To remain relevant, speakers bureaus must evolve to a strategic marketing tactic with personalized messaging to the customer.

From the chilling effects of transparency laws to compliance rules such as program attendance thresholds, and from institutional limits on KOLs to having to demonstrate a solid ROI, the speakers bureau is facing challenges from all sides.

Along with these “in the trenches” concerns, larger issues loom: Is peer-to-peer education still a viable marketing option for pharma brand marketers, or are there more effective methods of delivering the drugmaker’s message, such as virtual meetings? Has the Sunshine Act and its tentacles of compliance totally upended the viability of the speakers bureau?

At this roundtable, pharma brand and agency marketers joined moderator Marc Iskowitz, editor-in-chief of MM&M, to discuss the future of the speakers bureau amidst this landscape.

Encouragingly, despite the challenges, participants agreed that peer-to-peer education is still very much a valuable asset within their marketing programs.

Novo Nordisk utilizes the speakers bureau to conduct peer-to-peer promotional education. 

“It’s important to have that peer-to-peer interaction, so we can make sure the clinical messages are delivered in a manner that other HCPs are really going to appreciate,” said Steven Klein, senior manager, HCP engagement, Novo Nordisk. “It also gives other HCPs an opportunity to ask clinical, practical questions. While a sales representative may be able to provide the answers, it’s not going to be the same.”


Speakers bureaus are still largely the go-to approach for a product launch, participants agreed, but to remain relevant and effective as a marketing tool, they need to provide content that is customer focused and designed to engage, pull information out of the audience, and employ different formats and types of speakers depending on the end goal.

“The makeup of the speakers bureau and the strategy you’re going to employ when you execute programs have become much more important,” said Klein. “We have to be conscious of maintaining a makeup of a speakers bureau that represents the audiences we would like to educate.”

Speakers bureaus “are a great scientific way of elevating the message, and physicians still like to learn from other physicians,” added Tracy Doyle, Phoenix Marketing Solutions president and CEO.

“HCPs have questions. They want clinically relevant information. They don’t want to see slides on what looks like a detail aid. They really want to have an engaging scientific exchange that’s promotional, and to have a true dynamic discussion with their peers.”

Michele Booth, head of professional relations, Promius Pharma, finds that speakers bureaus “bring a credibility factor to our marketing message and to our HCPs by engaging with a peer-to-peer discussion, whether it’s our data or our benefits, that our reps just aren’t able to have. You’re also engaging with an audience who is self-identifying as being open to a promotional conversation for two hours. There’s no other venue that provides you that openness and willingness to have that conversation in a way they know they’re being promoted to.”

To ensure relevancy, Promius Pharma has implemented a more highly targeted approach to attendee recruitment over the past five years, “rather than ‘Let’s just get people in the seats at the program. It doesn’t matter who they are, as long as they’re in the therapeutic area you care about,’” Booth said. Instead, her approach is, “This is your list of doctors or healthcare providers we want in a program. Let’s build a program they’ll come to.”

This approach is not only cost-effective, but also delivers a better ROI.

“Obviously a high target HCP is going to give you a better ROI than somebody who you may never touch again, where [attending a speakers bureau event] is going to be their only experience with you,” Booth emphasized.

“With speaker programs, we really focus on educating HCPs at launch. That’s where I found them to be most effective,” said Nikul Shukla, director, marketing, Mitsubishi Pharma America.

“Speakers bureaus are the best way to get complex data across, and probably the most effective way to get somebody’s attention. You have an hour, 45 minutes of their time, uninterrupted. It’s still one of the most effective ways, outside of a sales detail, to do that.”


The type of content attendees want to learn about is also changing.

“We are finding that people don’t just want to hear the clinical message, they also want to hear the operational aspects,” noted Shukla. These topics include “How do I physically get your product? How do I acquire the product, the distribution? How does your distributor work? What are the guidelines?”

Attendee makeup is undergoing transformation, also. This is naturally impacting the type of content that needs to be provided.

“We’re seeing a mix of audiences,” said Shukla. “It’s no longer just having a bunch of physicians at the table. It’s now having a physician, maybe their nurse, their practice manager. It’s becoming more and more complex. They all need to know about the clinical information, but they also require different angles. The doctor needs to know the clinical, the practice manager needs to know your hub. Your nurse may need to know both.”

