Chatbots, cat videos and snackable innovation in Philly
I got to pop down to Philly for a couple days of the Digital Pharma East confab, a favorite annual event for the DRG Digital crew, earlier this month. This year, there was, of course, a lot of buzz around AI, chatbots, and “snackability” – but beneath the buzzy froth about emerging technologies, I detected a greater sense of confidence about the basics of digital marketing. Among the highlights for me:

Cats, cukes and clinical trials

One of my favorite moments at this year’s Digital Pharma East convention was when Lilly’s Kelly McKee shared an anecdote about a native advertising/sponsored content project they did with Buzzfeed. The aim: to drive Millennials to Lilly’s clinical trial finder website, Lilly TrialGuide (Lilly’s late-stage pipeline is packed with treatments for migraine, and many Millennials are sufferers). The plan was to collaborate with the Millennial media giant on a listicle about the drug development process, packaging a decidedly unsexy topic in that supremely snackable format in order to draw in younger trial prospects.

McKee pitched procurement with her idea. Her contact there, a Millennial, loved it. His boss, a Boomer, had never heard of Buzzfeed.

“I got a call,” McKee recalled with standup-worthy comedic timing. “He’d gone on the site, and the top headline was about cucumbers and cats.” (Oh go on, scroll through it. It’s literally the best thing ever, as they say).

After an initial “WTF” reaction, the procurement head was reassured that guardrails would be put in place to prevent goofy content adjacencies – for example, by confining the content to the site’s health section. The project got funded and the listicle drew 20 times the number of impressions that Buzzfeed had set as a goal (166,000 viewers, 393 likes, 1,255 comments, etc.).

The kids are alright (and innovating)

We were all wowed by EmojiHealth, a startup that develops chatbots for health. The firm’s founder, Alexandra Philip-Reeves, launched it last year, while she was still in high school (!), and just left the company to study at Stanford, leaving her dad, Dr. John Reeves, MD, in charge. Philip-Reeves says that as we move from the app age to that of messaging, health content “need to be fast, easy and snackable, anticipating users’ needs – on-demand and continuous, mobile, friction-free and seamless.”

Part of the potential power of chatbots for health, says Philip-Reeves, is that “nobody wants to be judged.” EmojiHealth’s bots deliver “caring responses written by humans” – but delivered automatically, eliminating that barrier of social stigma for patients.

The elder Reeves said his years in clinical practice at the dawn of the digital age taught him both the promise and the peril of online health info. In the early ‘00s, he said “my patients started coming in with massive stacks of printouts.” Like many HCPs, he was taken aback that his patients suddenly had as much or more info on a condition or treatment than he did – info they were untrained to contextualize, if it wasn’t flat-out wrong.

“If you rely on patients to ask questions, you’re relying on them to know everything they need to know,” said Dr. Reeves. Messaging apps like EmojiHealth’s may offer providers, employers, payers and pharmas a means of pushing out vital info about conditions and treatments in a conversational format.

Digital footprints reveal the patient journey

EMD Serono’s Carrie O’Dell talked about an “emotional journey mapping” project (think the traditional patient journey with an emotional layer) on fertility patients that she collaborated with my DRG Digital colleague Steve Reeves on. I’m biased, of course, but this is really cool stuff. Serono’s research uncovered emotional variances across eight stages in the fertility patient journey, allowing them to target appropriate messaging to patients at every juncture in the fertility journey.

“Patients struggle for months or years, and that journey is one of the most emotional a mother will go through,” said O’Dell. “We can’t just talk to a patient that’s hopeful and excited at the start of treatment in the same way that we talk to a patient that’s failed IVF twice. We needed to understand how patients are talking and learn what needs they had at each stage.”

Among other things, Serono learned that patients use different social platforms at different stages of their journey, and that familiarity with the shorthand they use to talk about their treatment can boost trust. The project was a bit of a stretch at first for O’Dell, but her Millennial-heavy marketing team ate up the insights.

“This pushed me out of my comfort zone, but when our brand teams got it, they were so excited,” she said.

Download the presentation:
Driving Brand Transformation in a Patient-first Age:
How to Unlock the Emotional Journey of Fertility Patients

Signs of multichannel maturity

While these tales of navigating the generation gap had happy endings, and pharma has made great strides towards closing its digital divide in recent years, the distance between pharma’s TV-and-details-oriented legacy marketing culture and the fail-fast-and-iterate world its tech industry collaborators (and increasingly, competitors) inhabit remains vast. Biogen’s Shwen Gwee, the digital pharma trailblazer who emceed the conference’s Social/Innovation Day, spoke of the urgency of being able to respond to how customers are using a company’s product.

“In pharma, when our trajectory is off, we try to move the moon to the rocket,” said Gwee. “You have to be able to pivot and innovate. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram – all of them pivoted from their original ideas.”

My colleague Jeff Greene presented some fascinating research for his Structuring for Success report, which uncovered organizational and cultural barriers to innovation within a pharma industry still rooted in direct sales to physicians. He says much of the time, when pharmas talk about digital innovation, they’re really just describing good, nuts-and-bolts multichannel marketing.

Download the presentation:
What Would Amazon Do?
5 Practical Lessons from Pharma’s Digital Transformation

One thing I took away from the conference is that if pharma still struggles with real innovation, many companies are starting to get their arms around the basic stuff – which is no small thing in so regulated an industry. A couple good examples:

  • GSK’s Robert Johnson talked about how the company integrated its data inputs globally to sync up in-person and non-personal physician engagement. “HCPs need accurate information they can trust and they need it fast,” said Johnson. “These are just things people expect now. You have to be right then and there, with the patient sitting across from them … Putting data in one place enables us to do that.”
  • Pfizer’s Erin Eichenstein talked about their collaboration with Facebook and how to make “thumbstopping” mobile video. “In TV, you tell a linear story,” she said. “IN Facebook, you can’t. We’ve had to flip it on its head. When you learn how to tell your story in a nonlinear way, you really learn how to optimize for mobile and social.” Eichenstein’s group in U.S. marketing has been “banging the drum to think mobile first,” and they’ve seen success – to the point where MLR is asking to review for mobile first. “It’s really about delivering content to people the way they need it, where they’re spending their time.”

Amen to that. Right time, right channel, right content. That’s the essence of quality multichannel marketing. And while it’s fun to puzzle over the healthcare implications of AI, nailing the basics is the challenge of the day.

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