Interactive virtual agents (IVAs) built on conversational AI are the future of customer engagement. Yet, slightly over 72% of pharma marketers lack a dedicated budget for these technologies. Investment in IVAs is critical to enhance the effectiveness of digital platforms such as brand websites, which continue to be the main endpoint for campaigns despite their high bounce rates.

The right conversational AI has clear benefits — including an increase in high-value activities, improved user experience and valuable first-party data collection. Marketers need to recognize the importance of adopting this new technology to meet consumer expectations for immediate, meaningful and compliant interactions, and budget for it accordingly, or else risk being left behind by competitors that do embrace, purchase and implement it.

During a recent panel discussion at MM+M Transform sponsored by Swoop, editor-at-large Marc Iskowitz sat down with a distinguished group of marketing executives to discuss the use of conversational AI tools and AI integration in pharma marketing. 

The role of conversational AI

Conversational AI/virtual agents have the potential to enhance the online user experience, however, many pharma brands struggle with where and how these tools fit into their marketing mix.

Beginning with provider interactions, conversational AI can “optimize your field sales force, reaching some places where sales can’t and also augment the role of your reps, making the interactions more impactful,” Jon Carnero, omnichannel marketing CX lead, GSK, said.

Participants agreed that the type of AI used to communicate with customers matters. Chatbots, for example, offer a limited button-driven experience for users that’s often frustrating. Alternatively, generative AI understands natural language and intent but may deliver false, hallucinated information and is far too risky for pharma.

On the other hand, “conversational AI is the Goldilocks, fully capable of understanding the input, the intent, the natural language — whether I ask if I can take this medicine or if my grandmother can — it understands the context of the conversation and only responds with approved medical information,” Peter Kane, VP of marketing, Swoop, explained. Ultimately, the goal is to “accelerate user’s speed to a clear answer while driving high-value actions such as pamphlet downloads. These actions typically lead to positive script behavior and provide marketers with highly valuable first-party data.”

AI integration in pharma marketing

Of course, any conversation about virtual engagement tools inevitably shifts to budgeting. In order to encourage adoption by leadership, it’s important to understand who the key stakeholders are.

For instance, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals has made a commitment to invest in AI as an internal employee resource. The company “looked at all the corporate communication documents and surveyed the commonly asked questions by employees to find the type of input we actually need,” Kelly Le, global digital innovation lead, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, said. “We embraced that experimentation early on and now we’re trying to apply it externally.” 

The integration of conversational AI into current pharmaceutical marketing, which largely drives customers to a static web experience, can help improve customer service, engagement and more. Pharma advertisements ultimately have two endpoints — “Talk to your doctor” or “Visit the website” —  those endpoints are a great starting point when assessing the potential impact of IVAs — especially considering about 80% of users immediately bounce and any further engagement is lost. 

“Determine what the strategy is in terms of where you’re sending them, what the ability to take intelligence from the conversations is to inform strategy, and if there is anything to change,” Kane recommended. “What we’re trying to do is understand what’s valuable in that conversational data and bring that to your business.”

Collecting first-party data

One of the standout benefits of implementing conversational AI is first-party data, which gives brands access to direct customer insights that can be applied to future marketing. Brands can leverage this data and use the voice-of-the-customer to better inform media strategies and create more effective messaging.

“The data that we can collect via this conversation can help us better understand the customer in terms of segmentation, where this person is in their journey and also the lexicon, how they are speaking and how we can adapt our agent to talk similarly or use it in our materials,” Le said.

First-party data allows for tasks, such as clustering analysis that can inform segmentation and profile personas. “We don’t have to stick with only a few personas, you can have a very rich narrative and very different dimensions of personas that you can then apply an omnichannel strategy to,” Felix Lee, U.S. digital healthcare medical head, Sanofi, explained.

Even if brands do not have a convenient interface for capturing data, they have access to valuable data from individuals and marketers through feedback from their sales teams as well as conversations or comments about the brand in the wild.

Armed with that information, brands can create more personalized web experiences that drive high-value activities. The key is collaboration. “The importance of that endpoint – that digital asset – no longer sits just in marketing,” Kane said. “There’s a much broader community that has to be influencing it.”