Around the Studio: Leveraging Digital Tools for Product Launches in COVID-19

Leveraging digital tools for product launches during a pandemic and for the foreseeable future is more important than ever. The current digital landscape has had a huge effect on pharmaceutical sales reps and healthcare professionals.

Welcome to our first edition of Around The Studio With Doug & Shai. The Co-Founders of The Experience Design Studio tackle hot topics, digital trends, and strategy and how it applies to the current climate of digital marketing and user experience design.

Q: From the onset of COVID-19 and for the foreseeable future, companies had to dramatically alter marketing strategies for product launches. How has your team adjusted to help clients meet this challenge?

DR: In the pharmaceutical world, sales reps conduct business via frequent in-person visits at HCPs’ offices and by engaging face-to-face about new products. This model has essentially gone away in the last year. Reps can no longer just drop-in to doctors’ offices or even schedule in-person meetings. Unfortunately, a majority of these reps and the companies they represent did not have a digital eco-system in place that was nimble enough to move into a virtual world. True digital tools connect professionals with online resources that they can access through a web link, such as WebEx and Zoom. Overnight, these platforms became the new normal. If you didn’t adapt and pivot, you lost market share and revenue. 

Companies had to quickly rethink their plan of attack and really focus on being digital-first while making up for the loss of a personal connection that sales reps thrive on; that’s where we come in. Addressing your costumer’s online needs by creating a meaningful and engaging digital experience is key. That said, staying top of mind, relevant, and providing the right messaging without being overwhelming is a balancing act. It’s of the utmost importance to map a journey and focus on assets like virtual sales aids, cadenced emails, and creating experiences that pull people back. Some of our clients already had a social presence in place and were already thinking digital-first which allowed us to double down and move forward. 

For instance, we redesigned the SINUVA (a sinus implant by Intersect ENT) website in the spring of 2020 and were successful in greatly increasing web traffic and producing quality social content to support all of the brand’s social channels. Our strategy was to dramatically amplify the new social content as well as content on the SINUVA website through a robust marketing and advertising campaign when the pandemic hit. This allowed us to leverage the brand’s digital presence to make up for the loss of face-to-face sales. We also wanted to focus on ways to keep those relationships the reps had intact and growing. The new standard for sales reps in a digital world are assets that live completely online, are easily accessible, and are self-guided so that they can be easily viewed and shared during a video conference or Zoom call rather than being something that requires in-person facilitation on an iPad. This is the path forward for reps to build relationships and sell. As a result of these combined strategies, their numbers really jumped in Q4 of 2020 and continue to climb as we build on our progress.

SR: We are also seeing a shift in how lifestyle products have changed their marketing strategy. We had to readjust the business-as-usual model for product launches and completely rethink how we did everything, with a ‘virtual first approach’. But what does that really mean for companies, HCPs, and patients? If you eliminate face-to-face interactions, you are then forced to account for audience behavior that is entirely online. Where are they going and how can you reach them? How can you market to them by staying top of mind and not overwhelming customers with emails and messages? How do companies stay connected with HCPs and maintain those relationships? It’s about staying relevant and providing the right information when needed, so when they are ready to make a choice, your client’s products are the first brand chosen. This strategy must consider everything from ads to virtual sales aids, and email marketing, to create an overall positive user experience and consumer journey.

Working with our client MC2Therapeutics, we helped test sending out samples and adjusting marketing strategies based on feedback in real-time. MC2 provided a code to doctors who offered patients a free sample of BioMee and we developed an eCommerce site just for this product. This model is new and most importantly, we are moving forward as HCPs can be on a call with a patient, direct them to a site to enter a code for a free sample to be sent to their house.

DR: With the virtual approach, sales reps are gaining more focused attention from doctors during virtual meetings. The number of overall interactions is inevitably dropping, but quality time is being gained over the quantity of meetings as physicians are more attentive on a virtual call having fewer disruptions from an otherwise bustling office or clinic. With more uninterrupted time on their hands, HCPs are able to invest more time to learn about new therapies and treatments as well. 

If anything, the pandemic has forced pharma companies’ hands in accelerating innovation and moving assets, sales materials, and supporting tools to a digital model. The winners are HCPs and patients. In fact, HCPs have come to value and understand the importance of this new form of communication and see it as the path forward. As indicated across numerous HCP sites for our clients, while web traffic initially dropped in the early stages of the pandemic it has not only increased sharply since, it’s risen above pre-COVID numbers. Brands that had an established digital strategy in place pre-COVID are thriving. We can discuss the virtual sales aid (VSA) and adapt to immediate patient online research during telehealth appointments and call out the benefits of this approach and the tools used to support these efforts.

