Healthcare is searching for its post-COVID equilibrium. Media spending increased in 2023 and tactics such as addressable and connected television (CTV) are on the rise. Pharma brands are reconfiguring their legacy marketing makeup and finding ways that virtual can supplement in-person engagements. First-party data strategies and alternatives to third-party tracking in a cookieless future remain top of mind for marketers going into 2024.

During a recent MM+M panel discussion sponsored by Swoop, editor-at-large Marc Iskowitz sat down with a distinguished group of marketing executives to discuss lessons learned in the past year and priorities for the next one. Participants included:

KC Dickerson, EVP and head of engagement at ConcentricLife
Jeffrey Erb, chief media officer at Avalere Health
Jose Ferreira, EVP of product strategy and transformation at CMI
Peter Kane, VP of marketing at Swoop
Alex Kooluris, SVP and management supervisor at ConcentricLife
Andrew Lyle, senior marketing manager of digital and media strategy at AstraZeneca
Susan Manber, chief patient officer at Publicis Health
Katie McCarthy, media president at Evoke
Ted Moon, cofounder of Pathfinder Interactive
David Paragamian, CEO of Health Monitor Network
Glenniss Richards, senior director of digital media activation at Bayer
Tina So, director of digital academy at Genentech
Richard Springham, managing director at Initiative Health
Libby Swan, CEO and cofounder at Axioned
Bill Veltre, director of omnichannel experience strategy and planning at BMS
Maria Verastegui, executive director of creative at Acorda Therapeutics

Lessons learned from 2023

In the pharma space, brands want to be in certain channels to keep pace with their competitors, Lyle said. “When you take a step back and think about your digital ecosystem, it’s finding not only the right channels but also the right opportunities.” The key is to ensure that the content matches the intent.

“Make sure that omnichannel includes all tactics, all teams and considers not just the digital component but the offline component as well,” Richards advised.

The pharma industry is still on a journey with omnichannel, Paragamian said. “It’s way too premature to declare victory.”

As marketers continue to adopt omnichannel, brands have to value small incremental wins and not expect to be a Coca-Cola, Dickerson said. “We have to smartly redefine what omnichannel in healthcare looks like.”

A victory for a small brand, for example, could be understanding its position and audience and communicating with them in different ways, Erb noted.

“Sometimes we look at this and say we’re behind where other people are but the ability to track the underlying customer, the healthcare professional at the ID level with orchestrated messaging at scale does not exist in those other verticals,” So explained.

Moving forward with AI

As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more helpful and conversational, it opens up possibilities for more use cases. 

“More than ever before, pharma marketing is a data-driven business, informing who to target, where to reach them and what message will best resonate,” noted Kane. “With AI, that data can surface even more precise and critical information.”

Marketers will need to consistently reevaluate their vision of AI. “It’s looking at the next step — what are you evolving to, what is available — and piloting it and making sure that it fits within the brand strategy,” Lyle said.

A cultural plan is an essential part of brand strategies. Marketers have to consider “making campaigns smarter, connecting them across all the different tactics and reaching and increasing the index for an African-American population or Hispanic population,” Richards said. “Included in the whole omnichannel play is, ‘Did we reach the right people at the right time?’ and ‘Did we connect with them?’

A concern with AI, particularly in the pharma industry, is intellectual property. “How can you use these tools in a generative fashion and own the stuff you’re putting in the market?”  Kooluris asked, noting that bigger companies are protectively developing their own AI sources.

Overall, “people don’t understand that AI is something that is iterative, that learns from what happened previously,” Erb said. “People need to understand the technology in order to effectively utilize it.”

The operational capabilities of AI are often overlooked as well. “There is definitely a place for it from a performance optimization perspective or from a creating efficiencies in the workplace perspective,” Swan said.

For example, AI has helped reduce the amount of time doctors spend on electronic health records and, as a result, increase time with patients. “People thought we were crazy for training models on real-world doctor-patient dialogue,” Manber said, noting that dialogue quickly translates into the doctor’s notes and patient history. “I like to say data is people in disguise.”

Evolving with the technology 

“The next era of healthcare advertising will leverage this technology in a way that optimizes patient outcomes, saves the system money and drives Rx lift,” Kane explained. 

It’s essential that pharma marketers begin experimenting. “It’s actually more of a mindset shift,” So said. “It’s not a capability, it’s not innovation, it’s being willing to take that first step.”

The truth is “brands often don’t try because they don’t want to fail,” Veltre added.

“When you think about the true disruptions that are going to happen, how smart it is, it’s an ability to embrace that, test it,” Kooluris added.

Curiosity is key. “We dug into our design principles and design thinking, where we made creation boards of physicians and patients to make sure how we’re looking at it,” Verastegui said. Define the organization and brand strategy and play with the technology, she advised.

The mindset is geared toward learning, not failing, McCarthy explained. “When everything’s going super well, [clients] want to stay the course and that’s the best time to learn.”

For the pharma industry, AI adoption should be instinctual. After all, “we’re in an industry that is built on innovation and taking risks and knowing that it doesn’t 100% pan out,” Paragamian said.

When testing, make sure the results are trustworthy, Manber advised. Regardless of the channel, the key is to make the experience personal, which “means we understand who you are and we’re serving up what you need.”