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Virtual meetings: Where are we now and where are we going?

Pharma has been forced to hold its meetings virtually for most of the year now – but despite having plenty of time to perfect the art of digital engagement, Impetus Digital’s Natalie Yeadon says the industry still has a lot to learn.

A good virtual meeting doesn’t necessarily follow most of, or even all of, the same rules as a good in-person meeting – but Natalie Yeadon, managing director of Impetus Digital, says that pharma’s virtual meetings are still being held back by an in-person mindset, even with COVID being a reality for most of the year now.

“Companies are still bringing everybody together and gathering insights the same way they would in an in-person meeting, but now it’s just through a virtual platform,” she says.

“In practice, that means you might have a large group of people in a virtual room for hours at a time, and there are many issues with doing that. For example, people can get ‘Zoomed out’ and lose energy without the opportunities for energy dissipation that come with physical meetings – like getting up to go to the bathroom, going to get a coffee, or speaking to somebody in the hallway.”

Yeadon says that the industry should leave behind the belief that it needs to continue having the same kinds of meetings it was having before the pandemic.

“You could, for example, do virtual meetings over a longer period of time. We’re no longer flying people into meetings – you don’t have to do them over a six-hour period back to back. Now, you can cut these meetings up into digestible one-hour segments. You can give people the power of time, so it doesn’t impact their schedule or their clinic or their family life.”

She adds that by splitting meetings up over multiple periods of time, you can also give people the opportunity to ruminate and process information, as well as consider what their colleagues are saying and put theory into practice in their day-to-day jobs.

This in turn helps participants build habits that facilitate adoption of new behaviours.

“Habits are generated by people when they have (a) the ability to do something, (b) the motivation to do it, and (c) the proper number of prompts,” says Yeadon.

“By using a series of touchpoints over time, those touchpoints act as prompts giving them digestible information and goals that they’re able to easily achieve, giving them a sense of completion and reward by being able to see their performance and get feedback.

“All of these things help to generate behaviour changes, improve adoption, and get people to think about your brand and your company in a new way.”

Meetings on your own time

Going even further away from traditional synchronous meetings, companies can also embrace asynchronous engagement – where everyone participates at different times on their own schedule through a private, secure online platform.

“The asynchronous parts can be a compliment to the synchronous elements,” Yeadon says. “For example, before coming to the virtual synchronous meeting you can give the participants pre-work, preventing them from being riddled with long-winded presentations and seeing data for the first time in the meeting – which usually means that at best you get a knee jerk reaction.”

Yeadon notes that Impetus’ data actually shows that asynchronous meetings reduced the cost per word of an advisory board meeting from $22 to 55 cents.

“One of the key reasons for this is that in-person meetings often lead to production blocking. You can’t all be speaking at the same time. For that given period of time, you’re only getting a limited number of people speaking and ideas generated.

“But if you use asynchronous engagement, everybody is using whatever time is convenient for them to get their ideas across.”

Likewise, data shows that electronic brainstorming (EBS) leads to 71% more ideas generated per participant than in-person meetings. Participants are not as distracted or “put off” by the more verbose or opinionated individuals, who often monopolise typical in-person meetings.

“The data also suggests that EBS results in less redundancy of ideas than if you were doing the brainstorming in person,” Yeadon adds.

Gamifying virtual congresses

Yeadon also hopes this technology will expand beyond internal meetings and into virtual congresses – and Impetus is already moving into this sector with its InSite Event Builder.

“Now that we’ve actually incorporated these technologies for virtual meetings, we’re going to start seeing more hyper-personalisation and being able to give people more choices,” she says.

“For conferences, we might say to participants that they can either attend in person or virtually in an asynchronous way. Purchasing a certain tier of ticket could even give access to both the in-person and virtual streams. We might actually find that online components work better for some streams, such as networking.”

By harnessing technology in the right way, Yeadon says virtual conferences will start to feel a lot more like in-person congresses – with people presenting information on a ‘main stage’ and breakouts, workshops, exhibitor booths and other streams happening concurrently, with users able to go in and out of these rooms as they like.

Yeadon also speaks to the idea of “gamifying” exhibitions, allowing people to receive points for going to see a certain number of exhibitors.

But one of the most important problems Impetus wants to solve is doing networking properly.

“A lot of these in-person congresses are almost overwhelmingly massive,” she says. “You go wanting to meet as many people as you can, but you’re inundated with gigantic exhibition halls and thousands of people, and you have no idea who anybody is. There’s got to be a better way to do that.”

Yeadon says one solution is to allow participants to tag people to meet, notify them, and immediately pre-book meetings on the event platform.

And the technologies to enhance meetings will only continue to develop further.

“We’re excited about the possibility of eventually incorporating things like chatbots, as well as voice and facial recognition for security purposes,” says Yeadon.

“We may also be able to include immersive experiences like virtual and augmented reality – allowing people to actually meet in VR – or even using holographic technology to literally beam people up onto the virtual main stage, enhancing that gravitas for a great speaker, allowing you to feel the energy of the people around you.”

She adds that there is a great opportunity for new conference business models.

“I think we’ll actually see a lot more attendance at these conferences, especially when we have tiered pricing for different streams. There could also be a whole slew of new opportunities for sponsorship.

“I see the conferences of the future probably being even better than what we have today,” she adds.

Changing views

It seems that the idea that nothing beats an in-person meeting is quickly becoming outdated.

“People made very similar arguments against ebooks when they first started becoming popular,” says Yeadon. Although it has been a slow progression, and although you will definitely have a certain cohort of people who will never leave behind traditional hardbound books, the ebook has now become ubiquitous across a number of formats and devices.

“Our belief systems are evolving in so many ways, and the industry is seeing ways to make online engagement truly authentic.”

She adds that, ultimately, these technologies and ways of working will help companies “engineer serendipity”.

“We want to be able to increase those random collisions as much as possible, so that we can generate more of those eureka moments.

“There are so many opportunities for personalisation and for absolute optimisation of the user experience and value creation. We are excited to be at the forefront of this groundswell of innovation momentum.”

About the interviewee


Natalie Yeadon has over 18 years of experience working in several different roles in the pharmaceutical industry. Currently, she is the co-owner and managing director at Impetus Digital.

About Impetus Digital

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Based in Toronto, Canada, Impetus Digital offers a range of digital and professional services and best-in-class online stakeholder engagement tools to help life science clients collaborate and create sustained and authentic relationships with their customers, virtually.

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