How pharma can adapt to online engagement in a post-COVID-19 world

The COVID-19 epidemic is forcing an unexpected shift in how companies interact with stakeholders, with virtual engagement now a necessity rather than a nice-to-have – and it seems likely these changes will be here to stay.

Natalie Yeadon, managing director of Impetus Digital, says that even without COVID-19 to accelerate things, the transition to mostly virtual engagements is an “inevitability” that has been coming for the life sciences industry for some time.

Nevertheless, she says there are “lots of great lessons to be learned” from the shift in working precipitated by COVID-19, as people look for cost-effective ways to collaborate and gather insights.

“We’re going to be seeing a lot more life science companies moving in the direction of having synchronous and asynchronous online meetings,” she says.

“In the aftermath, people will realise how effective it has been, how much money they were able to save, how good the experience was, and will likely continue with it.”

Impetus has been working in this area since 2008 and has gained a keen sense of how the industry can best harness the potential of virtual stakeholder engagement.

The company specialises in both synchronous and asynchronous meetings, and Yeadon says that both can be equally powerful for life science and healthcare firms.

Synchronous meetings involve all the participants being online and communicating at the same time, in real-time.

Asynchronous meetings usually involve giving participants a series of questions that they answer in their own time, though they are still able to interact with their colleagues via a secure platform.

This can often lead to higher completion rates than for synchronous meetings – with Impetus being able to guarantee 92% to 100% completion rates.

“Instead of having a logistically complex and expensive in-person meeting where you throw lots to the wall and hope something sticks, you can create digestible components that will allow you to have continuous interactions with the stakeholders over the course of time between a cross-functional team,” Yeadon explains.

She says this can help clients transition from the typical paradigm of the education model to what Impetus calls the ‘authentic partnership model’ – truly working with stakeholders as partners.

“Issues don’t just evolve overnight – sometimes they pop up over the course of a year. How great would it be if you had these consultants available for insight gathering, brainstorming, and collaboration throughout the year?”

“AI is on everybody’s minds, and we’re excited about eventual inclusion of chatbots – which can help lead people through questions.”

In cost analyses, Impetus has found that the average cost per word achieved in an asynchronous meeting comes to 55 cents per word, versus $22 for an in-person meeting.

“One reason for that is production blocking,” says Yeadon. “When you have eight or more people in a meeting, you are better off with electronic brainstorming because you’re not going to get into ‘verbal traffic jams’. Only one person can speak at the same time in a real-time meeting.

“You can also have a series of different touchpoints over time, like clarification rounds and objection rounds. This gives people extra time to ruminate and process. There’s also a layer of anonymity that allows people to feel freer in their dispensation of ideas.”

This is also supported by Impetus’ data. In a typical eight-hour meeting with 20 advisors, the transcript is about 18 pages. In a typical one-hour asynchronous touchpoint with the same number of advisors, the transcript is 50 pages.

“All of this means that there’s multiple benefits for doing longitudinal expert engagement plans,” says Yeadon. “They can be done very cost-effectively and efficiently using an online platform without having to fly people, pay for food, pay for meeting rooms etc, so that your reach and frequency can expand and you can have more touchpoints. You get more done and with less effort on the company’s part.”

This can also facilitate engagement with people who may typically be less comfortable with face-to-face interaction.

“The majority of people who go into the medical space are more analytical in nature and aren’t used to giving knee-jerk reactions to questions,” says Yeadon. “When you use an online platform, you’re able to give them extra time to get into a flow of thoughts. They’re able to have the data right in front of them. You’re giving them more processing time, more rumination time and they get to see what their colleagues are thinking. Some of the more timid people now have a platform where they can express their ideas.”

Adapting in times of upheaval

With flying restrictions and social distancing abruptly coming into force across the world during COVID-19, many companies have had to adapt quickly to holding online meetings like these.

Yeadon shares some examples of how Impetus has helped companies transition smoothly:

“We go through the original agenda they had planned and digitise it, discussing how we can transfer everything that was supposed to be done in person into a virtual space.

“Often it will be a combination of synchronous and asynchronous techniques – for example having a main meeting and then dividing people out into breakout sessions. They are still able to whiteboard, look at slides, write things down digitally, etc. We orchestrate that whole piece and lead people through it.”

Other times, it can actually be quite difficult to run a single, real-time virtual meeting for eight hours, so Impetus works with clients to break the meeting up into multiple asynchronous touchpoints.

“The advisors can come in, answer the questions, interact with their colleagues and then come prepared for the actual synchronous web meetings. We might do two or three of these, one to two hours long each, over a couple of weeks – or we might compress it within a few days. It really depends on the client.

“Our collaboration or asynchronous tools are very ubiquitous, and how they’re used with whom and the outputs of those usages is really what determines the use cases.”

Yeadon says that uses for Impetus’ tools can include everything from advisory boards on market access, government relations, and policy development to medical education, journal clubs and conference debriefers.

With more and more companies looking to harness virtual engagement, Impetus has also launched a self-serve option for those people who are already digitally-savvy.

Yeadon is therefore very optimistic about the “inevitable” ubiquity of virtual engagement in a post COVID-19 world.

“We’re really excited about what the future has in store. AI is on everybody’s minds, and we’re excited about eventual inclusion of things like chatbots – which can help lead people through the questions. Our software continues to update, we’re always adding the best-in-class of every technology we can.

“The number one priority is to help everyone stay healthy. Beyond that, the virus could also cause huge economic disruption, so we would like to be able to play a small part in maintaining business and allowing people to carry on without having too many hiccups ahead.”

impetus logo

Year founded



Toronto, Canada

Areas of expertise
  • Virtual and in-person advisory boards, working groups, and steering committees
  • Online publication planning and development
  • Execution of virtual medical education, training, and other learning activities
  • Patient journey mapping
  • Treatment pathway profiling
  • Virtual journal clubs
  • Co-creation of scientific, regulatory, educational, and promotional materials
  • Strategic, logistic, and technical support
  • Stakeholder management
  • Content development
  • Medical writing
  • Events management
  • Virtual event planning
  • Online grant development and review programmes
  • Social media engagement content development
  • Virtual conference engagement programmes
  • Virtual clinical trial collaboration

About the interviewee

Natalie Yeadon brings over 18 years of experience from working in the pharmaceutical industry in a variety of roles in Canada and the US. She is currently the co-owner and managing director of Impetus Digital, where she spends her time helping life science clients connect virtually with internal and external stakeholders.

About Impetus Digital

impetus logo

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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