The use of ML/AI to create datasets and enable precise customer targeting is proving to be a powerful and exciting tool for the pharma industry. But successful brand building also demands personal connections with HCPs and consumers.

In this TrendTalks session, New Blueprint for Growth: Delivering Convergence in the World of Divergent Technologies, sponsored by Juice Pharma, participants discussed how they are balancing the use of AI to accelerate an understanding of human-influencing dynamics while maintaining that critical personalized human aspect to their medcomms strategies.

Face-to-face access to doctors may be on the decline and some pharma companies are reducing their field forces, but many doctors still say they value rep relationships and want rep-delivered services from companies.

Sales reps, armed with more information than ever and tasked to fulfill a variety of needs for their HCP contacts, have found their role evolving to serve more as a consultant than a salesperson. Increasingly, marketers must train their reps to incorporate the use of tech platforms into their traditional relationship-building approaches to get the most from in-person time with HCPs.

“We need to build how reps talk with an HCP about utilizing other channels into the sales training protocols to get to a more sophisticated level,” said Helen Chang, former VP marketing, brand commercial lead at Mallinckrodt Pharma. That can mean using a digital prompt as an opportunity to connect with an HCP at a later date or providing a physician with a link to a digital platform for additional information on a topic.

Patients consume more digital health information

Information on digital platforms aimed at HCPs is also having an impact on the patient population as consumers increasingly turn to social media and ChatGPT for healthcare information. It’s a trend that medcomms professionals believe benefits consumers. “It brings a halo effect to a patient population,” said Amy McCann, former director, customer marketing and HCP experience at Sunovion. “The more health or medical literacy a patient seeks out helps raise their competencies in their own decision making.”

While patients are seeking more healthcare information on digital platforms, they still desire human interaction with their clinicians. “Patients may be seeking information on pharma products on TikTok, but they still expect to be treated by humans. People are looking for relatability and experiences they can connect to,” said Katya Petrova, chief business officer at Juice Pharma.

Participants discussed how they are addressing challenges to increasing patient engagement. Stephanie Garrison, former head, U.S. digital marketing at Idorsia, sees marketers injecting more empathy into consumer communications. “There’s a shift to more robust disease awareness campaigns in which marketers can say things they might not be able to say in a branded campaign,” she said. Collaborating with advocacy groups can also help deliver empathetic messaging to patient-specific groups.

“Patient stories are the No. 1 way  pharma  currently connects on that empathy,” noted McCann. It’s a way to provide information on “real patients who have real experiences.”

Human element still crucial to messaging

While MM+M research revealed that 53% of pharma marketers cited “connecting medical to omnichannel media” as an opportunity they want to pursue, participants in this discussion debated whether the pivot to omnichannel marketing will make it easier or more difficult to maintain that empathetic connection with HCP and consumer audiences.

“Empathy is very important for patients to hear your message. People process facts wrapped in emotion relevant to them in their current state,” said Petrova. Brands, she said, need to develop a dialogue between the brand, the physician and the patient. “That needs to be baked into how the strategic roadmap is built for all the stakeholders,” she said. “Then you know from the start how you’re going to craft content for social and influencers.”

A successful omnichannel strategy depends on establishing a strong brand identity and customer-centric value proposition. “The customer experience journey is becoming more important so that, based on the information you are serving up, the consumer wants to continue the journey and the brand continues offering valuable engagements when they experience it on a different platform,” said Petrova.

“That’s the promise of modular content, to get to that next level of engagement with customers and make it easy for pharma teams to embrace it,” added Stephen Calabrese, former pharma CX leader at Novartis Oncology.

Despite advances in how pharma marketing teams are using tools like generative AI,  intellectual and attitudinal barriers persist. While there’s tremendous potential in using these tools, the human touch remains essential in this industry.

“As we bring experts into these organizations, we need to think about how we help them understand how health is delivered, how products come to be accepted,” noted Lars Merk, senior director, commercial digital customer engagement at AstraZeneca.  “If you don’t understand those things, the solutions you create may not have the empathy necessary to be implemented.”

“We’re talking to humans who are at their most vulnerable when we encounter them, so excellence in customer experience needs to be front and center as we build the brand,” said Petrova.