Measuring success in pharma comms

Aurora’s Siân Hurst and Chris Bath explain how using data-driven insights to build comms programmes can lead to more impactful outcomes for clients and patients

Although creativity is a huge part of pharma comms, it is meaningless if it does not lead to a demonstrable impact for clients and, ultimately, patients.

Aurora’s digital insights lead, Chris Bath, says he has noted a tendency in the industry to focus on creativity rather than outcomes, especially among industry award bodies.

“Sometimes communications can feel quite intangible,” he explains. “But actually, success in pharma comms can be measured and it can be proven.”

This is the line of thinking that has led Aurora to take a more data-driven approach to their comms strategies, using insights to measure the success of their programmes then adjust them to optimise impact.

Bath, who led the implementation of Aurora’s insights framework, highlights the importance of knowing that communications are actually “making a difference”. He says that this can be achieved by both designing an insightful strategy based on data and then measuring its impact.

“It’s about ensuring nothing is left to chance. If you strive to make an impact with the work you do, you need to have certainty at every stage in your campaign.”

An ‘insightful strategy’, he says, is about ensuring you’re working with facts not assumptions.

“We don’t develop programmes based solely on gut feeling. We want to be confident our strategy is reflective of what people want and need. We want to know we’ve done the due diligence by speaking to patients and healthcare professionals, and that we’ve drawn out the insights that are most important.

“As communicators, all the work we do is scrutinised. We’re providing a voice for pharma, and with so many channels available to us to talk about what we’re doing, we need to find the value in the work we do more than ever.”

Aurora’s managing director Siân Hurst adds that committing to the value of data-driven communications is a matter of reputation. Good use of data and budgets will increase trust between all stakeholders, particularly patients who are pharma’s customers of the future.

“How pharma can work directly with patients in the future is something we’re thinking about now. Advancing technology and pay-as-you-go healthcare mean that patients know more, want more and expect more from their healthcare and importantly, they’re generating more data than ever before that can help shape decisions and guide our programmes of work.

“It’s really exciting right now to be in a position where we can learn from this growing pool of data because of the heritage agencies like us have in working with patients and patient groups.”

Methods of measuring

In order to gather such insights and get accurate measurements of success, Aurora developed a dedicated framework, Acumen, and applied it across the entire agency.

Acumen is based on existing tools – such as the AMEC Integrated Evaluation Framework, which was developed to introduce standards for evaluation across the communications industry – but tailored to be bespoke to healthcare. It follows five stages:

  • Input – strategic insights developed from data
  • Output – the strategy based on these insights
  • Outtake – the immediate reception, perception and reaction for the programme
  • Outcome – longer term strategic aims including changes in behaviour and attitude
  • Impact – the quantifiable impact on businesses, patients or customers.

The main sources used for these measurements are HCPs, social media, search, and patient intelligence panels through the agency’s partnership with PIP Health.

“These panels help ensure that our programmes are truly patient intelligent,” explains Bath. “Meanwhile, we can use social media to analyse what people are talking about and who’s talking about it. We’ll also analyse search engine data, which is important because there’s always a disparity between what people are talking about publicly on social media and what people are searching in private.

“These channels allow us to benchmark what people want. We’ll go back to retest them all later to prove that our programmes have made a difference.”

Gathering meaningful data from social media might sound difficult, but Bath says that following certain principles can help.

“You always have to test a hypothesis; if you have a particular question you can go on to social media to prove or disprove that. You look at conversation topics and volumes, as well as where people have those conversations – is it Twitter, is it blogs, is it more visual conversation using Instagram? You can then analyse those conversations.

“Not every conversation is analysed, but ultimately you get to a point where you’ve got lots of rich data that can prove or disprove your hypothesis and lead you to uncovering that insight that is special to your campaign.”

Challenges in implementation

Implementing a new framework like this in an established agency is no small task, and Hurst says it required a lot of research and testing.

“To make that possible we created a dedicated team, which Chris heads up, who became experts along the way and could then train the rest of our team, and in turn our clients as well.”

She says that it took longer to embed across the company than they had anticipated.

“This is because it required a behaviour change across the agency at every level – from myself down to graduate account coordinators.

“You’ve got to be realistic, because this kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight, and the biggest challenge has been finding the time to embed it across our team and to do that really well. Getting 30 people upskilled to the same level, while they’re all delivering their usual client work, is quite an undertaking. Especially if you want it to be something they think about all the time. We don’t want it to just happen at the end of a campaign creation, we want people to think about it right from the beginning.

