise the plank for patient engagement so that the cost of patient insights is measured in value-based interactions. That means more serious, informative content for emails.

This also means that targeting needs revision. As of now, 80% enterprises engage in basic database segmentation, and as many as 57% maintain “contact DB hygiene” – while only 36% include multichannel triggers as part of their email strategy. However, as the stakes are rising, the proportion of marketers who rate their success excellent to good is down from 56% to 52%. The most probable reason is the transition to an era of more personalized email messaging.

Expectation: “We’ll try and engage patient audiences in bulk with mass mailings”

Reality: May work for some campaigns, but in most cases, personalization levels will beg to be raised

Automation and mass mailing are looming large in marketers’ minds now. When selecting an email service platform, 2/3 (66%) of the respondents in a survey listed the possibility of marketing automation in the top three factors they look for. This consideration even overrides user-friendliness, which scored slightly below at 60%. However, this trend mostly comes from DTC marketing – whereas in a case with life sciences, actual engagement presupposes deeper interactions than just clicking an “Add to cart” button.

automation as a tool for successful strategy

Once the territory of really sensitive information is reached – or once more responsible issues are at stake – the triggered email from familiar address becomes more important.

What is the nature of personalization in such cases? Unlike the mechanism of personalizing content in automated campaigns, here the content will probably be based on the insights received from HCPs at the initial stage – and then tailored to the patient feedback whenever possible.

This means that using flexible email templates becomes vital. To render the necessary information and/or interaction elements (e.g. survey or feedback) properly, the most productive strategy will be to assemble emails quickly from predesigned components – a job that can be done by a manager, while the agency provides the templates.

Is it all doable? It has just become so.

Bonus checklist: 5 tips for effective patient-oriented emailing

1 Define the principal goal

What is patient engagement for the company? For the affiliate? For this one campaign? What do you hope to achieve? Doing patient engagement just for art’s sake is impossible. If, for example, the principal goal is getting insights for aligning professional communications, then it already dictates the content types and email distribution tactics: survey forms in email body and segmentation based on corresponding criteria. Awareness campaigns will gravitate towards incorporated video, etc.

2 How will the email get to the patients?

In some cases, it’s better to use email templates as a supplement to the patients’ existing interactions with the HCPs, sometimes it’s wise to engage via the community/support group. This factor also defines the content of the email.

3 Use flexible, easily adaptable templates

It would be a crazy idea to have agencies produce ready-made 600px-wide email masterpieces for each interaction. To make the strategy work, however, the sensible thing to do is have a library of predesigned blocks (buttons, headlines, footers, carousels, text&pic, etc.) – and a tool allowing to build a shiny new email from these blocks in several minutes.

Also important: testing! Email clients are not created equal and render differently, so it is very important to have a preview (or send test) option.

interactive emails for customer engagement

4 Responsive design and mobile friendliness

We all know it needs to be done. According to statistics, 73% of companies take active steps to ensure mobile friendliness (up from 64% last year) – and for a reason: many too many emails are first opened on a mobile device.

Also, see the “Also” remark from #3.

5 Add interactivity!

Thankfully, by now mobile friendliness does not exclude interactive features like hover effects, embedded features and clickables in an email – and these work excellently for establishing communications. As little as integrating social media widgets can sometimes radically change the output of a campaign. Agencies working for various industries report about 50% surge in demand for interactive emails – and pharma shouldn’t be an exception.

To allow for a quick start with these tactics, think of the content and the way to produce it – and if your tech is sufficiently adapted to the goals, adjusting the flow of email will come easy enough. Try out a demo of a powerful email creation tool on a pharma-oriented content platform to see the workings in practice – enabling interactions with patients that were once too good to be true.