It’s become cliché to proclaim the demise of the pharma industry’s main fallback to scoring a quick product shmooze with doctors. But there are unmistakable signs that companies aren’t paying college grads to show up in medical offices toting boxed lunches quite as much as they once did. 

Step aside, sales reps. Move over, medical congresses. When it comes to engaging professionals, the latest healthcare marketing spend data reflect a higher level of enthusiasm for technology and digital programs.

“There’s an emergence of technology on the HCP side,” notes William Veltre, former senior director of omnichannel strategy at Bristol Myers Squibb, a position he held through March. 

The proof comes courtesy of the MM+M/Swoop 2024 Healthcare Marketers Trend Survey, designed to detect shifts in overall marketing budgets as well as changes in the mix of tactics and channels on the HCP, consumer and payer sides. This year’s study drew some 234 director-level or above respondents with visibility into their biopharma or medtech companies’ promotional budgets.

Results show average marketing spend surged 19.7% to $9.1 million last year, reversing 2022’s 8% slide to $7.6 million. Nearly half of respondents said they expect their 2024 budgets to be higher than their 2023 allowances. 

One theory behind the overall increase is that survey takers were buoyed by a measurable impact seen in their omnichannel efforts. A McKinsey analysis demonstrated that organizations whose omnichannel capabilities are relatively mature have twice the revenue growth of peers with average skills.

“There are quantifiable results coming out of 2021 and 2022 to showcase that there is the need to drive promotion based on the measurable impact that we’ve seen,” Veltre suggests.

Budget modeling, he believes, may have become somewhat “messy” the last few years. “In the COVID era, a lot of folks tried to ring fence that data and model the years prior to see if there was a rationale to drive allocation change
across channels.”

But as audiences shifted, new brands launched into new markets and new indications made their debut, modeling became an apples-to-oranges proposition. “Now, with 2021 and 2022 data pretty firm, 2023 benefited from a lot of the quantifiable impact analysis we were able to do.”

To be sure, the industry has been in the throes of a digital pivot for years. From 2017 to 2019, online advertising approached saturation levels. During the pandemic years, companies moderated spend, pulled back on in-person sales calls and doubled down on Zoom meetings. 

However, with the latest techno upturn coming amid the nearly 20% overall spend increase, and with the harshest COVID years behind us, it’s hard to attribute it to budgetary belt-tightening or pandemic aftershock. 

The HCMS results showed that marketers sought to engage doctors through a historically high level of video and non-linear TV last year. The latter’s usage reached 53.4%, compared to 29.5% in 2022. It was accompanied by upticks in digital advertising and mobile/tablet apps.

Meanwhile, two old standbys for HCP marketers — in-person sales reps and professional meetings/conferences — declined to 56.5% from 67.8%, and to 59.0% from 74.0%, respectively. 

“Personal selling isn’t necessarily as effective as we thought it was in the past,” says Veltre, “The need, or reliance, on non-personal promotion is starting to manifest itself.”

To wit: 65.4% of respondents said they reallocated money from the sales force into non-personal tools or boosting sales-rep support. Those who increased NPP spent it on email/direct mail (70.5%), white-space targeting (65.9%) and geo-fencing (31.8%). The majority of these respondents, though, redirected the funds into rep support, such as targeting top-tier offices (63.3%). 

Speaking of targeting, next-best action engines, which beam AI-powered suggestions to sales or service staff in real time to drive upcoming customer touchpoints, are getting a serious look from pharma, according to Veltre.

In recent months he has seen companies either buy or build these tools, which tend to focus on physicians who not only have a higher patient flow but whose patients are, by and large, diagnosed and ready to be treated. It’s these clinicians whom companies view as needing extra education and/or a reason to believe in their product.

“Next-best action engines are really what, and how, a lot of HCP marketers are thinking now, as NPP has become a critical point in the omnichannel ecosystem for a professional marketing campaign,” Veltre says. “The value is being able to focus on the physicians that are going to provide impact for your brand and cutting out those who already are writing you, or maybe don’t need as many touch points.”

Fire up the engines

This evolution is also in step with the preferences of the younger generation of doctors, who are much more digitally savvy than their predecessors. With Google and now ChatGPT available at their fingertips, HCPs can readily access academic papers and posters presented at congresses. Add in drug-look-up apps and other popular ways of researching treatment options, and clinicians often accomplish on the fly what once may have required a rep visit. 

