How Merck created content 28 percent faster while increasing global consistency and local relevance


By Jason Sundberg, senior director of commercial content strategy for Veeva Systems


In the second of a two-part series on improving content management, Veeva Systems discusses how Merck implemented a modular content strategy and is now seeing significant improvements in process efficiency, time to market, customer engagement, and digital transformation.


With the rise of digital, healthcare professionals (HCPs) have greater expectations for the quality and format of content. HCPs want content that is personalized, locally relevant, and delivered through channels they prefer. At the same time, life sciences companies want message consistency for global brand-building and compliance. Historically, companies have been forced to do one or the other. How can organizations provide customers with tailored content while also ensuring it’s globally homogeneous? Further, how can marketers keep up with today’s demand for varied content across channels?

Modular content, where companies create and approve core content once and reuse across many channels, is the answer. It’s an innovative strategy that addresses today’s biggest content management challenges – speed, relevancy, and consistency – for improved customer engagement.

Merck, known as MSD outside of the U.S. and Canada, began its move to modular content in 2016. The company is now able to produce content 28 percent faster and publish in formats designed for customers’ preferred channel. Merck is also able to give local markets the flexibility to develop promotional and educational resources with greater contextual relevance while maintaining global brand consistency more efficiently from headquarters.

What is modular content?

Traditionally, life sciences companies create channel-specific promotional and educational materials that medical, legal, and regulatory (MLR) teams must review over and over again – even though they contain identical messaging and components. See Figure 1. This approach is time consuming and redundant.

“The traditional HQ-to-local market distribution of content where information is presented in the most commonly used channel layouts is expensive, slow, and unrealistic in today’s digital world,” says Bernard Madden, director of content capabilities, Global Marketing Operations at Merck.

In contrast, a modular content strategy saves time and resources by creating and approving master content once and reusing it across channels. Marketers break content down into small chunks or modules – the pre-approved, channel-agnostic building blocks of modular content. Modules are defined as arranged text, images, videos, and references which are required to convey a single thought.

This approach reduces rounds of review and approval and significantly cuts the time to bring the new content to market. It also drives global brand consistency and provides greater flexibility to create promotional resources in local markets that are more relevant.

“In the old paradigm, we built fully formed pieces one at a time,” Madden explains. “A 12-page sales aid and a 25-screen iPad presentation were our primary resources. Local marketers often broke them down to make a new resource and re-format it for a different channel every time they wanted to use it. As we added new channels to the mix, our previous approach and existing technology simply could not keep up. We needed a more efficient way to engage with customers using relevant content in the channels they prefer.”

Merck’s formula for modular content success

Merck credits a combination of modern cloud technology, disciplined process design, and careful change management that led to adoption of its new modular content strategy across global stakeholders.

Ingredient 1: A digital solution to a digital challenge

The foundation for a successful modular content program is an end-to-end digital asset management (DAM) solution. DAM applications enable marketers to efficiently break down approved content into modules maintaining their digital rights and relationships to references and component assets (images, stock photography, videos, etc.). Without this essential technology, the creative team would spend undue time and effort gathering or re-producing each component asset, individual module, and their associated rules and relationships.

“DAM underpins any effective modular content strategy,” Madden says. “We have been developing our modular content program for several years, however, a complex technology stack and associated processes proved to be a barrier to local market adoption. Our recent move to a simplified, integrated solution has removed that barrier.”

Before adopting a single, unified DAM application, Merck was using more than six different systems globally – one for asset management, one for content management, one homegrown system for content sharing, and another system for medical review plus separate workflow tools. “None of these were integrated or interoperable,” says Theresa Zataveski, director IT Account Management, Global Commercial Capabilities at Merck. “We researched new options and decided to replace all of these legacy systems with a modern, cloud-based solution.”

With its DAM solution in place, Merck can quickly break down its content into modules. To start, Merck invested the time to create an initial library of pre-approved modules and to relate or link them to composite pieces in its DAM application, accessible in the cloud by all key stakeholders globally.

Ingredient 2: A disciplined process design

As Merck created its initial library of content modules, it also established a highly disciplined process for ongoing asset creation, governed by detailed business rules. These rules define how modules can be used, such as which can be used together (i.e., module A can be used with module C or D, etc.).

