As an observer of the pharma industry, measuring digital evolution can be like staring at the interactive map on a long flight… it doesn’t seem to change. Then you do something else—watch a movie, read a book, take a nap—and come back to find there has been quite a bit of movement.

Attending industry events offers a good benchmark for progress. At last month’s ExL Digital Pharma East, there were plenty of encouraging signs along with the more familiar gripes. Here are five takeaways:

1. No one ever said this would be easy. “Digital is just really hard,” confirmed Jeremy Pincus, senior director, global digital services, at GlaxoSmithKline, citing a profound quote from an anonymous exec: “Digital marketing makes up 15% of my budget, 70% of my team’s time and 90% of my team’s frustration.”

You have little choice but to pursue the digital dream. What does it take? “It takes a village of collaboration, internally,” said Alison Woo, director, social media, Bristol-Myers Squibb. “This is a disruptive media so it’s going to take resources reallocation. Training is a big commitment.”

2. Doing more with less applies to digital, too. Not only is it difficult to develop and launch projects, you have to be efficient about it, too. Pincus spoke about how centralizing digital services leads to shared innovation and insights, and faster deployment of campaigns across the organization.

Similarly, Todd Kolm, director, emerging channel strategy, Pfizer, told delegates how the pharma giant’s centralized mobile platform enabled Pfizer to launch 10 fully optimized mobile brand sites in four months.

Most companies at least seem to have figured out their mantras for digital protocols, processes and criteria. These include “Listen, Understand, Engage” (GSK); “Attract, Align, Activate, Convert” (Takeda); “Immediacy, Simplicity, Context.” (Pfizer); and “Flexible, Scalable, Simple” (Daiichi-Sankyo). You get the idea.

3. You’re competing against cars, beer… and toilet paper? When it comes to engaging your audience, on the consumer side at least, digital rarely discriminates between pharma and other industries—a point well made by John Pugh, director of digital communications, Boehringer Ingelheim.

“The number of followers of pharma on Facebook is pitifully small,” said Pugh. “If a toilet paper company can get 2 million fans, that says something. You start to realize we’re missing out on something here, so we tried to make our presence a little more interesting.”

4. MLR does not (necessarily) stand for Monsters, Luddites, Roadblocks. Many companies reported significant progress with internal med-legal reviews (see page 12). “We have a strong partnership with MLR,” said Joan Mikardos, senior director, head of digital COE, Sanofi US. “We have their trust now… the sky didn’t fall down and we can move on.” She said the key to gaining this trust was starting small and not just chasing shiny objects. “We never engage for the sake of engaging and (never) talk only about what we want to talk about.”

5. But there’s still a lot of corporate culture to change. “Organizations are still struggling to understand they need to change to become more responsive and understanding to customer demands,” said Marc Monseau, former communications director at Johnson & Johnson and co-chair of the conference. “Change is harder in organizations that are comfortable in their own skin. Innovation needs to become more of the fabric of the organization, and that comes either from a crisis or from senior leadership driving it.”

Note: All quoted comments represent the personal views and opinions of individual speakers and do not necessarily reflect the positions of their respective organizations.