By Pedro Eitz Ferrer, VP Medical Strategy, and Grace Carroll, Copywriter, TBWA\WorldHealth

As we enter fourth quarter of this year, it is needless to say our way of living has changed over the past six months as we learn to adapt to the “new normal” in these “uncertain times.” Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual communication has become a new staple in our day-to-day personal and professional lives—replacing in-person meetings and events, including scientific conferences. These online experiences have left some of us eager to get back to the way things were, and others curious about the possibilities that have yet to come. After attending several virtual scientific conferences since the start of COVID-19 lockdown, we have been left wondering: which practices should stay, which ones will need to come back, and how can pharmaceutical brands stand out in this medium?

Pedro Eitz Ferrer

The organizing bodies of the 2020 conferences that took place in the age of COVID-19 reacted variously in order to release the valuable clinical information to the scientific community in a timely manner. Much like our personal experiences with trying to adapt to this new reality, these virtual conferences needed to work through some logistical issues to create seamless virtual interactions. To avoid technical difficulties and audio challenges, some conferences only used pre-recorded presentations. In order to maintain meaningful panel discussions among presenters and the attendees, other conferences risked encountering virtual communication challenges with live presentations. An unexpected but welcome finding from attending these conferences was  that time did not have to be a limiting factor for attendees as some conferences offered the option to play sessions on-demand, extending the conference experience by a few days.

After attending these virtual conferences, we couldn’t help but notice some distinct patterns that got us thinking:

  1. Do virtual conferences limit opportunities for thinking outside the box?

Unlike face-to-face conferences where we often attend sessions outside of our area of expertise, virtual congresses allow clinicians and scientists to “skip school” more readily. It is much easier to unload the dishwasher during a conference today than it has ever been. As some of us have discovered, you can now use your work and personal computers simultaneously in order be among the first cohort to hear vital new information and not missing an important meeting. However, in this new virtual conference space, we no longer have the pleasure of running into our peers in between sessions and discussing recent presentations to debate their utility in practice.

Grace Carroll

With the absence of these informal interactions we experience through in-person conferences, are there fewer opportunities for physicians to think critically about the new information and ways they can better care for their patients? Are attendees less able to dig their heels in on hypotheses that they already had, neglecting to think through some of the new data that may inform their practice? We would think this is very likely in this new space. For some attendees, this mindset could have pre-dated the virtual congress world. However, there is now an opportunity to diversify and attend more sessions than ever before. Virtual conferences have the potential to increase the accessibility of new information for a broader audience—and no hotel reservations are required! Virtual conventions allow associations to cast a wider net for recruiting attendees. Without the need to travel, an association’s regional shows have been opened up to physicians and medical professionals outside of their area of expertise.

Now that we know the virtual conference space is an option for many attendees, can more opportunities be created to discuss intersectional concepts, such as science, policy, and technology, and to foster a broader understanding within individuals’ respective fields of interest? Maybe it’s time to integrate virtual happy hours with various interest groups, virtual meet-and-greets with key opinion leaders, or virtual pop quizzes after presentations to see who was paying attention or who got caught up trying to cut their own hair.

  1. Perhaps we need to rethink “thought leadership” inside and outside of the virtual conference ecosystem.

We are all very familiar with conferences where we see the same individuals get up over and over again to ask their questions or challenge the presenters on the podium. The virtual world has enabled us to break this apart and allow new, emerging experts to stand up to the microphone—or chat room, as is often the case—to ask questions out of mere interest and curiosity. This new experience has allowed shyer attendees to ask global experts questions during panel discussions.

From what we have seen, virtual conferences have led to an increase in knowledge and information sharing, which has broadened the attendees’ overall understanding of the presented research. Experts are able to respond live on camera, communicate in the chat box, and share literature that may have led to the hypothesis behind the study they just presented. Although virtual conferences lack the intimacy of in-person gatherings, it is still possible for attendees to connect with each other in these forums, which allow junior researchers more opportunities to engage with senior researchers. Organizing bodies can continue to foster these opportunities, such as offering a pre-recorded keynote session as a premiere event at a designated time when the keynote speaker also attends live to answer questions and engage with attendees during the session.

Virtual forums have augmented the learning capabilities for attendees and should continue to be leveraged even after we return to in-person conferences. Emerging researchers and junior attendees should continue to lean in to these opportunities to access a bounty of information and to learn directly from the experts. 

  1. What can pharmaceutical brands do to create engaging and immersive experiences within the virtual conference space?

With many associations extending their programming from a few days to up to a month on online conference platforms, there is an increased opportunity for brands to engage with an audience that is increasing in both the size and heterogeneity. While some conference platforms had virtual “booths” for pharmaceutical companies to promote their brands, which ranged from basic microsites to full-blown 3D virtual experiences, there was a lack of clear guidance for how businesses could be present to share their latest advancements.

With a short turnaround, each company took it upon themselves to adapt to this relatively new, changing landscape. Some brands and agencies led with innovative and engaging tactics, creating tailored content for a newly broadened and captive audience to communicate brand promotional messages versus repurposing existing websites and corporate content. In-person conferences provide attendees with a unique experience they cannot access online prior to the event. Therefore, brands should embrace the virtual conference experience and provide attendees a bespoke experience, which could enable thought starters and promotional discussions.

Virtual interactive 3D models of booths excelled by presenting information in a new engaging and attractive format for physicians to digest. These booths allowed click-through engagement, which included downloadable materials that would have been on an interactive panel. In a digital world, interactive data presentations and downloadable content is more relevant than ever. While the ability of sales and medical representatives to drive traffic is on hold, appealing virtual content with laser-focused messaging and easy-to-navigate visuals that are dynamic and differentiated will help clients deliver on objectives and meet the needs of providers.

Personal connections with sales representatives do not have to be a thing of the past and should be embraced in these new forums. More robust platforms offer the chance for attendee live chats with sales representatives, and pre-scheduled appointments can be built right into an attendee’s conference schedule. Further, there is an expanded opportunity for lead capturing as platforms can allow you to see who visited your booth compared to in-person conferences where visitors request follow-up information. Surveys can also be value-added for brand engagement and lead capture.

As companies transition from physical to virtual conference format, continued guidance, recommendations, and personal experiences in terms of what is working and what is not will be needed from communication agencies. For example, brands may need help working through new pricing structures for exhibitions in order to figure out the costs and benefits of how best to engage their target audience. This allows agencies to engage in a strategic partnership with clients, which ultimately allows them to shape the conference experience that benefits clients. In the virtual congress environment, it becomes even more important for clients to establish clear strategic and business objectives for participation in order to define and measure success. Clients must ask themselves: How, if at all, are we going to modify our congress approach? What do we already know about our target customers, and what has changed or evolved about their behavior in the COVID era?

While some things may be here to stay, innovative strategies and creative approaches are critical for this virtual Wild West for the scientific community. We, like many of our fellow attendees, remain longing for the days of packed conference halls and running into experts in the hallways to ask them random questions. While long-term plans remain uncertain, maybe it’s time for us to think about adopting a hybrid approach for virtual and in-person conferences to meet the needs and preferences of conference attendees.