Moreover, as the treatment mix becomes more targeted and complex, prescribers need more video-based explanations and deeper learning time beyond just a five-minute catchup with a pharma sales agent in between patients. Enter the hybrid interaction: Overall, use of remote reps rose to 56.0% last year, from 52.1% the year prior. 

Also, 7.7% started spending on chatbots and conversational AI to engage HCPs (see sidebar). Among those marketers who reallocated money from the sales force into NPP, 36.7% steered the funds into virtual/remote detailing tools and training. 

The only non-digital channels to see increases were HCP-oriented point-of-care and print journal ads. But about half said they increased use of medical science liaisons, a form of peer-to-peer learning.

As an audience, physicians typically draw the largest share of the marketing budget. Last year’s survey was no exception, with doctors accounting for a 47.5% share, versus 28.5% for consumers/patients. 

As always, M.D.s and D.O.s were perceived as being the most important audience, although other kinds of clinicians made unexpected gains. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants rose in importance, to 20.9% in 2023 versus 4.8% in 2022, while patients/consumers fell slightly to 13.7% versus 14.4% during the year-ago period. Pharmacists similarly saw a jump in their relative import, from 1.4% to 12.0%.

When asked about this shift, Veltre speculates that it might be attributed to any number of factors, including the makeup of respondents (say, HCP marketer versus consumer marketer, or those with newer brands versus those with established ones).

The “hefty forecasts” on the professional side may also be a reason, Veltre adds. In other words, companies “want to make sure that when they do drive demand from a patient perspective, there is an educated physician or PA to meet them on the other side,” he proposes.

Across all audiences last year, 27.8% said they increased paid traditional advertising versus 17.7% who said they decreased it. Likewise, DTC marketers hiked use of print, TV and radio to 81.6% in 2023 from 69.9% in 2022, although linear TV use dipped to 44.0% from 59.6%. 

But even as they continued to spend on linear TV and radio, the survey results suggest there are numerous technocrats on the consumer side as well. About 37% said they boosted paid digital advertising across all audiences last year, versus 17.7% who said they pulled back on it. 

Laying some context on that, last year the use of video/non-
linear TV and streaming audio both made marked gains among patients — to 53.4% from 36.3% and to 37.6% from 27.4%, respectively. Those spikes were most pronounced among the pharma-
based respondents, with both metrics basically doubling, and less so among biotech and medtech marketers. Along with those came marginal boosts in mobile/tablet apps and digital ads.

Among payer marketers, use of copay support rose considerably, to 48.7% from 38.4%. Use of this tactic is poised to grow further after the recent court victory by multiple patient groups against the Department of Health and Human Services, basically barring use of so-called copay accumulators for newer brands that have no generic equivalent.

Challenges and opportunities

The high volume of channels that are on the rise, per the survey data, strengthens the notion of omnichannel being “at the center” of brand strategy, Veltre notes. Then again, maintaining privacy amid the digital deluge will continue to be an uphill climb. 

In 2023, 48.2% rated privacy as “extremely” or “somewhat” challenging, versus 37.9% in 2022. Big data/AI registered as one of the top challenges as well.

Unsurprisingly, respondents rated “the economy in general” as their top concern at 64.9%. Nearly half (48.2%) ranked social media/misinformation as a bugaboo. But Veltre says he views social, due to its status as a “proxy” for TV’s expansive reach, as more of an underutilized opportunity for marketers. 

“Social continues to be a very complementary tactic to your larger video-based buys, but at a very cheap cost,” he explains. “You’re paying a fraction of the cost for the ability to build frequency and expose a very large audience.”

At 61.4% and 60.0%, respectively, “finding ways to engage HCPs” and “personalized communication” register as top opportunities. That suggests a good deal of room for improvement. 

Taken together, Veltre says, the findings beg marketers to examine how they are “inundating” doctors with communications. Just as marketers have quantified the value of other digital investments, they need to start putting a value on the true nature of their HCP engagement.

“It can’t just be emails,” he urges. “We email physicians a lot. Are those emails truly read and digested? What action do they create?”

Easy come, easy go?

The fact that the industry’s commercial spend increased last year, to a large extent on the back of digital tactics, points to a great deal of confidence in leveraging the martech stack. 

Given industry’s historical penchant for mainstay tactics such as sales reps and professional meetings — both of which still account for a much larger share of the overall budget than video — brand managers will need to make a concerted effort to ensure that the techno upturn gathers steam. 

