Kerri Riccardo


By Kerri Riccardo, Co-founder, Partner, Scientific Global


What if we could look inside the minds of HCPs to see what’s happening there during industry events and interactions? I’d sure like to do that, and I bet you would, too.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s coming a lot closer to reality with functional MRI studies, cognitive research, evolutionary biology, and related brain science. Today, scientists are unlocking secrets of cognition and memory in ways that can help us to design innovative, more effective education approaches. These investigations start to answer some of the questions pharma has long grappled with, such as

  • How do we grab and keep HCP attention?
  • How do we get HCPs to retain more of what we share with them?
  • What role, if any, does emotion have in message retention?

Some educational settings and conditions make it easier for audiences to engage and put their lessons into action than others. And some are a lot of fun. Why is that?

When looking at how our industry has historically achieved marketing success and evaluating opportunities to innovate, I often like to explore outside of pharma. Take John Medina, PhD, for example. His New York Times best-seller Brain Rules (Seattle, Pear Press, 2014 second edition) helped inspire this piece.  So here’s a set of 5 brain rules for better marketing based on the evolving knowledge of how the mind and body work together to learn and retain new information.


Brain Rule #1: Eliminate distractions because multitasking is a myth

An interrupted person not only takes 50% more time to complete a task, but also makes up to 50% more errors. It seems that our brains need time and effort to reset for new tasks. But try sharing these cognition study stats with an HCP scanning his or her smartphone while half-listening to a speaker.

One solution we’re increasingly putting to work makes it impossible to multitask: Virtual Reality. With VR, HCPs get immersed in educational content. The design technology eliminates external distractions that could detract from engagement and retention. When I put on VR goggles, I’m instantly transported into an ideal learning environment. I’m at the front of the room, able to clearly hear and see…. I’m sitting in an HCP’s office observing a patient consultation…. I’m observing a meaningful dialogue between an HCP and a sales rep. With 360° of vision, I can engage with data and images rendered in full 3D and explore them from different angles. I’m engaged, far more powerfully than I could be as a multitasker. Audiences not only learn more when utilizing a VR experience, but also retain 95% of the content shared—while actually having some fun while doing so.


Brain Rule #2: Recognize that vision dominates the senses

If I were my dog, there would be almost as many neural connections from my nose to my brain as there are from my eyes. But alas, I’m human and smell is a distant runner-up to vision. Cortical mapping shows that more of the human brain is devoted to processing visual input than any other sense. Simply put, we’re remarkably talented at recalling images we’ve seen before.

Images, not sounds, should dominate learning experiences where possible. Like HCPs, I’m relieved when a PowerPoint presentation has bright, thought-provoking images rather than long lists of text and bullet points. We need more visual metaphors and analogies to make our narratives memorable than text and charts. This also explains why infographics are so much more effective—3 times as powerful as typical text, according to a recent study. Colors and images keep audiences engaged and help us to remember the message.

The use of images also holds true for video. On social media, 85% of audiences are watching video with the sound turned off. (That’s data direct from Facebook). This makes sense when you think about where audiences are consuming video, such as in an office, at a hospital workstation, or while in public, where sound would disturb others. So today, when we storyboard videos, we make sure the visuals make sense to tell the story even with the sound turned off.

Studies also reveal that audiences increasingly access online content through their smartphones. That means as savvy marketers and content creators, we must factor screen size into our design choices, using responsive image design to optimize media size and resolution based on the viewing device.


Brain Rule #3: Active bodies sharpen learning minds

Some of the most interesting new research recognizes how physical activity enhances learning. Could it be that sitting down isn’t ideal for education? Brain studies using functional MRI show that physical activity improves cerebral blood flow and oxygen delivery, enhancing cognitive capacity and creativity. Active bodies are not just healthier; they also learn better.

So why not develop offerings optimized for standing and/or walking audiences? We’ve explored programs that put KOLs and HCPs face to face, toe to toe—whether live or virtual—as an alternative to lecterns and rows of seats.

