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How can the pharmaceutical industry use online, and webinars in particular, effectively? We asked Beverly Smet, managing partner of specialized consultancy firm Across Health. He shares his vision and distinguishes the trends in the market: ‘There is a considerable gap between what doctors want in terms of education and what pharmaceutical companies offer.’

‘The classic commercial model in pharma is that of sales reps’, says Smet. ‘For a long time, they were the most important source of information on new medicines for doctors. But in terms of impact, this has been changing considerably in recent years. Online has become an essential source of information.’

Smet bases himself on the Navigator research that is being carried out among 25,000 specialists every year. ‘In this study, we distinguish four archetypal personas when it comes to sales and marketing: the relation-oriented physician, who loves conversations, the knowledge-oriented physician who is primarily education-oriented, the transactional physician who is more patient-oriented and, finally, the independent physician. For the latter, the suggestion of “biased” information is already a reason to oppose it.’ The research shows that more and more doctors call themselves primarily knowledge-oriented or independent. In particular, the number of relational physicians is declining sharply. Smet: ‘This means that they want to obtain information in their own way and at their own time. More and more often, they find conversations with sales reps a less pleasant way to gain knowledge.’

Sunshine Act

‘Add to that the Sunshine Act,’ says Smet. This law requires pharmaceutical companies to be financially accountable for inviting doctors to come to a conference. As a result, doctors are asked to pay partially for the conference. ‘This leads to a reduced willingness to attend these conferences. The way in which doctors take note is therefore changing. This means that online, and especially webinars, are on the rise. Because the need for knowledge has not changed.’

Digital Divide

The interesting thing about the pharmaceutical industry is that there is a gap between the knowledge needs of doctors when it comes to online information and what is actually offered. Smet calls this the digital divide. Especially in the field of educational information, the gap is very large. ‘60% of doctors indicate that they prefer online information, while only 15% of educational information is offered in this way. In the Dutch market this gap is even bigger compared to other European countries. They are rather negative about sales reps. The door is often closed.’

The reason for such a gap, according to Smet, is due to a lack of urgency in the market. The large parties have blockbuster medicines with patents ranging from ten to fifteen years. They wonder why they should change the current business model. I see a parallel with the banking world of a few years ago, which is also a slow-moving industry. It was only when the large banks took steps that others followed. In Belgium, for example, ING closed half of its physical offices at one point to spend the released budget on online. I expect the same movement in pharma. When one of the top ten players makes a move, the rest will follow.’

Expenditure on marketing is on the rise

Although the industry is moving slowly, Smet is also seeing changes. The annual Maturometer study examines the expenditure on digital marketing among 250 managers within the pharmaceutical industry. ‘We see an upward trend in spending. I think that’s a good thing, because it means that they will be better able to meet the needs of their target group. It is important to take the preferences of the target group to heart.’

Smet expects that there will never be a complete switch to online. It will remain a mix with other forms of marketing and sales. At the moment, according to Smet, pharma is still ‘incrementally’ involved with online: ‘It is still in the pilot mode, it still has a limited scale. At the same time, the players who are already structurally working on it are experiencing success as a result. For example, our research shows that a webinar with an international keynote speaker has more impact than a visit from the sales rep.’

Learning exactly what the target group wants

Smet sees that the market is now learning exactly what the target group wants from online. ‘Our research shows that viewers prefer a 30-minute webinar to a one-hour webinar, for example. Nowadays, webinars in pharma are often far too long. There is also a world to win when it comes to marketing online activities for these webinars. For example, let a speaker personally share on his LinkedIn timeline that he is giving a webinar. Or create special interest pages. Pharma still has a lot of opportunities to learn and experiment.’