Skip to main content
Previous post All posts Next post
Banner image

Digital Pharma 2018: Key Takeaways for Pharma Marketers

min read

Clare Kirlin
Director of Marketing

At this year’s annual Digital Pharma East conference in Philadelphia, one thing was clear: pharma is moving fast.

That may seem surprising for an industry that’s been slow to digitally transform, but there are unmistakable signs that things have taken a sharp turn in 2018 — especially for marketers.

There’s a lot driving this change, but we’ve boiled it down to the four trends that are top-of-mind in the industry right now.

Digital Pharma East conference

1. Pharma Takes a Cue from Fast Retail


Jim Scholefield, Nike CIO, just did it: he left consumer retail to lead digital strategy and IT at Merck, one of the world’s largest pharma organizations. It’s the latest in a series of high-profile hires from consumer industries. (GlaxoSmithKline named former L’Oréal executive Emma Walmsley as CEO in April 2017.)

Jamie Rosati, Merck’s executive director of digital strategy and enterprise social media, shed light on Merck’s forward-looking hiring strategy during the conference’s annual plenary panel discussion: “More and more, we are hiring talent with skills that didn’t exist before in the company, from analytics to R&D,” she said.

These moves signal an awakening at the very top levels of the industry: adapt or perish. While pharmaceutical experience was previously considered the price of entry for key hires, the floodgates have opened for new players to contribute diverse perspectives and fresh ideas from more digitally mature sectors. These talent strategies will only continue to drive innovation in pharma.

That said, existing pharma executives are not being put out to pasture. “You can teach an old dog new tricks,” said Rosati, “if it’s willing to learn.”

2. Humanization Drives Personalization


Patient, HCP, and other audience segments are now being treated less as data points and more as people. While this shift has been underway for years, it is now foundational to marketing strategies.

Daemion Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline’s Manager of disease awareness marketing, puts humanity at the core of his messaging. For example, the company’s Us in Lupus website was intentionally developed to reflect the unique characteristics of lupus patients (who are mostly African-American and female). From user-generated stories that build authentic connections to content that addresses the distrust in healthcare common to the lupus patient population, the site is centered on human health, not products.

Us in Lupus website (GSK)

Pharma marketers are also responding to the need for hyper-personalized digital experiences is by embracing technology that enables targeted messaging based on real-time behavior instead of broad demographic segmentation.

KPIs have evolved to prioritize meaningful engagement over mass reach; in one case study presented by Allison Hartsoe, CEO of Ambition Data, success was measured not by overall email open rates — which had actually decreased — but by higher conversion rates for the target audience. Until digital marketing platforms reached today’s level of sophistication, such outcomes would have been unthinkable.

3. Data Protection Becomes a Competitive Advantage


Strict rules around personal data handling are inevitable; regulations like the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) have become shorthand for the direction that legislation and popular opinion are moving. By and large, the pharma industry is treating these privacy laws as an opportunity to improve the customer experience, rather than a constraint.

Data is as much an asset as it is a liability; perhaps a function of the above-mentioned trend toward personalization, marketers are defining success as a positive overall customer experience — which includes respecting user privacy. Gaetan Akinrolabu, associate director of social strategy at Bristol-Myers Squibb, echoed this evolving attitude during his analytics panel session remarks: “Our primary focus is to generate business results, not impressions.”

User data is no longer being hoarded at the expense of those higher-level business goals, which include re-establishing credibility. In Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer report, pharma was ranked as the least-trusted subsegment of healthcare in the U.S. Currently at just 38%, it’s on the decline. Proactive accountability is a game-changer for pharmas that want to build trust with a cynical audience, and they’re taking note.

Digital Pharma East analytics track panelists

4. Analytics Moves Up the Food Chain


Executing on a tactic is no longer enough. Marketers are now being evaluated based on true business impact. In his opening remarks as chairperson of the event’s analytics session, meltmedia’s co-founder and VP of business development Ron Barry quoted Dan Reinhardt (president of strategic consulting firm Return on Focus): “2019 isn’t the year of accountability, it is the beginning of an era of accountability [for marketers].” 

The flaws of execution-focused metrics were further emphasized by Ben Lei, director of marketing at Pharmacyclics, during his comments on the Future of Analytics panel. “If data is only tactical, it hurts our decision-making,” he said. Lei recounted an ROI analysis in which a vendor measured campaign success as the company’s target list out-performing its untargeted list on media engagements — simplistic information that could not be used to improve results.

For analytics to be actionable, pharma marketers must distinguish between data and insight, according to Alison Woo, director and social media lead for U.S. pharma at Novartis. As easy as it is to amass analytics that never live beyond a dashboard report, pharma marketers are doing the hard work required to derive meaning from their data.

With so much data available, it can be daunting to determine what to measure. How much is too much, or too little? Bob Allen, digital operations lead at Bristol-Myers Squibb, advises marketers to begin with the question, “How will I use this information to change my actions?” Only then can analytics serve a strategic purpose.

The Time Has Come


While the pace of change is enough to cause whiplash, pharma marketers should take heart. The industry has finally embraced the advanced digital strategies it’s been lacking for years. Leading companies are setting a precedent for how to assimilate these strategies into marketing programs. Marketers are quickly testing and optimizing new tactics. And technology has advanced to a point where it’s finally possible. Now is the moment to seize the opportunity.

Digital Pharma East