Pharma is awakening to the "New Normal" in customer engagement. And that's good news for all you digital marketers. Last week I spoke to Craig Robertson, who is spearheading a new report from Accenture Life Sciences about the pharmaceutical industry’s accelerating adoption of digital and social marketing to reach patients and providers.

Long considered the “big exception” (along with financial services) to the use of digital tools and platforms, not to mention public social networks, the pharmaceutical marketer has been slow to adapt to the creative use of “direct-to-customer (DTC)” strategies now nearly commonplace in packaged goods and even business-to-business enterprises. According to the report, over the next two years, “the executives surveyed plan to increase their use of such digital interactions by 26 percent, on average.”

Their primary goal in a more DTC approach is cost reduction. Already their direct sales staffs, long focused on marketing to physicians, are being scaled back, because of the promise of a direct relationship with patients and because of changes in healthcare itself, where there are fewer and fewer sole physician practitioners and an increase in large caregiver organizations who control prescription choices. Further, the study shows that already one in four of pharmaceutical sales are now digital, offering pharma companies more immediate access to large stores of aggregated data as well as lower cost, and more ways to connect with patients and caregivers through multiple channels.

Along with the reduction of sales staffs is the rise of “third-party providers” of sales and marketing services.  Here’s the big opportunity for our readers: Seventy-seven percent of executives report their organizations are already using third-party providers to augment sales and marketing activities.  According to the press release:

  • Of those executives that report this finding, digital and content production (64 percent) and analytics (62 percent) are areas where third-party services providers are used the most.
  • Thirty-seven percent of executives report they intend to increase their usage of third-party providers for sales and marketing in 2013, with 92 percent intending to increase their use of third-party providers in analytics, 89 percent in advertising and 79 percent in digital and content production.

The promise of big data for pharma, however, is still something of an unknown. How much are they using data? According to Craig Robertson: “If you get into a discussion about how much the pharmas are using sentiment analysis, and creating segmentation, the answers are vastly different.  Many are still in transition from a very near-term analysis, that is, what can this physician, this patient do for me this quarter?"

"As the amount of data and type of data change, the recognition is that these measurements are built for yesterday’s model … but can [the pharmas] leap-frog [current technologies]? Can they just learn from other organizations and innovate to the next level of analysis?”

One of the other biggest drivers is the awareness among pharma execs that financial services leaders – companies like American Express, Chase and others – who are also faced with regulatory hurdles are achieving real gains in profitability and data aggregation with a multi-channel approach. But there is also a growing recognition that the ultimate goal of the industry itself, that is, improved patient outcomes, can be enabled by a more sophisticated understanding of patients’ needs and how to get closer to the patient with digital marketing.

Image

Just as the Proctor and Gambles, Walgreens and Unilvers are pursuing marketing strategies like online communities and gamification, the pharma industry is beginning to experiment with projects that address this larger goal of patient wellness. One example is Pfizer’s GetQuit program, which was launched last year as a way to help people quit smoking. Although targeted to people who are prescribed Pfizer’s Chantix, the program is entirely digital and extends membership and engagement well beyond the life of the prescription.  With the recent explosion of devices (Nike’s Fuel Bands) and platforms (DailyFeats, others) that support behavior modification and social-for-social-good, expect to see new innovative partnerships between pharma and their digital agencies and outsourced partners, like WorldOne on the one hand and enterprise social vendor on the other, flourishing.