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Developing enhanced digital content to increase physician engagement

With in-person scientific congresses an impossibility for the foreseeable future, researchers and publishers have to adapt how they foster scientific exchange. Experts from ICON tell us how they have found success in using enhanced media fit for the digital age.

It would be easy to assume that researchers and physicians have been dragged reluctantly into having to get scientific information from online sources rather than physical meetings during COVID-19 – but in truth things were heading this way long before the pandemic.

In 2015 research from SSCG Media found that 59% of physicians preferred to receive information about clinical trials through print media, but similar research by PM360 in 2018 found that only 34% preferred traditional sources, compared to 40% who have shifted over to a combination of print and digital.

Meanwhile, 26% of physicians indicated that in the future they would not have time for print at all.

But reaching busy physicians with scientific news is about more than just putting existing scientific posters online in a digital format. More than ever, physicians are in need of research summaries in formats that are quick and easy to understand, and pharma must consider carefully how it adapts content to an online world.

One rapidly growing area is the use of enhanced digital content to make publications more visual, more engaging and easier to digest. This enhanced content can take many forms, including:

  • Graphical abstracts
  • Video abstracts
  • Audio
  • Augmented reality
  • Podcasts
  • Text messages or shortened URLs
  • Journal-specific websites and microsites
  • Plain language summaries

Already, most journals are including enhanced content developed by the journal or the authors – with many smaller journals actually requiring graphical abstracts with submissions – and these techniques are becoming increasingly common when building digital scientific posters.

Enhancing posters

Using enhanced content to help physicians access and engage with the latest research might sound obvious given the world we now live in, but, as ever, the life sciences sector has been slower than other industries in adopting these more user-friendly, digital approaches.

“We’re all users and we’re all living in a world where we’re used to having information at our fingertips,” says Travis Tingey, digital marketing manager, creative and digital services at ICON. “Medical communications were lagging behind by being beholden to live conferences and printed posters, but there has been a slow transition into the digital world, accelerated by COVID.”

To this end, the team at ICON have been working on improving the designs of scientific posters so that they work better in a digital format. But simply putting an existing poster online as a PDF is unlikely to engage many readers. This is especially true when viewing them on small smartphone screens, which make full-sized content difficult to read – the busier HCPs get, the more important smartphone engagement will become.

Instead, teams like Travis’ are developing posters that cover the same type of content, but with an enhanced, more user-friendly layout.

He says this often involves using tried and true techniques for developing websites, and simply applying those to medical communication content.

“A lot of the time these new offerings are really just taking a printed poster and applying some common sense user experience to it,” he says.

And these user experience considerations apply to the offline world as well as digital platforms – even in physical meetings, poster sessions face difficulties in standing out from the crowd, as these sessions are typically short and are held in crowded exhibit halls where hundreds of posters are vying for attendees’ attention.

As such, enhanced content techniques were becoming more and more commonplace long before the pandemic hit. This includes the use of more infographics to attract the audience’s attention and clearly and succinctly communicate key data – acting as an easy way for physicians to digest the main takeaways. In fact, Tingey says that in some cases they can turn a poster into one large interactive infographic (see box).

Source: Lundbeck
For this poster, ICON and Lundbeck worked together to find a compelling, compliant way to integrate a patient/caregiver story into posters via the use of infographics. The Lundbeck Publication team was instrumental in spearheading the development of these posters and shaping how this tactic was developed and applied.

ICON has also found that adding eye-catching links to the poster that lead to downloadable plain language summaries (PLSs) can improve the reader’s experience and facilitate data dissemination to congress attendees who may not be well-versed in the disease state.

In one case study, QR codes were used to monitor downloads of the infographic poster and PLSs; results were compared across posters as well as to poster downloads from the same congress from the previous year. The number of times the QR code was scanned increased by almost 400% for the infographic poster compared to standard posters from the previous three years; downloads were also higher than the standard posters at the same meeting. Downloads of standard posters with PLSs also increased by about 250% compared to standard posters without PLSs from the previous year.

“Right now, more content is being published than any other point in history,” says Tingey. “That’s why we’re seeing physicians consume the content the way they do and why videos, infographics, and microsites are so important. They cut through the noise.”

Most of the time, Tingey says, it’s best to use microsites to house the information accessed via links and QR codes on the poster.

“If you’re just putting the poster online as-is, users are going to have to pinch and zoom to see some of the info, whereas with a microsite you can better craft that experience, provide additional resources, and be more strategic by connecting to additional content, such as videos, interviews with an author, and podcasts,” he says.

Nicole Gudleski O’Regan, a senior scientific director at ICON’s global medical communications group, adds that microsites are becoming increasingly popular with pharma and biotech companies.

“One thing they like about microsites is being able to link a poster to all of their presentations at a specific congress – in essence, it is a virtual congress compendium. For example, when a user scans a QR code on a poster they will be directed to a site that enables them to easily access everything presented for that product, in addition to any additional information they wish to provide including plain language summaries.

“There has also been a push to link QR codes to static figures in a poster  – researchers can scan the code linked to the figure and an animated version of the figure will pop up, with a voiceover to describe it. That’s relatively quick and easy to create and can be quite impactful.”

Understanding users

Underpinning all these design decisions is an understanding of the behavioural science that explains how users engage with content, especially time-poor users like physicians.

“There is plenty of evidence-based research around user experience, such as eye-tracking studies that try to determine how the common user scans a page,” says Tingey. “We know that is often an F-shaped pattern, starting from the top of the screen reading from left to right, scanning less as your attention goes down. That tells us where we should put key information.

“We have to stay up to date on the best practices in terms of user experience so that we can apply them to materials.”