They’ll have plenty of opportunity, considering the number of potential blockbuster approvals on tap for this year and next. Still, marketers must not allow their self-assurance to lead to unchecked exuberance. We’re well past the era of blanketing clinicians with emails “just because,” Veltre says, or foregoing sophisticated targeting to reach diagnosed patients. 

“Brand managers need to continue to strengthen their data stacks,” he continues, “and understand the attribution or the interconnectedness between data points to drive quality omnichannel strategies that are focused on results and impact for their business.”

Too, managers must utilize their agencies in a more effective way and partner with them to drive efficient media allocations and measurable impact, Veltre adds. “Building integrity into their data will drive impact for them, on the HCP or consumer side.”

For just as easily as they padded their promotional warchest, the bottom could suddenly fall out. Budgets are never secure for long, with the opportunity to do more always dependent on the most recent performance metrics.

“The brand manager’s job is never done,” says Veltre. “It’s one of the hardest jobs in our industry.”  


Respondents included 234 director-level and above, biopharma and devices/diagnostics marketers. Margin of error for the total sample of 234 is +/- 6.4% at the 95% confidence level. Not all totals equal 100% because of respondents choosing “Don’t know/prefer not to answer.” Survey fielded between November 2023 and February 2024. 

Swoop’s Peter Kane on
securing budget for conversational AI

By Marc Iskowitz

Peter Kane, director of growth marketing, Swoop

The Healthcare Marketers Trend Survey shows that, as far as channel usage goes, more growth occurred in newer tactics such as non-linear video and streaming audio than in some of the more traditional ones. These targeted channels allow marketers to reach patients and physicians at critical junctures in the diagnosis and treatment journey.

However, one of the most commonly used endpoints is not being used to full effect, argues Swoop’s Peter Kane, VP of marketing. 

“ and ‘talk to your doctor’ remain the calls to action of almost every pharma ad that exists,” he observes. 

But, Kane adds, “If we look at the future of engagement — which will entail evolving from searching and scrolling to asking and answering — the only choice is virtual agents.”

That said, even though use of websites/microsites holds steady at about 70% of HCP and DTC marketing plans, results show the vast majority of respondents (72.4%) lack a dedicated budget to add a virtual engagement tool, such as conversational AI functionality.

That’s risky, considering research that shows the average pharma website has about an 80% bounce rate, meaning a lot of waste across the more than $7.5 billion spent marketing pharmaceuticals every year. By adding an interactive virtual assistant (IVA), marketers can improve the user experience, stickiness and value of their “digital homes.”

These tools let patients access answers as fast as possible and drive exponential high value activities (over 800% for one Swoop client, according to Kane). For example, discussion templates can enable them to have a meaningful discussion with their physician or directly ask for a copay card.

Physicians, for their part, should be able to get quick access to what they’re looking for, such as new product information, safety and efficacy information or dosing instruction. They can also pose questions in a chat that they weren’t able — or chose not — to ask the rep.

IVAs are also helpful in terms of collecting valuable first-party data, allowing marketers to dissect conversations.

“Traditional web analytics only get you so far because you’re simply looking at blinded behavior,” Kane explains. “People might be clicking here and there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they found what they are looking for.”

“You can then use the outputs from those discussions to help the future state of your marketing strategy,” reports Kane. “You’re able to leverage that intelligence as your own first-party data in near real time.   

In addition, with marketers indicating medical, legal, regulatory (MLR) review being a top challenge, conversational AI can help. “These agents use NLU to understand the intent of a question, but only provide compliant answers,” Kane notes.

Other challenges identified by HCMS respondents included customer behavior changes and growth of consumerism. “Pharma needs to move toward a model that’s consistent with CPG, retail, tech and even B2B spaces where consumers already have the ability to have these conversations on a website because that’s what customers now expect,” Kane asserts.

Having a virtual agent greet visitors drives bottom-of-funnel engagements, “and suddenly your marketing dollars are working harder for you and leading to actual script behavior,” he adds. As such, marketers need to find ways to create new budgets for interactive agents or divert it from underperforming components in the tech stack. Otherwise, according to Kane, it’s no exaggeration to say the entire marketing budget may be imperiled. 

“You can’t control ‘speak to your doctor’; you’re just encouraging,” he says. “But you can control pushing people to an agent and having meaningful conversations further down the funnel on your website — conversations that lead to better patient outcomes, and can inform future strategy.”