Will digital marketing replace the pharma rep?

Opinion is divided about the extent to which pharma sales reps will be usurped by digital marketing. But one thing is certain – marketers targeting doctors need to sharpen their digital efforts to remain relevant, say industry leaders.

“With increasingly digital-savvy doctors who are time-crunched and mobile, it’s high time for CMOs and brand marketers to reconsider what digital options are at their fingertips to reach healthcare professionals with their messages,” says US-based CMO Joe Hyland.

Writing in The Marketing Insider, Hyland questions the future of pharma reps and challenges marketers to embrace digital initiatives.

Citing evidence that US GPs are turning down sales reps more than ever before, he writes: “More than 48% now limit sales rep visits.”

Although the stats are for the US, a recent Medical Observer survey of Australian GPs suggests a similar experience locally.

The online survey of 238 GPs, (published by Australian Doctor Group, which also publishes Inside Healthcare) shows that while 34% see a rep on a weekly basis and 12% once a month, 15% see a rep only once a year. The remainder – 29% – say they don’t see reps at all.

More than half of all marketing to doctors – most of which is digital – now happens without sales reps, says Hyland quoting research from sales and marketing consultancy ZS Affinity Monitor that shows digital marketing activity has surpassed sales force activity for the first time in eight years.

“The growing trend doesn’t mean that sales reps are going to disappear entirely. It means that doctors want to receive targeted and relevant communications that fit their work style, changing habits and information consumption preferences,” he writes.

“It also means that medical and pharmaceutical marketers need to adapt accordingly by shifting to the most effective digital channels to reach physicians.”

Certainly, pharmaceutical companies, both in Australia and globally, argue that the role of the rep remains crucial to their marketing efforts.

“We still believe that the field force is the most effective way of reaching our customers,” Carlos Sosa, director of global sales operations excellence at Almirall, says in the recent Eye For Pharma report Pharma’s New Data Rep.

However, Sosa also notes that technology is “significantly” expanding opportunities for pharma to reach customers and is “definitely a way of improving access to certain physicians”.

In the same report, David Fortanbary, a senior director at global biopharmaceutical company UCB concurs: “My belief is that nothing will ever replace that one-on-one engagement, but clearly multichannel is playing a role, as are digital solutions.

“Healthcare providers… just like the rest of the world, are heavily dependent on digital assets for information, and that’s certainly going to be a means to engage with our customers moving forwards,” he says.

 “You cannot count on the quality of the relationship anymore; it’s about the quality of the content and finding the right channel for each specific customer.”

Céline Genty, vice president of customer excellence EMEA at Janssen, believes digital can transform the pharma industry: “We can use digital to proactively reinvent the way we interact with our customers.

“You cannot count on the quality of the relationship anymore; it’s about the quality of the content and finding the right channel for each specific customer,” she says.

This reflects a shift in thinking towards a media model where publishers strive to deliver independent content in channels that readers use. But herein lies the challenge for many marketers: understanding what content to produce, in what channels, and critically, when not to focus on brand.

Ryan Willoughby, head of content and education at Australian Doctor Group, says there is a direct correlation between brand-generated content that takes an editorial approach –focussing less or not at all on brand – and higher reader engagement.

“If your content is too focused on trying to sell a brand, or is completely self-loving, you’re missing a massive opportunity to educate the reader and build long-term brand loyalty through your content.”

Willoughby says it’s all about understanding what types of content your target audience is consuming, their knowledge gaps, and how, when and on what device they are consuming content. In other words, go to them. Don’t expect them to come to you.

“Video content is a no-brainer for pharma marketers as physicians are already spending an average of more than 180 minutes per week watching video content for professional purposes, says Hyland, citing statistics from a Google and Manhattan Research Study.

Willoughby agrees: “Video is a powerful medium. Almost all of our content marketing campaigns feature video in the mix. But we don’t just do video for video’s sake; get the story angle right, show them something that words can’t express and keep it short and sharp.”

“We’ve produced a wide range of videos for our clients – from KOL interviews to animations – to educate our health professional audience about everything from diagnosing rare conditions to showing doctors how medications work and debates about the latest clinical research in a particular area.”

Mobile is another key trend, says Willoughby. “We’ve surpassed 58% of traffic accessing Australian Doctor’s site via mobile. This simply means absolutely all content must be developed for mobile proportions.”

And give readers content they value or something new. A study by DRG Digital’s Manhattan Research shows the content reps are sharing with doctors is too often old news.

“Physicians who see sales reps say that over half the time (51%), the reps show them information they have already seen through their own research or in previous meetings,” the report says.

“Reps must evolve their details to stay relevant and provide utility to docs, and showing non promotional resources on tablets can help; 63% of physicians agreed that in-person meetings with sales reps are more valuable when resources not related to the product are shown.”

Content quality is key, says Jennifer Grech, head of commercial excellence at Mylan Australia. Healthcare professionals want clear, objective, unbiased content.

“The research tells us that HCPs don’t trust what pharma companies provide. As good as the content might be, it appears that there will always be an element of doubt that it’s biased. But, if they are interested in what our offering is, HCPs want easily accessible content at their fingertips.

“Their driver to connect is scientific content, and, through the delivery of this, we have an opportunity to build credibility and trust.”

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