Learning from digitally leading industries: Three keys to improve omnichannel engagement in life sciences

By Bruce Carlson, VP of services effectiveness and innovation for Aktana

The interplay of communication channels – websites, e-mail, video, podcast, social media, mass media, and, of course, interpersonal – is all the rage in consumer marketing today. Hundreds of millions of marketing dollars are being committed to these channels each year – and marketing spend is expected to grow by nearly 15 percent this year, according to Deloitte.

Consider these numbers:

• Podcasts now reach more than 100 million Americans a month (Edison, 2020).
• There are 8 million active advertisers on Facebook, the vast majority of which are small and medium-sized businesses. (Facebook Insights, 2020), and as of April 2020, LinkedIn’s number of users in the United States reached 160 million (Statista, 2020).
• 83 percent of marketers say video has helped them generate leads and 84 percent of people say that they’ve been convinced to buy a product or service by watching a brand’s video (Wyzowl, 2020).
• Email marketing has the highest ROI for small businesses (Campaign Monitor, 2019).
• More than half (53 percent) of marketers say the webinar is the “Top-of-the-funnel” format that generates the most high-quality leads (Demand Gen Report, 2021).

The numbers speak to the power of each individual channel – new and not-so-new. Yet, there’s no playbook that provides reliable standards or practices to guide marketers for lone channels, let alone how to effectively juggle omnichannel communications. Given the omnichannel flurry of activity in pharma and the extraordinary constraints on life sciences commercial teams, how can the industry most effectively leverage omnichannel communications to connect with healthcare professionals (HCPs)?

What can the life sciences industry learn from outsiders, like retail, where omnichannel practices have advanced further and much faster? For instance, supermarket giant Albertsons is seeing the fruits of its omnichannel capabilities. In second-quarter 2021, the Boise, Idaho-based retailer saw digital sales rise 5 percent year over year, for a two-year stacked growth of 248 percent due to the extended reach of its click-and-collect and delivery services.

Results like these are within the grasp of life sciences commercial teams if we adopt them.

Start by establishing a data analytics foundation

Even before technologies and digital channels are considered, life sciences companies need to commit to making data central to decision-making. “Gaining value from omnichannel engagement requires a cultural transformation,” says Ganes Kesari, cofounder and chief decision scientist at Gramener, a data science consulting company. “Organizations often view analytics as a quick-fix project, but real success only happens when digital and data become the lifeblood of an organization.”

For life sciences companies, omnichannel strategies must extend beyond just marketing and sales but also to the medical science liaison teams, the market access groups, and patient-support teams. The greatest value comes from bringing these various groups, channels, and data sources together.

The ability to generate useful recommendations for next-best-actions is fundamental to the value omnichannel analytics provides to the life sciences industry. For example, a physician-led search on a brand’s website for samples that don’t yield any results can trigger a follow-up email attempting to address the HCP’s recent activity or an HCP who explores the agenda for an upcoming event but then doesn’t sign up to attend could drive a call to provide more details.

But what about all the actions and interactions that led to the search to begin with? When the preceding actions are captured as part of a whole rather than in a vacuum, the brand can tailor the next-best-actions to be more precise. In this case, perhaps a call from the brand’s call center followed by placing a sample order would have gotten the job done – the result of a wider analysis that included the last sample drop, HCP’s patient activity, and website behavior.

Today’s advancing data analytics technologies are integral, first by bringing together disparate data, such as search terms from Google and comments on social media – and second, by applying AI and machine learning (AI/ML) models to uncover patterns. Recommendations for next-best-actions will help address HCPs’ information needs “where they are” in the diagnosis and prescribing process.

Every four years, the International Institute of Analytics (IIA) polls a wide swath of major industries to determine their analytics maturity on a five-level scale, from “beginner” (a company lacking data resources to justify their plans) to “analytical competitors” (companies that use analytics across the enterprise, for both strategic and competitive goals). In its latest 2020 report, IIA found that the “digital native” group (Apple, Amazon, Netflix) not surprisingly dominated with a score of 4.56. Consumer brands and retail also scored high, while pharmaceutical/med device companies hovered in the lower half with healthcare professionals second to last.

Bottom line, the life sciences industry still has more to learn and many opportunities ahead.