Greg Kloiber, director of client engagement, global medical communications at ICON, adds that the company also has to pay attention to shifts in how physicians prefer to receive information – but it’s important to keep in mind that this can vary greatly by audience.

“You should never take a one-size-fits-all approach,” he says. “It’s really a matter of crafting and adapting your communication platform to the user and creating enough points of access that people can choose to receive and digest the information in a way that works for them.”

Nevertheless, Tingey notes that the best approach is often to cast as wide a net as possible.

“It costs very little to do something like creating a QR code or using SMS campaigns – most of the work is spent setting the website up – so we aim to do anything we can to try and drive people to that site.

“We’re essentially taking an agency approach and thinking in terms of user engagement, even though we’re not talking about a product.”

This goes beyond the main content of a poster or publication – Tingey adds that it’s important to build in as many mechanisms of engagement as possible to give users multiple ways to access the information, for example by leveraging social media channels and video content.

“When you can’t present a poster in person, you need to figure out how you pivot and adapt that content to allow the author to present the poster in their own words,” he says.

Video content is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to poster presentations. This usually involves taking the same poster content and putting together a video presented by the author.

“We run through a script with the author, and we then take that audio and create a video where we are either showing slides that were developed by the medical communications team or actually zooming in on a poster and allowing the author to narrate as we’re walking through it,” says Tingey. “We’ve also been able to take figures and animate them then provide a narration on top of that.”

He adds that, as with enhanced content posters, oral presentations augmented with PowerPoint slides have received more downloads and more engagement than traditional flat posters.

Getting buy-in

But despite evidence to show physicians’ preference for enhanced content, and successful data from implementations, not every company in the industry has yet embraced such tools.

“There are some companies that are pushing the boundaries and others that are not,” Kloiber says. “Within companies themselves, different therapeutic groups often vary in terms of how accepting they are of enhanced content.

“It really boils down to the company’s interpretation of guidelines and how they can work within those guidelines to utilise digital tools.

“And, of course, you need buy-in from leadership. Showing that data backs up the popularity of enhanced content can help convince them that it’s something worth doing.”

Gudleski O’Regan adds that she has noticed differences between large and small pharma companies in their willingness and ability to utilise enhanced content:

“When you’re using something like microsites, our experience suggests that larger pharma companies often have a lot more hoops to jump through with regard to compliance, while smaller companies can implement it a lot quicker,” she says.

Likewise, even the visual elements of an enhanced content poster need to be rigorously reviewed to make sure they are compliant with guidelines.

“As designers, we obviously want things to look very attractive and pretty, but we have to be cautious and make sure that nothing appears promotional or looks like it’s trying to skew data,” says Tingey.

“It’s important to partner with the medical communications group to take a fine look at the way we’re emphasising information in our infographics, so that we’re avoiding bias or leading conversations.

“That can even come down to things like colour choice – e.g. should we make something green because green has a connotation of ‘good’? We need to be really thoughtful and precise in how we approach the creative aspects of these enhancements.”

Tingey hopes that the creative execution of publications will evolve from today’s rudimentary approaches over time as the industry becomes more comfortable with enhanced content.

“Resistance from those legal teams that don’t want to step into digital will start relaxing, and we’ll start seeing a bit more sophistication in terms of what content is being put out there.

“It’s really important for us as an agency to be good stewards of understanding content and guiding companies through the process – but there also needs to be significant involvement from the client. Companies need those thought leaders and advocates within their organisations to push for that. Partnership is really key from all groups.”

Kloiber says that the utilisation of microsites is probably going to be the biggest growth area in the near future, as pharma companies recognise they can be used to host content in an accessible and med-legal format.

“That allows these companies to expand the scientific exchange as much as possible, gives physicians an easy way to consume content and, ultimately, achieve the aim of every company in the industry – improving healthcare.”

About the interviewees

Nikki ORegan

Nicole Gudleski O’Regan, PhD, joined ICON in 2012 and serves as a scientific advisor to numerous pharmaceutical clients, providing publication and strategic support. In her current role as a senior scientific director, Nicole leads an editorial team and oversees the development of a range of innovative publication tactics and deliverables, including congress materials, reviews and clinical study manuscripts, plain language summaries, infographic posters and enhanced content, and publication strategies.

Greg Kloiber

Greg Kloiber has over 25 years of healthcare communications experience spanning medical affairs, pharmaceutical sales and marketing, publishing, and certified medical education. At ICON he supports client engagement in the areas of global medical communications, health economics, global pricing, market access and reimbursement.

Travis Tingey

Travis Tingey joined ICON in 2012 and is responsible for the leadership and growth of ICON’s creative and digital services group. He manages the planning, strategy, organisation and execution of digital projects for pharmaceutical, medical device and biotech clients. He also liaises with internal and client IT personnel to determine needs and provide customised content for multichannel solutions. Prior to joining ICON, he held designer and developer positions for large and small marketing agencies.

Additional thanks: Meghana Karnik-Henry, senior medical publications manager, Lundbeck, and Salma Sayeed, formerly AD, medical information and medical communications, Lundbeck, for the release and utilisation of the poster infographic depicted above

About ICON

ICON plc is a global provider of outsourced development and commercialisation services to pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, government and public health organisations. ICON supports programs across all stages of drug and device development, from endpoint selection and PRO development, through clinical trials, to post-approval and scientific publication. ICON delivers integrated market access, pricing, communications and health economics solutions to demonstrate product value and support brand success around the globe. For more information visit: www.ICONplc.com/access

About the author


George Underwood is a senior member of the pharmaphorum editorial team, having previously worked at PharmaTimes and prior to this at Pharmafocus. He is a trained journalist, with a degree from Bournemouth University and current specialisms that include R&D, digital and M&A.

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