“What I’ve seen over the past four or five years is the cookie-cutter approach [to speakers events] is changing,” said Eric Schultz, product director, Kedrion Biopharma. “With a big product launch that’s novel, you’ve got to get it out to the masses, but as a product evolves, if it’s mid-stage life cycle, that’s not going to be appropriate,” Schultz explained. “It’s that one-on-one with a few people around the table, not having 30, 40 people in a room in the back of Morton’s.”

Schultz is finding that a low-tech, no AV approach can be more engaging.

“When iPads came out, [everyone was] ‘Let’s do it all on the iPad’, or when GoToMeetings came out, it was ‘Let’s do GoToMeetings.’ It was the cookie-cutter approach. My approach over more than five years is be bold, be different, and create your own mold.”

Rather than looking for a bigger draw, pharma brands marketers are seeing a greater benefit to the smaller, more customized approach, with content tailored to the audience, driving a better peer-to-peer education experience.

“The biggest change with our clients is an integrated approach,” said Doyle. “It’s the need for individualization. Speakers bureaus are evolving into a strategic tactic. It started that way, but then morphed into this getting butts in the seats and just entertain everyone three times a day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s coming back to what it was intended to be — a strategic marketing tactic with customized messaging to the customer.”

Using vehicles such as surveys dispersed to attendees or sometimes sales reps post-event, drugmakers are able to capture information from their speaker programs. This data can detail whether or not the content is hitting the mark.

The insights can also be shared with brand colleagues to improve or make changes to information for the next event.

“Having the ability to capture that information and taking the time to review it allows us to change course earlier than if we just waited to see what happens with ROI,” said Klein.

“There’s a lot of good that comes of gathering that data and not just keeping it in the silo, but sharing it with anyone that is willing to listen to it, provided it’s done appropriately.”

Participants also debated the virtues of face to face versus virtual. There was general agreement the traditional webcast is not an effective marketing program.

Virtual is the exception at Promius, said Booth. “A big part of why we do peer-to-peer is for engagement on both sides,” she noted. “We want the HCP target to be engaged with us. We also want the speaker to be engaged with us and the attendee. It’s difficult to do that behind a screen.”


Doyle described a new tack she is seeing that answers the need for educating on a broad scale, such as when the brand gets on an institutional formulary in the oncology space.

For some of its clients, Phoenix is implementing over the top transmission, a more costly approach, but one that offers a “live” alternative to a traditional webcast.

“We know it as Netflix,” Doyle explained. “It’s an HD broadcast over low bandwidth, using a Roku stick, which you put into an LCD projector. You do it right from a dinner program, and you can have [virtual] attendees link into it.”

Personalized HD video conferencing is also used to educate, for a personalized conference to a doctor’s office, or for a specific department in a hospital.

“There’s no Sunshine associated with it because there’s no meal. We have a KOL present live. It helps because he doesn’t have to fly across the country,” Schultz explained. “As biologics become more in the marketplace, this is appropriate. ‘Here’s the safety and advocacy, here’s how you dose it, here’s how you write the script.’”

There’s no doubt that speakers bureaus can be a major expense, so evaluating budget against ROI is an imperative.

When looking at ROI, you need to consider your goal and your objective, then set the business rules accordingly and monitor that, said Schultz.

“As marketers, we have responsibilities for P&L, so the ROI is important, but we also have a responsibility for the franchise or the product line, and the success of that,” noted Schultz.

“There have to be strong business roles in place as to who we ask the field to invite, and it all depends on the program. If we’re looking to get on formulary, we want to do a speakers bureau with maybe the chief of the department, the pharmacist, and the purchasing agent. Once I am on formulary and have to teach everybody what to do, I need a speakers bureau where all the nurses attend and I’m in a big lecture hall to teach them how to administer the product, making sure they’re doing it successfully.”

For Promius, “targeting is the way we’re looking at the spend,” Booth noted. “We do a large number of programs in a year, but it’s about making sure the attendees invited make business sense.”

Shukla’s view on ROI has shifted recently. “We would always look at whether or not prescription volume increased after these programs, but you could have a great speakers bureau and not see lift because of market access or other dynamics,” he noted. “It’s not 100% correlated. Now, I’m starting to think about looking at things such as awareness of the company.”

“Are people much more aware of the program? What types of questions are you getting in the speaker bureau? What types of attendees? Are you consistently getting attendees? So that’s how I’m thinking about ROI. It’s not just about prescriptions,” Shukla explained.