Three key learnings from the outside world

What can we take away from top-performing non-pharmaceutical companies? Here are three examples:

Integrate after-market data into the omnichannel strategy.
Gramener’s Kesari cites the example of a major laptop manufacturer – one with tens of thousands of customers – that was able to increase sales substantially by paying attention to what happens after the initial sale. In this case, queries to call centers, customer surveys, social media feedback, and other channel content was used to analyze what challenges or needs those customers met with their product purchase. “Finding out what is really important to the customer can help improve satisfaction with the purchase,” he said. For this client, the targeted actions to enhance customer experience resulted in tens of millions of dollars’ worth of incremental revenue.

The pharma parallel is to ask what happens to a patient after the initial prescription fill, especially for chronic medications – which are known to have a significant drop-off after the first few fills. Using analytics to predict both what causes patient drop-off, and what generates loyalty to the regimen, can be beneficial both to the HCP and to the pharma manufacturer.

Translate the superior in-store experience to the online experience.
Ian Liu, VP of client services at Alorica, a leading contact center and digital customer-experience provider, looks at what major retailers do for their customers. “Retail giants are tracking their customers even as they arrive at the parking lot, tying their prior online experience to what information that customer might want when they enter the store,” Liu explained. “The goal is to create a model of the customer’s entire journey, from online searching and social media activity to in-store customer behaviors.

For the life sciences industry, the obvious parallel here is to connect patient queries or online activity with their experience at the doctor’s office. In a similar fashion, the online activity of an HCP can be connected to the interactions they have with sales reps or physician portals. In fact, social media is predicted to be the next major source of physician insights. According to a survey of more than 4,000 HCPs, nearly 70 percent use it for professional reasons. Further, Sermo reports two-thirds of physicians spend an average of two hours and 22 minutes on social media platforms a day.

AI and machine learning will be critical to helping life sciences commercial teams orchestrate engagement across this mix of traditional and non-traditional channels. AI can quickly find patterns based on social media behavior to make suggestions. Natural language processing can capture valuable sentiment data from HCPs who are sharing content, retweeting articles, and commenting on news. In this way, HCPs are divulging attitudes, preferences, and interests via social – pharmaceutical companies that pay better attention will thrive.

Create product/service evangelists.
Liu, who was formerly a pharmacist at a leading chain drugstore, sees valuable lessons for pharma in how the banking industry got its customers to adopt mobile banking, such as depositing checks through their phone. “A few years ago, it was hard to believe that I could deposit a check from home on my laptop and then my phone,” he said. “Evangelizers were the key to getting broad consumer acceptance, especially younger people who showed their parents and their parents’ friends how easy it was, and how freeing it was to be able to skip a trip to the bank.”

A similar transition has occurred in the travel and hospitality industry, where smartphones now make it fast and easy to buy concert or airline tickets, reserve hotel rooms, and more. “We even use mobile phone ‘keys’ to enter our hotel rooms to streamline check-in,” added Liu, “but this became acceptable because of technology apostles like Millennials and Gen Z.”

In the life sciences industry, evangelists often come in the form of key opinion leaders (KOLs), and emerging digital opinion leaders. This is also why it is so vital for commercial teams to proactively collaborate with medical science liaisons (MSLs) on omnichannel engagement strategies. MSLs are the bridge to KOLs. Pharmaceutical companies can leverage social media to identify KOLs more effectively – a process that is often very manual and inefficient. Analytical methods, such as graphing analysis, can be applied to social media datasets to help identify KOLs, plus emerging leaders, in their therapeutic areas who have the greatest and most widespread influence.

Creating an analytics culture

The biggest takeaway, and the area still lacking in life sciences, is the need to have a corporate culture that makes analytics a foundational capability across the enterprise. The good news is that there are some pharmaceutical companies starting to understand and accept this mindset, and the results show. According to the 2020 IIA poll, the range between top and low performers in the pharma/med device industry is wide, indicating that a few companies are pulling ahead of the pack.

“Traditional companies are struggling to deal with this complexity and effectively compete on analytics,” noted IIA in its report. “Though many top executives realize that high-quality data, analytics, and AI are critical to the future success of their companies, up to 70 percent of analytics initiatives and projects fail to meet their objectives.”

According to Kesari, executive leadership must initiate the digital movement and identify internal “digital champions” to carry it forward. “Carefully pick people who can act as digital evangelists and empower them to carry the torch across the breadth of the company. These champions will change the culture from within, and act as a bridge with other teams to accelerate the journey towards total transformation,” he concluded.

The life sciences industry is making incremental strides forward in the journey to omnichannel excellence. The gigantic shift, over the past couple years, to telemedicine and virtual conferencing will generate vast new datasets to analyze. There is opportunity in making use of these data to raise the effectiveness of omnichannel engagement activities, and to benefit patients with better messaging.