Q: How has engagement changed between HCPs and patients? 

SR: We’ve moved from online tactics being complementary to another program, to online tactics being very robust, frequent, and front and center. An online approach to marketing is what companies lead with now in a campaign. They can no longer sit back and just monitor comments on social feeds or ads, or turn them off, and possibly not respond to a post or query. They now must be fully engaged with patients and develop protocols for how you respond, how you engage, – especially on social media, it drives awareness for others and helps build your brand. 

DR: All interactions/appointments are happening virtually now. People are in their homes, with possibly multiple family members all trying to talk on Zoom calls with school, work, etc. while you need to discuss medical issues with your doctor. Some elderly patients or those who don’t like and/or are not used to an online method of discussing personal health issues, or have never used these features on a computer, or simply won’t use Zoom might need help to get connected. This creates a new dynamic just to engage with your HCP. But for those who are able to use computers for telehealth visits, a big benefit is that they can use a browser at the same time and conduct Google searches while discussing the information with their doctor, which creates a new eco-system during HCP visits. If they want to suggest a particular drug, a patient can type in the drug and go to the micro-site with information while talking to an HCP. 

Interactive visual aids (IVA) that can be shared through a URL or can be viewed on a video conference, such as Zoom are a huge asset for the sales force. Previously sales reps would take an iPad on meetings with HCPs and would present doctors with the IVAs. Now they are purely digital IVAs – they live online, not just an app. Reps can share these through a link, and an HCP can log in and it’s more self-guided; an HCP can review the information on their own time at their own pace or reps can walk them through on a call. It’s the new and improved version of visual aids. When face to face, sales reps might discuss what they are presenting in a more organic way, which is more natural. And when presenting online, it makes more sense to have these tools to guide a doctor through or allow them to take a deeper dive on their own.

Q: How about the digital shift in healthcare conferences? 

DR: Sales reps used to build relationships in person by going into HCPs’ offices and also onsite meetings conferences, and now with none of that happening, there are limited opportunities to build relationships, especially when trying to forge new ones, it’s now a different reality for sales folks. They are relying on social media more than ever. We are helping to create a lot more content for LinkedIn as we are seeing that sales reps are hungry for this content and eager to share it with customers. This may be the only opportunity they have to touch base with HCPs. So whatever digital tools we can provide to our clients that they can push on and share, will help them to have more engaging conversations with HCPs and help them do their jobs better. Pre-COVID companies weren’t interested in using these tools and relied on more of a face-to-face and an old-school sale approach. 

Q: What has been the biggest benefit to launching in COVID and the biggest challenge? 

DR: As for benefits, in a digital space, we have the digital tools to track everything – emails, open rates, information on customers, and more. Had the pandemic happened 15 years ago, many more companies would not have survived. We now have this huge data set that you can build the next marketing launch from. Sales reps used to swipe through slides during HCP presentations, but now they can see how long HCPs are actually engaged in presentations, there is a huge amount of accountability. We can see what patients are getting, send out surveys, and more. Having the accountability factor is very valuable and interesting. Even with sales reps, we can see what they are talking about, to who, how long, etc. 

SR: Without a doubt, the biggest challenges have been the loss of a personal connection. With conferences being virtual, and everyone working completely online takes its toll and results in a lot of burnout. Sales reps were used to being in the field and if they didn’t have strong relationships with HCPs, it’s even more difficult to engage virtually and breakthrough. There’s been a great impact on the workforce. Demographics also play a role and those not used to a virtual world and can’t adjust won’t succeed. 

Q: Do you see this new approach as the way forward or just temporary? 

DR: If there was a debate on whether digital was in the driver’s seat, that has ended with the pandemic; digital tools are here to stay. In-person meetings and conferences will come back, but with a digital-first mindset. Companies are realizing that we are living in a digitally-led society and you need a cohesive, online, infrastructure and presence to compete, especially from a selling standpoint. This includes a seamless user-friendly website that provides a positive user experience and easily accessible tools and information supported by a robust social media strategy, visual sales aids, and CRMs. We help companies adapt to modern tools and move forward with success. A digital-savvy sales force is also part of the path forward. Armed with the right tools, they need to sell and build relationships, and a strong online presence behind them adds to the overall success of a brand and marketing strategies. Companies that were focused on the digital life cycle prior to the pandemic are seeing the value now more than ever and older thinking companies are falling away, it’s a sink or swim scenario.