For pharma and healthcare organizations, the benefit of AI lies in its ability to quickly scan behavioral data for unknown patterns, then take action on them. Contrary to its reputation as the slowest of slow adopters, the industry is availing itself of the tech with a great degree of urgency.

There’s no limit to what the industry can do with the data it collects. For instance, pharma can exploit data streams being amassed by product teams. Data on the messages or messaging tactics that trigger a bump in prescriptions can be rejiggered to fuel future campaigns.

In the non-pharma world, the savviest brands and retailers have moved closer to the platonic ideal of 1-to-1 marketing driven by analytics and machine learning. Pharma, industry data execs suggest, is finally ready to use those same tools and tactics to reach doctors, patients, and caregivers more efficiently.

Better campaigns and targeting start with data. For online retailers such as Amazon, that is browsing history. When Amazon visitors view an item, they are treated to suggestions for other purchases. The experience is powered by user data that is fed into an algorithm, which promptly surfaces the “right” products — the ones the user is likely to buy.

Speaking at last year’s Digital Pharma East in Philadelphia, Paul Kallukaran, EVP of performance analytics and data science at CMI/Compas, predicted the use of machine learning in marketing campaigns will become the industry standard in three to five years. In an exchange with an audience member who asked him when machine learning should become a part of a pharma or health campaign, he urged marketing teams not to waste another minute. “You should be doing this already,” he stated.

We’re moving toward a data-driven environment where we have ability to market 1-to-1. In the HCP world, that’s something measurable.

Jane Portman, Merkle

One problem is many marketers don’t know where to start when testing a new measurement or machine-learning strategy. Tatsiana Gremyachinskiy, digital marketing manager at Abbott, suggested beginning with a measurable objective. “Do you want to be an industry leader? Do you want to publish for HCPs or for patients?” she asked. “It doesn’t have to be impressions or click-through rate. It can be something more qualitative.”

Kallukaran, on the other hand, advised starting with a short program — six to eight weeks in duration — to prove efficacy before investing in a longer machine-learning program. “Data is flowing in, so if you’re not using it then why are you connecting it?” he asked. “It’s worth trying and seeing how effective you are, and then seeing if you need to make any adjustments for future campaigns.”

Even if a program fails, analytics teams shouldn’t forget its data can fuel a future campaign, noted Gaetan Akinrolabu, associate director of paid media and social media strategy at Bristol-Myers Squibb. “Whether a campaign is successful or not, we still have data from individuals to let us know how to target them better.”

Rethinking the rep visit

As for the sales rep visit, some marketing pundits have been predicting its demise for nearly a decade. But the shift toward digital techniques hasn’t rendered those drop-ins obsolete so much as forced pharma to manage them more effectively. Nobody disputes reps are losing access to doctors, which forces them to make the most of the limited time at their disposal.

To that end, AbbVie and Merkle recently showcased a platform to better track the methods, tactics, and messaging that work with each individual doctor. “We have a lot of bounce back from doctors, especially younger ones,” said Yi Wang, senior manager of emerging analytics at AbbVie, during another Digital Pharma East panel. “Their media consumption habits have changed. We’re working on how to transfer ourselves from the salesforces [of old] to the digital world.”

The digital ecosystem showcased by the companies included a slew of online resources, from self-directed content for doctors to tools designed for use alongside the sales rep during a visit. After the digital tools were used, the analytics recorded what appeared to work best for each doctor. The brand team subsequently used that info to optimize future visits.

“The aid served multiple purposes,” reported Jane Portman, Merkle’s VP of analytics. “One was to let [the rep] show [audiences] this content and the other was the notion of what’s the suggested content for this HCP and why.”

The goal: to surround HCPs with the content and tools most needed to help them work more effectively.

The analytics revealed doctors typically liked to see three sales tiles out of a possible six. After that point, the effectiveness — measured by number of prescriptions written — fell precipitously. For repeat visits, the data revealed that, to reach the highest number of prescriptions, doctors could see the same content as many as seven times over a six-month period.

While Portman has heard the calls to do away with pharma sales reps altogether, she said eliminating these positions is “not on the table.” AbbVie and Merkle believe the ecosystem works best when digital tools are paired with an actual sales rep.

“The landscape is changing,” Portman continued. “We’re moving toward a data-driven environment where we have ability to market 1-to-1. In the HCP world, that’s something measurable.”

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