The action-learning connection has caught on elsewhere. The annual American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago in 2018 provided on-site treadmills that allowed attendees to watch live video streams from sessions as they walk or jog. Roche’s Genentech company and the Mayo Clinic have experimented with chairless meeting rooms, while Texas Health Resources has meeting rooms with spinning bikes.


Brain Rule #4: Incorporate emotion to crystallize memory

Where does the brain encode memories? Brain science say it’s in the hippocampus, way down under the basal ganglia—right next to and highly connected to the amygdala, the emotional seat of the brain that responds to threats and attractions, such as food or a potential mate. The more activated the hippocampus, the more gets remembered, and few things activate the hippocampus like the amygdala. This deep neural connection hard-wires us, it seems, to preferentially remember emotionally significant events, like the birth of a child or your college graduation day.

Logically, then, as marketers, we should strive to provoke strong emotional responses. That thinking runs a bit counter to what I’ve seen in conventional Med Ed programs, which typically push aside emotions to avoid seeming “unscientific.” Often, KOL talks, slide kits, and videos are heavy on numbers and facts, light on feelings. Could we be doing data a disservice when separating it from the human side of medicine and the impact upon patients? This Brain Rule says yes, and suggests that to be memorable, case studies should bring to life not just the science but also the humanity of the patients involved.

For example, the unforgettable story of 7-year-old Emily Whitehead is a major reason Novartis’ breakthrough Kymriah® (tisagenlecleucel) has oncologists buzzing. Many scientific presentations about chiral antigen receptor T-cell therapy (CAR-T) include a photo of Emily near death in 2011, her recurrent case of acute lymphoblastic leukemia resistant to every known approach. Then presenters show Emily at present day, thriving and healthy, the re-programmed T-cells of her immune system eradicating malignant B-cells and leaving her tumor-free. You can’t help but get choked up emotionally. Empathizing with Emily drives home not only the urgency of bringing CAR-T therapy to more patients, but also makes you want to understand how the near-miracle is achieved.

Could your brand’s case studies benefit from an emotional boost? I think so.


Brain Rule #5: Tap the explorer within every HCP

It’s stunning to realize that for the first 100,000 years of human existence, we were nomadic hunters and gatherers, dependent on finding food, water, and shelter in a vast and changing landscape. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists say that was plenty of time for our brains to develop and perfect a knack for exploration and active, hands-on learning. We weren’t the strongest or fastest animals, yet our bigger brains enabled us to take over the world.

You can use this insight to make marketing more effective by harnessing HCP curiosity and the urge to explore. It’s much more instructive—and fun—to learn when you can follow a thread of ideas that interest your brain rather than follow an inflexible script. Innovative learner-directed programs put HCPs in charge of their own educations, providing lots of choices and branches to follow, along with self-tests and challenges. Some also allow for variations in learning style preferences, giving visual learners different stimuli than auditory learners get.

Consider, too, whether your marketing strategy and goals can be achieved through interactive games that engage HCP brains. Games have been used recently to teach emergency care skills, address medication errors, simulate operating room equipment failures, and instruct about insulin use. One game, developed at the University of Iowa, uses a zombie theme to teach medical students concepts of evidence-based medicine!


Brainy stuff, indeed

These insight-based innovations are just the beginning of how neuroengineering helps our industry build more powerful and durable experiences. We’re learning more about the brain every day. Clearly, we are starting to use brain power a lot better to help HCP audiences acquire new skills and knowledge and help pharma companies share their vital data. The benefit: HCPs who practice better medicine and patients who get better sooner. It doesn’t take neuroengineering to see the value of that.



About the author

Kerri Riccardo is a partner and co-founder of Scientific Global, a promotional medical communications agency based in New York. Kerri takes a bold approach to every client initiative. She has exceptional capacity for conceiving and developing strategic market expansion programs that generate results. Feel free to reach out: [email protected].