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Human Connections in the Digital World

Updated: May 27, 2021

Words by Kirstie Turner

The future of marketing is sure to be digital, with increased investment in the innovation of marketing techniques. However, it is critical that we do not lose the human touch provided by more traditional marketing techniques; pharma must learn to build and retain human connections in our increasingly digital world.

The dystopian backdrop of Brave New World brings to life the fear of a future devoid of individual identity, as innovation prevails. Huxley exemplifies the dangers of technology, engineering a fast-paced society that has lost all traces of humanity. As we enter 2020, we leave behind a decade that saw an explosion of innovation, notably in pharmaceutical marketing: from blockchain to AI. But perhaps Huxley’s fears are relevant once more, nearly a century on, as we see a shift in society, with many choosing to ‘unplug’ from the world of technology. Looking to the future, digital is set to dominate the 2020s, but can it do so without the help of traditional marketing techniques?

With such a vast level of innovation within digital, it can be easy to get swept away with the once-inconceivable possibilities of technologies that are in our grasp, such as virtual reality and machine learning. But pharma must not lose sight of the traditional methods that enabled them to get here. A combination of traditional and digital is proving to be successful: “The real evolution we’re seeing is in forward-looking companies where digital is being seen as a complementary part of a wider omnichannel mix that includes appropriate real-world touchpoints, not just as a cheaper, binary replacement for traditional contacts,” explains Duncan Arbour, SVP Insights and Innovation, Syneos Health Communications Europe.

One of the main drivers for the unplugging ideology is the loss of the human touch in the innovative, digital sphere. Arbour says: “I hope that future marketing approaches will balance the potential of data, targeting, and marketing automation with an equal focus on behavioural science and humanity. It is not just about developing digital marketing; it is about developing content and services that really understand what it’s like to practice medicine in a digital age.” There is no denying we are entrenched in the world of technology, but marketing will always need face-to-face interaction.

Forget about what the trendiest thing to do is and instead think about how we build a capability of the future

“If you look at an orchestra, there are no machines orchestrating: it is a person. In marketing, our reps are working as the orchestrators,” says Dmitry Schourov, Global Commercial Operations Lead, Pfizer. An orchestra can have the best musicians in the world, but without someone keeping them together, to time and in harmony, they will not prevail. Similarly, pharma can invest in all the technology trends and digital campaigns, but without the right people orchestrating the traditional human touch, it may not reach its full potential. “We are working on combining face-to-face and digital,” continues Schourov.

But there is a stigma around maintaining the status-quo and sticking just with tradition. After all, we are well and truly entrenched in the digital era, a time when innovation breeds innovation. Commercial teams must have this at the forefront of their decisions to ensure they are not left behind. Ignacio Quiles Lara, VP and Commercial Director, Spain, OncoHematology, GSK, says: “Promotion which relies exclusively on traditional, time-worn methodologies will have trouble keeping up.” 

Perhaps it is not the traditional marketing techniques we need to shift away from, but the traditional marketing mindset. Schourov outlines: “Marketing stays the same – it is our tools that have become completely different and this requires significant change in our mindset.” One clear area for change is the industry’s position on social media, which has not seen a level of buy-in equal to the platform’s exponential potential. “The top channels for pharma marketers to reach healthcare professionals were emails, webinars, conferences, and portals, but this is evolving quickly towards social media,” continues Lara. In the digital debate, social media cannot be ignored; as a platform for direct, two-way conversation with consumers, it offers incomparable opportunities.  Pharma so far have shied away from fully exploring the potential of social media, and the time has well and truly come for this to be rectified.

But traditional marketing is the safer, tried and tested option, while embracing the trend of social media will bring with it a host of complexities.  “Social media as a platform is very open. If you haven’t planned your project end-to-end before launching in an industry that is so highly regulated, be it pharma or be it finance, you can get into trouble. This is why people have been sceptical,” says Arpita Pani, who is the Senior Commercial Governance, Digital and E-Commerce Lead at Ferring Pharmaceuticals. Pani continues: “Use social media in the most ethical and thought through ways: plan your projects properly, do your due diligence properly. Make sure you have your social monitoring in place and privacy policies and be prepared for crisis management.”  

Regardless of the latest trend, digital or traditional, it is critical that marketing maintains ethical standards and a level of rigour, as Pani continues: “We keep ethics at the heart of it. We have created a model focussed on privacy; the capability is privacy by design. This will help us to be good with our digital maturity and marketing of the future.” 

The 2020s are set to be the multi-channel age, with the opportunity to vitalise the best elements of traditional marketing along with the potential of innovative digital settings. Lara advises: “Optimise customer face-time and equip sales reps with the digital-friendly tools as a terrifically effective way to attain the goal of promotion.” With a world of progression in the digital space, it is important to keep focus away from the fads and home in on future-proofing your marketing campaign. Pani concludes: “Forget about what the trendiest thing to do is and instead think about how we build a capability of the future.” A Brave New World need not, and indeed should not, be dystopian; instead, by marrying traditional human connections with technological innovation, pharma can build a future in which everyone can thrive.

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