Pharma marketing's digital reality finally took hold—and there's no going back

Doctor computer medical records
Pharma marketing went digital in 2020 forced by the pandemic but, thanks to successes, is likely staying there. (Getty/BrianAJackson)

Ten years of retail sales in three months. Two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months. Those are the eye-opening stats from McKinsey and Microsoft, respectively, about the acceleration of business forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s no surprise that a similar fast-forwarding has happened in pharma marketing. Pharma companies and agencies scrambled to advance digital strategies that were waiting in the wings or invented entirely new ones in the weeks and months after the pandemic began.

Most agree it's here to stay. It's one of Fierce Pharma Marketing trends for 2021.

“There’s a lot we still need to learn and a lot we can learn from consumer companies from different businesses. But there’s no going back now—we are going to digitalize healthcare,” Novartis Pharmaceuticals President Marie-France Tschudin said in July.

RELATED: Fierce Pharma Marketing tees up trends for 2021—and big news, they're not all COVID-related

It’s not just pharma companies that want to extend and expand on the digital changes. Accenture research found the vast majority of healthcare providers don’t want to return to pre-COVID-19 sales rep models. Eighty-seven percent said they would prefer all-digital or a mix of in-person and digital interactions with reps once the pandemic ends.

So what does it mean? More technology and more digital tools, of course, but also more creativity from pharma marketers and ad agencies.

Razorfish Health, for instance, created healthcare provider mailers for a new drug launch that included an Amazon Dash button. When pressed, the button sends a request for a sales rep call or an order of samples.

Dozens of drug launches moved entirely to digital, forcing many marketers—as with Esperion’s launch for Nexletol—to “throw out the playbook,” Esperion Executive Director of Marketing Renee Marotta said.

Sales reps and managers met virtually, often for the first time. Key opinion leaders attended training online. Everyone worked with physicians to find out what was happening specifically in their practices.

RELATED: Hey, pharma reps: Most docs still want contact amid COVID-19 pandemic, poll says

In the end, the changes are pointing to better pharma and physician relationships.

Reps who focused on delivering what healthcare providers asked for early in the pandemic—such as information on financial assistance and local access information for patients—were rewarded with “more time with doctors and building better relationships,” Ray Pressburger, Accenture's global Life Sciences marketing, sales and access lead, said in August.

So will 2021 finally finish off the old sales rep model of waiting for few minutes of in-person time just to reel off a few product benefits? As drugmakers, reps and healthcare providers continue down the digitized path and more positive results proliferate, the answer is, there's no going back.