Managing the budget also comes down to program execution. “There are two costs when it comes to execution,” stressed Klein.

“There’s the cost of your speaker, and there’s the cost of execution. If we’re going to measure the impact on the back end, we need to know what the costs are going into it. Are we constantly flying doctors from California to New York to do programs? If that’s the case, do we have people more locally that could make the impact, and how are we getting them there?”

A successful speaker program depends on having quality speakers. To that end, training has taken on a more focused effort. “Look at speakers similar to the way you look at field sales,” said Doyle. “They are representing you. Motivating them to the mission of the brand is another shift I’m seeing.”

In addition to being able to talk about clinical effectiveness, speakers also need to be able to effectively communicate operational issues, such as market access, reimbursement, and procedural issues surrounding the product. “Some of the more operational things are just as important as the clinical message,” Shukla noted.

Participants are using surveys not only to drive content, but also to help drive excellence during the program itself, creating incentives to improve or perhaps tailor delivery. Results of how they fared are shared with the KOL.

For example, Klein lets his speakers know how they are being received. “They work with us because they want to educate others, because they believe in the disease state or the brands. Knowing that they’re doing a good job or being well received motivates them to continue doing what they’re doing,” said Klein. “The people who may not be as well received, but really do believe in you and what they’re doing, want to get to that next level. So, it does create an incentive. If you can share the information carefully and appropriately, HCPs respond to it.”

During speaker training programs, Klein introduces his KOLs to other people at Novo Nordisk, to underscore that “this relationship isn’t short term,” he noted. “We try to cultivate those relationships so that people stay with us.”

At Mitsubishi Pharma America, the feedback process begins when “you’re selecting your speakers and doing slide creation and speaker training,” said Shukla. “This way, when the speakers give the program, they feel more a part of it.”


Steven Klein

The types of speakers and the audiences are going to keep evolving. We must be conscious of maintaining a makeup of a speaker bureau that represents the audiences we’d like to educate. We’ll continue to see an evolution there, whether it’s health system folks, allied health pros, or mid-level practitioners.

Tracy Doyle

At the end of the day, a physician wants that one-to-one or live exchange with a peer to help them make sense of options. I don’t think speakers bureaus will go away. They’re going to evolve in a way we can’t see yet. As long as doctors are educated through residency and fellowship, their education continuum is all peer-to-peer.

Michele Booth

Rather than going higher tech, we’ll see more lower tech, shorter engagements with fewer people. All of these things are going to require a more flexible approach across the board, with more variations in content. Content is king, and just like in my personal life, I want to see content tailored to me, to how I practice.

Eric Schultz

What we see in the future is harder access, less time, and more institutional guidelines. We need to break those doors down. I think we can do that on a local level. Where this all leads is to individualizing that message. It’s that one-on-one interaction.

Nikul Shukla

It’s going to become harder to get speakers. I’m concerned if speakers bureaus are going to be possible. I know it’s a pessimistic view, but I can only see more institutional restrictions. People are going to want to see speaker programs in different formats.


While there was much concern when the final rule implementing the Physician Payments Sunshine Act was enacted in August 2013, panic has subsided, reported roundtable participants. Instead, it has become one more part of the business landscape pharma brands must contend with.

“I think compliance has leveled the playing field,” said Shukla. “You’re not worried about your competitor bringing people together, giving them dollars.”

The key to remaining compliant is your speaker’s understanding of what’s compliant at your company, especially as different legal departments have different interpretations of what compliance means.

In surveys given to reps following a speaker program, there are always questions as to whether or not KOLs adhered to the rules and regulations that were set forth, explained Schultz. “If they didn’t, we want to know why. Then we take immediate action. That doesn’t mean they’re dismissed from the speakers bureau, but maybe they didn’t realize they didn’t adhere to the rules.”

Compliance is all about risk, acknowledged Booth. “External compliance with speakers and attendees is easy. I find internal compliance to be difficult. It’s about reassuring everyone that nothing bad will happen.”

Reporting and documenting are key. “Compliance needs to be less fearful in order to be meaningful, on both the speaker and internal side,” added Booth.

“Fear of being out of compliance causes more problems than the act itself.”

The new compliance rules have had a dramatic impact in the drugmaker’s ability to engage KOLs from leading health systems, many of which have forbidden affiliated physicians from participating in speakers bureaus. It’s a major challenge, Shukla acknowledged.