The company next created layout templates formatted for different channels (e.g., iPad, smart phone, website, email, WeChat), and finally, created the individual content modules. Merck creates, reviews, and approves each module at headquarters, saves them individually and makes them available for use globally. This allows its marketing teams to assemble pre-approved modules in different channel layouts to swiftly build final promotional and educational resources. Not only is its modular content process more streamlined and controlled than before, but it also expands capacity for the sourcing and approval of more relevant content.

Merck and its agencies will follow this simple process as they develop new content from scratch. Local markets can now choose which pre-approved modules they want to use to build their final composite piece, and add customizations to optimize for regional differences, such as a language translation. The MLR teams only need to review new content – in this example, the translated text – and then confirm that the original business rules are properly applied.

“We create the core content in channel-agnostic modules and each market decides on the sequencing of messages and channels based on their customers,” Madden says. “They map the content to the channels at the local market level now. It is a market-by-market choice – what message, which channel, at what cadence. With more relevant information available in more formats, we’ve enhanced customer engagement locally and increased content development capacity at headquarters.”

Merck’s modular content framework consists of three main parts:
1. Modules – Arranged text, images and/or videos, references that are approved together for reuse both within and across channels. These modules contain all of the elements required to convey a single thought.
2. Business Rules – These rules define how modules can be used to create resources compliantly. For example, they establish which modules must be used together and which cannot.
3. Templates – Templates are pre-approved, channel-specific layouts that contain additional business rules and drive best practices for each channel.

Ingredient 3: Stakeholder buy-in and adoption

Change is difficult – especially when it impacts a wide range of different stakeholders inside and outside of a company, as is the case with content development. For Merck, the biggest challenges to acceptance of its new modular content strategy were aligning cross-functional teams on the value of this approach and inspiring stakeholders to think more holistically about content.

“Most people only see their part of the process, but modular content requires everyone to consider how it will be used downstream by other groups, in other countries,” says Zataveski. “We had to educate everyone on the value of creating content in a way that will benefit other users down the line by presenting the bigger commercial picture.”

Education proved key to overcoming these issues. Merck started by talking to a broad range of stakeholders across marketing, regulatory, medical, procurement, and its agencies on the benefits of modular content, and showed how this new approach aligns with Merck’s overall digital transformation goals.

For example, Merck did several pilots to demonstrate the benefits of the approach, and tracked metrics to highlight its reuse of content.

“At the core, people want to do what will help move the organization forward, so when they learned the advantages of reusable content and its potential to focus resources on the quality of content at a lower cost, they got on board,” Zataveski says.

Merck also adopted an incremental, learn-as-you-go approach and requested input from all stakeholders early on and throughout implementation.

“We took an agile methodology and worked to build advocacy all along the way,” Madden says. In less than three years, Merck had honed its processes, trained its teams, and ensured everyone felt vested in the new strategy.

Today, content development at Merck supports many brands and is running at full speed in key markets.

The results: Enabling digital transformation

Merck’s modular content strategy has not only allowed the commercial team to meet its primary goals, but it has also been an important enabler of the company’s digital transformation initiative. Specifically, modular content is one of the eight major capabilities Merck executives identified as “critical” for commercial digital transformation.

“Content sourcing, management, and approval processes have improved dramatically and in various ways,” Madden says. “But, most importantly, modular content supports the digital engagement strategies we aspire to at Merck by cultivating more relevant engagements with our customers.”

In 2018, Merck’s modular content program delivered the following results:
• Increased speed to market by 28 percent
• Reduced number of MLR review cycles by 22 percent
• Lowered cost of content creation by 19 percent in agency costs
Additional targets for 2019 include:
• Increased volume of new content
• Improved content reuse / sharing across markets
• Greater use of new digital channels

Merck has improved content development efficiency and quality while making more content available for more channels faster. Now, Merck’s agencies can focus on problem-solving and message creation and the reviewers on medical accuracy. This strategy has also yielded additional downstream efficiencies – for instance, one country creates its own module, such as a Spanish-translation of arranged text, and it is shared by all other Spanish-speaking countries.

In the end, Merck’s modular content strategy underpinned by its cloud-based DAM foundation translated into speed and flexibility that addressed the competing needs of ensuring global brand consistency and local personalization for more culturally relevant customer engagement.