How digital could transform stakeholder engagement

Digital may be upending every aspect of the pharma industry, but many would assume that engagement activities like advisory boards, working groups and medical education will remain a bastion of face-to-face communication.

That’s not so, says Natalie Yeadon, co-owner and managing director of Impetus Digital. She believes that asynchronous stakeholder engagement platforms like her company’s are able to augment and, in many cases, supersede face-to-face meetings to bring real transformation to the industry.

“They can fill in what I call the ‘white space’ between face-to-face meetings,” she says.

She believes there are several clear drivers behind digital transformation in key opinion leader (KOL) engagement at the moment: “The competitive marketplace that we’re finding all of our brands in means it’s really pertinent that companies maintain or increase their mindshare with the people they’re working with.

“Especially now with the focus on rare diseases and oncology, there’s really a limited number of customers out there. Those people are considered KOLs and everybody wants to work with them. If you’re asking them to attend synchronous activities such as in-person meetings or even web meetings, they only have so much time in the day to do so.”

Yeadon begins describing Impetus’ approach by saying what it is not.

“We know from experience that people just don’t whimsically show up to a website and start chatting. We’re big believers in calls-to-action. When we talk about bringing people into an asynchronous platform, we’re actually sending them an email and pushing them in by getting them to click on a link.

“We’ll pull people into the platform over a two to three-week period and they answer a series of questions and reply to each other’s comments to help our client gather insights from these KOLs. By allowing them to do it at any time over a two to three-week period on any device, we can get a 90-100% engagement rate.”

Yeadon uses market access as a specific example of an area where digital platforms could have a big impact.
“When we’re talking about launching or preparing for the market, there are several different issues and questions that come up. For example, a client could be getting into a brand-new therapeutic area that they don’t know a lot about. There’s an opportunity to do a lot of navigation and exploration of that particular area.

“If a client is an emerging biotech company, we can actually help them find the right people to be their advisors from our database, based on specific criteria that the company might have, such as a certain percentage of patients in a specific disease area. Once we’ve identified them, we can leverage the advisors to find out what is currently happening in their clinical practices and give the company an understanding of where their product might fit in.

“They can also help the client develop value proposition statements and understand what the unmet medical needs are. These can all be included in the actual agency submissions and dossiers that are submitted for market access approvals.”

People power

Impetus often works with patient and advocacy groups in situations like this – including, for example, with patient groups participating as part of the dossier submission process.

In fact, Yeadon says that patients often find asynchronous communications like this much more workable for them – and through research, Impetus has identified other factors that predict what kinds of people work better in platforms like this.

“What was interesting for us was that there weren’t any particular demographic, geography, or language factors that came up as reasons for specific people to do better on these platforms, or factors like therapeutic areas or patients versus physicians. In fact, the core thing that bubbles to the top is that the individual needs to have an email address – although it sounds bizarre, there are still some people who don’t.

“The second aspect is they need to have a semblance of interactivity via email, because there are some people who are still very standoffish and don’t respond. Those people are not ideal for this kind of platform. But we’ve tried to create something that has a really simple interface – no formal training is required. The hardest problem you’re going to come across is forgetting your password.”

Yeadon also speaks to more universal ways that asynchronous platforms can help get the most out of all kinds of advisors.

“In face-to-face meetings, people oftentimes will throw new data at these advisors, and, at best, sometimes they’ll give you a knee jerk reaction. The advantage with asynchronous advisory board meetings is that many people who go into the medical space are analytical in nature, and they often don’t feel comfortable just giving you an immediate response. Giving people time to think, to process, to ruminate, to see what their colleagues are saying and to draw their own thoughtful conclusions gives you something that’s much more well thought-out.”

She says that Impetus has found that a typical eight-hour meeting with about 20 participants will result in an average transcript report of about 18 pages, whereas a one-hour asynchronous touchpoint with 20 advisors will result in an average of 30 pages.

“The other piece to this is that you’re not getting as many people stifled by some of the more verbose and opinionated people that are sometimes at live meetings, so everybody is much freer to participate and gets equal say.”

Getting the buy-in

Yeadon has seen the industry become more open to platforms such as this as digital becomes ubiquitous across all areas of pharma companies.

“Ten years ago, it was a tough sell. These days, once I get in front of people, my uptake is about 95%.

“Healthcare providers have gone digital; many of them have at least two to three screens in front of them at any given moment. In addition, pharma is being really challenged. Their budgets are decreasing on marketing and medical while their customer base is becoming larger, more diverse, and very complex.”

But she says that it’s important to remember that software alone is not a solution.

“This kind of software is everywhere and most of it is free. We’re not just trying to sell software that will become obsolete in a couple of years. The sweet spot of what we do is full service, combining the consulting content development, project management, reporting, programming and design.

“We do this because we find that sometimes when the clients themselves have to manage it, it becomes a digital ghost town because people are busy in their own jobs.”

Similarly, Yeadon emphasises again that she does not believe that digital engagement will completely replace face-to-face communications.

“I see this becoming the mainstay but also something that is being used in conjunction with in-person. Impetus does in-person consultant meetings too; we’re not going to completely replace it, because there’s still a time and place to do it. There are advantages to actually speaking to people in person.

“The environment that we all see today is that people are trapped commuting to and from work and there’s less and less time and more and more things to do. We’re really going to need these tools to be able to stay in contact. The really refreshing thing about it is that we used to think that relationships absolutely need to be built in person, but relationships can also be built and sustained online.”

About the Interviewee

Natalie Yeadon is the co-owner and managing director of Impetus Digital. She brings over 18 years of experience from working in a variety of pharmaceutical sales, marketing, and early brand commercialisation management roles in both Canada and the US, in several different therapeutic areas.

About Impetus Digital

Based in Toronto, Canada, Impetus Digital has been serving life science clients around the world since 2008. Impetus’ online platform offers an effective alternative or supplement to in-person advisory boards or working groups, with dramatically reduced costs and increased stakeholder engagement rates. With features such as real-time webinars and asynchronous – but highly interactive – discussion forums, online debates, case studies, survey-style multiple-choice and ranking questions, and annotation and selection tools, it allows life science companies to foster productive and long-term relationships with their key opinion leaders.

About the Author

George Underwood

George is part of the senior editorial team at pharmaphorum, previously working at PharmaTimes and prior to this at Pharmafocus. He is a trained journalist, with a degree from Bournemouth University, with specialisms including R&D, digital and M&A.

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