Syneos Health

Thriving in COVID-19 with flexible marketing strategies

Pharma sales is set to change forever. To keep afloat in the current climate, teams need to embrace flexibility and remember that traditional content won’t work in new contexts, say experts from Syneos Health.

Selling in a socially-distanced world is about more than simply taking conversations online – it requires a wholesale change in how sales teams operate and the kinds of content they use.

Ian Dorrian, president of Syneos Health Communications Europe, says COVID-19 has driven “unprecedented disruption” in pharma’s interactions with its customers.

“There’s no case study for this situation; we need to embrace risk and define a new normal.

“Every company has two choices: either they’ve got to lead change, and define a new normal, or see what others do and then play catch up forever.”

He says that at the beginning of the pandemic, Syneos Health had to quickly figure out how to adapt its own large sales force it runs for clients to the new normal.

“Ultimately, patients still depend on those processes to bring new drugs to the market quickly. For them, speed is everything.

“We just couldn’t stand still. We still wanted to leverage customer intimacy in a way that only a sales representative can, but we had to find a different way of doing it.”

Physicians themselves have demonstrated some major behaviour shifts over the course of the pandemic. Data from Veeva shows that whilst only a couple of thousand calls were made using its remote detailing platform in January, those numbers had rocketed to 80,000 per month by June.

“We also see that the average call duration for remote details this year has been around 19 minutes – compared to around two minutes in face to face meetings,” says Alex Brock, managing director, omnichannel & digital Europe at Syneos Health.

“Reps have traditionally been trained to deliver content in a couple of minutes, but now they’re having to sustain in-depth, detail oriented scientific conversations for much longer.

“Many are finding that they don’t actually have the tools or depth of information to do that.”

What this shows, Brock says, is that adapting to this ‘new normal’ is about more than just flipping from one channel to another.

“When you change channels, you also change the context of usage, which means people will interact with you in a different way.”

Every new channel is a new opportunity

The differences between virtual conferences and in-person meetings is a prime example of this.

“Many virtual conferences opted to use platforms that basically presented a virtual exhibition hall, complete with images of exhibition booths,” says Brock.

“It’s familiar and therefore somewhat comforting, but there’s a fundamental difference in the way that a physician interacts with that versus a physical congress. A physician might spend three or four days at a physical conference, passing each booth dozens of times, and eventually stopping when they have a free minute.

“No physician is ever going to spend three days on a congress website. The context in which somebody interacts with that is completely different.”

Brock notes that content from virtual conferences will potentially be hosted online for months. This means that congresses are no longer focused bouts of activity – now, they are campaigns.

“Your campaign might not even need to sit on the congress website,” says Andreas Reinbolz, managing director of Syneos Health Communications Germany. “Maybe the website is just a placeholder for information that sits somewhere else. That gives you more control to shape interactions in the way you want.”

He adds: “Any permission given at a conference is always a deal with someone. For example, at a physical conference, the email follow up on a scientific conversation and some coffee at the booth might be considered enough value in exchange for their email address.

“When we can’t talk to someone over a cup of coffee anymore, what’s the new value that we provide? Why should a physician allow you to contact them? Surely not for three advertising key messages. Now the quality and the value of the content and interactions are becoming the critical elements.

“We need to look at how we transfer the singular interaction from a congress or a sales rep into something that’s more a continuum of communications.”

The changing role of reps

Not only, then, is the role of the rep changing to be more science-focused, but reps are also moving away from delivering short ‘soundbite’ messages to having more of a content management, value-provision role.

“In the past reps did everything,” says Brock. “Now some of the more transactional tasks, like inviting a customer to an event, have been automated.

“The more collaborative, problem-solving, relationship building roles in a face-to-face scenario can’t be automated. We shouldn’t think of this dynamic as taking anything away from the rep; instead, it is freeing them up to do more of the tasks that really make a difference.”

Syneos Health has learnt from its own sales force that having fewer calls with more depth is becoming an increasingly successful tactic.

The company has also found that “smart targeting” of high-value customers can allow for greater depth of interaction.

“Previously we might have said that there’s digital on one side and the rep on the other, with nothing in between,” says Reinbolz, “but the reality is that reps are increasingly using digital channels and tools to help manage content and provide valuable interactions.”

One such tool Syneos Health has developed in response to the pandemic is RepCast – which allows for engaging socially-distanced discussions with a physician in a face-to-face environment.

The platform ‘beams’ content from the rep’s device to an HCP’s phone. This allows the rep to drive content and stay in control of the narrative even when sitting far apart from the physician.

Other useful tools might include smartpasses, which allow quick, simple ongoing HCP engagement through a smartphone’s digital wallet; hybrid detailer aids for face-to-face and remote use; and chatbots that can provide product support to patients or physicians.


Ultimately, this means that reps and their companies need to be more flexible than ever. Teams can no longer write a sales plan in October then not look at it again until the following year. Rather, these plans need to become living documents.

“There’s always new data coming out,” says Reinbolz, “and you need to be able to adjust messages as you go.”

“When faced with uncertainty, it can be easier, and feel safer, to stick with what you know.  But there’s no such thing as a COVID-safe marketing strategy. You’ve got to leave your comfort zone and think about what you can do to be recognised by physicians for what you stand for, using different tools and content elements.”

He says that being able to connect expertise in clinical studies, publication writing, congresses and sales operations is key – and this has allowed Syneos Health in particular to embrace flexibility during the pandemic.

The riskiest thing a sales team can do in the current situation, he adds, is to continue working in the same way they were before the pandemic.

“People often pretend it’s just a matter of media mix. I’ve even seen people say that three emails equal a rep visit.

“That’s not serving clients very well. What we think is really helping clients is looking at things more strategically, and from an agile perspective – asking how you can be flexible, how you can have conversations in different channels, and ultimately how you can provide value to your customers, especially in light of COVID-19 and the challenges it poses.

“If the conversation’s happening on that level, it gets a lot more powerful – and then the channel is just a way of transmitting that value. If you haven’t sorted out the value conversation, the channel discussion will not help you.”

About the interviewees


Andreas Reinbolz leads the German team of Syneos Health Communications across advertising, PR and medical communications. His scientific background as a biologist combined with long standing expertise in strategic communication planning and his creative approach fuel German and international healthcare brands.

Ian Dorrian is the European regional president for Syneos Health Communications, leading a team of over 250 communications professionals working across advertising, medical communications and public relations to deliver a wide variety of global omnichannel customer experiences. He has consistently worked in the life science sector for over 30 years; both in-house and in major holding company service agencies.

Alex Brock leads omnichannel and digital across Syneos Health in Europe, and runs the central digital team based in the London HQ. He has worked at Syneos Health for the past seven years, overseeing the evolution of digital insight, strategy and optimisation across the EU business. Prior to this he has worked in various insight and digital strategy roles in healthcare and consumer sectors over the past 14 years.

About Syneos Health

Syneos Health is the only fully integrated biopharmaceutical solutions organisation. The company, including a contract research organisation (CRO) and contract commercial organisation (CCO), is purpose-built to accelerate customer performance to address modern market realities. Created through the merger of two industry-leading companies – INC Research and inVentiv Health – it brings together approximately 24,000 clinical and commercial minds to help its biopharmaceutical customers shorten the distance from lab to life.

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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