“To do that we’ve had to test it again and again, and encourage people to sit down with the core team and think about how we can measure something and why we’re doing it.”

There are also challenges from the client side, with some clients being more proactive in harnessing insights like this while others are resistant to change.

“Many clients still don’t want to pay for measurement or invest the time to work it out with us in the planning stages of a project. I get that it’s a different way of thinking but it’s something we believe is essential to prove the value of the work we do.

“It’d be great if agencies who are doing this could work together to demonstrate to clients that this is just something that has to happen for any key project or programmes.”

Impacts

Hurst says that taking this approach has forced Aurora to think more critically about what they are doing and why they are doing it.

“That might sound obvious, but comms can be so fast-paced that it’s actually a good way to consciously slow us down and help us think.

“If you’re going to do this right with clients, you’ve got to have face time with them, so you can thrash out the details of what you’re trying to measure. Then you’ve got to sit down with them and assess and reassess the direction of the programme as new data comes in and you learn more and more. It makes us think more critically as teams with our clients. I think that’s a brilliant thing.”

Many might have assumed the opposite – that increasing digitisation would mean less face time with clients, and Hurst says there is still a risk of that.

“You could just look at the surface level of the data, and tell the client what you’re going to do without discussion. That’s not where we want to go. We want to use the framework as a starting point to look at why we are taking the approach we’re taking and then seeing how it evolves. It’s a constant negotiation.”

And the insights gathered during the creation of a programme can have some surprising results. Bath points to one campaign where market research showed that digital would not actually be helpful at all for the patient population in question.

“It was for families living with an ultra rare condition where, prior to treatment being available, patients only lived for two or three years. The advent of treatment meant that children could go to school for the first time, but the unmet need was that schools weren’t equipped with the right information or resources and families weren’t equipped with the right knowledge to apply for grants.

“After speaking to families and nurses at Great Ormond Street hospital, we designed a resource pack that helps families learn what they need to talk to the school about and helps equip schools with the right documents to apply for grants from the government and local authorities.”

Families did not need to download the pack off the internet. Instead, the programme was paper-based and led by the nurses.

“You might assume that in 2019 you need to do something digitally,” Bath says. “But we didn’t need to do that. It wouldn’t have worked for these patients because it’s focused on a very specific population and was co-created with them.

“That’s still using data, of course. When you say data, people think zero and ones, numbers and charts, but actually you can still get the richest data from having a conversation with families that have a child with a condition, instead of trying to find some form of insight using social media.

“If you lose the voice of the customer, you lose the data at the end to prove you’ve made a difference.”

Eye to the future

Bath notes that it can take extra time to nurture insights like these to work out what’s important to brands or campaigns. This, he says, points towards a changing skillset in communications teams.

“We see a lot more agencies having an entire insight team. And looking forward you might see more communications data scientists whose role is based entirely around looking at this data.”
Bath says that agencies like Aurora will need to make sure they keep pace with new roles that appear as well as with emerging channels. To do this, he says that it’s important to keep speaking to patients and healthcare professionals to ask them where they find their information and where they go to talk about it.

Meanwhile, Hurst notes that the agency’s own framework will continue to evolve:

“We want to keep making adjustment to make sure that we’re always doing the very best that we can. It’s going to be an ongoing piece of work.”

And going forward, she says she would like to see both Aurora and their clients being “braver and more ambitious” about the impacts they can make.

“We’ve just got to recognise that it’s going to take a little extra time to plan. Ideally in the next five years we’d like all of our clients to be investing in measurement, because they believe that what we do is really helping them in their careers and, ultimately, helping the patients that we serve.”

About the Interviewees

Siân Hurst is managing director of Aurora, a specialist independent healthcare communications agency helping patients access medical innovations. With over 20 years’ experience working in healthcare agencies, her strengths lie in team leadership and client relationships, both of which are helping to drive evolution of the agency in response to the needs of Industry and, most importantly, patients.

Chris Bath is a director and digital insights lead at Aurora, responsible for establishing an insights and measurement framework that is central to the agency’s ambition to be the leading evidence-based agency, specialised in health. With ten years’ experience working with pharmaceutical companies, he specialises in understanding how to help clients solve their biggest problems, and how to use digital channels and insight to do it.

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