Virtual engagement is surely a trend nowadays, the topic is in everyone’s conversation. But, why does it matter so much now? Indeed, virtual engagement is not a new concept in the pharmaceutical industry, which was already moving towards digital transformation for years, but the truth is that the progress has been slow.
It is well known that HCPs are experiencing rapid demographic turnover and that the demand for digital participation will increase as digital native generations represent a growing portion of the workforce.
Some data to illustrate it: Figure 1
The COIVD-19 arrival has been the turning point and has only accelerated this existing trend in the past months; companies have only just started doing their “homework” in a more agile way.
Until now, in-person meetings represented more than 85% of overall meetings and only 15% of meetings were virtual, both 1: 1 or in groups 4. However, the situation has changed drastically and the “new normal” implies an almost exclusively remote KOL engagement. In this way, securing value virtual engagement is critical, especially when attendees can leave an event with a simple mouse click.
This has been a real challenge for Medical Infield teams for the past months, but the purpose of the role is still the same, and MSLs are engaging with their KOLs by doing their fundamental activities, as they did in person. These activities seek to add value to KOLs, based on the medical strategy and objectives such as: understanding the disease treatment landscape, generating and communicating evidence, developing and implementing scientific and medical education, or building strategic partnerships.
Since not everybody takes their coffee the same way, generic engagement techniques will just not suffice. It is necessary to personalize both approach and experience by carefully choosing what adds value for each KOL and tailoring communication as much as possible to the target person, thus offering this “digital coffee” that each one requires to meet individual needs.
In order to achieve the necessary personalization and adapt both the approach and communication, it is a must to find the right balance between the KOLs needs (reliable information, valuable projects, consistent, relevant data, correct timing) and the MSL objectives (securing commitment, involvement, lasting and long-term relationships, completion of the activities included in the medical plan and impact generation). Figure 2
The following 5 key elements help us to add value and achieve successful virtual interaction. It is evident that they are not different from the elements that add value in face-to-face engagement, but in the present context, it is even more relevant to carefully focus on the before, during, and after the interaction to achieve goals. It is not enough to basically replicate the approach used during in-person interactions; rather, it is necessary to rethink it. Figure 3
- MAP and INDENTIFY KOLs in advance:
Having a structured and 360º KOL profiling procedure (scientific, strategic, and digital profiling) will make engagement more effective, because the better we can recognize the distinctive interests of our KOLs, the better we can address them, improving the value and efficiency of our KOL management.
For virtual interactions, the identification of DOLs (Digital Opinion Leaders) is even more relevant. Prior to the pandemic, less than 20% of KOLs had social media presence 5 and only a few were considered DOLs for their online influence. Identifying and mapping the digital KOLs of each TA with respect to their positions and attitudes is crucial. Thereby, we will know how to proactively engage with these digital KOLs to understand and shape their perspectives and needs and develop specific strategic projects.
- GATHER IN-FIELD INSIGHTS:
It is necessary to explore to better understand the disease and treatment landscape, patient needs, as well as KOL’s beliefs and preferences. Insight collection, one of the fundamental activities of MSLs, allows learning more about the new “patient journey” and the “customer journey”.
Open and transparent discussions enable MSLs to collect insights and know KOLs’ opinions about the preferred communications channel, contact preferences, content…in short, the “how” and the “when”. The MSL must know how to ask the right questions in order to determine if the current KOL preferences are aligned with the scientific and business objectives of the company, and, accordingly, propose the best-suited engagement strategy. There is no one-size-fits-all.
- CORRECTLY DEFINE INTERACTION OBJECTIVE AND CONTENT:
It is paramount to guarantee that the minutes KOLs dedicate to MSLs represent true value to them and that the interaction is as effective as face-to-face meetings, or even more so. You might have only one-shot!
Content should always have high scientific quality and MSLs should have deep, up-to-date knowledge about their products and TA. Also, knowing the medical strategy is a must for flawless execution. Managing and planning content in the mid-term and being able to personalize the messages addressed to specific KOLs via the virtual channel will help build long-term relationships: “Right content, to the right people, at the right time”.
So, it is necessary to carefully consider the objective of the interaction, the strategy used to engage with KOLs, the valuable solutions to offer, the right questions to ask, the obstacles and objections that can surface, as well as the potential benefits for KOLs, and ultimately for patients.
- IMPROVE CAPABILITIES AND SKILLS:
It is also key to improve and increase MSL skills and competencies, both technical and functional; this applies to current, as well as new skills (such as digital tools).
Soft skills and capabilities, such as emotional intelligence or the ability to “read others”, among others, are now considered the new hard skills. Supporting MSLs in their enhancement will help build long-lasting relationships based on trust and emotional bonds, as well as strengthen commitment.
This can be achieved through training or MSL coaching, with as much practice as possible: “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice” -Vladimir Horowitz.
On top of this, since the tools used by all companies are pretty much the same, MSLs have to differentiate themselves in order to avoid depersonalization and need to make an impression. So, defining a “personal digital brand” or developing an “elevator pitch” at the beginning of MSL interactions will be essential to secure an open door for future virtual engagements. Finally, MSL should remember to share their best practices internally, so that colleagues can take advantage of the experience.
- CROSSFUNCTIONAL ALIGNMENT AND COLLABORATION:
Lastly, it is necessary to guarantee the coordination of cross-functional communication between the different roles in the company, covering in-field and office-based positions. This helps to avoid digital saturation and the overlapping between functions, and, as a result, improves teams’ efficiency. Companies must start thinking more holistically and abandon the traditional silos perspective.
Some final reflections:
According to the MSL Society survey, 66% of KOLs expected to continue engaging virtually with MSLs 6; as a result, we are already in the position to say that virtual interactions are here to stay, although, nothing can replace the face-to-face connection. The success of virtual engagement in a country such as Spain lies in finding the right balance and embracing “the best of both worlds” (virtual and face-to-face). However, Medical Affairs Departments and MSLs certainly have to seize the moment and take this opportunity to consolidate remote interactions as a preferred channel due to it unquestionable benefits.
Farther there is still room for improvement; the same MSL Society survey highlighted that 82% of KOLs reported their most preferred method of communication with MSLs was email, a traditional method of communication. So, medical departments and MSLs have a golden opportunity here to explore and boost new remote methods (e.g. video conference).
So, there are endless possibilities for companies to position themselves as valuable partners for KOLs, and special emphasis on an excellent KOL approach that will differentiate leaders from the rest and help them embrace the “new normal” as just normal.
Now we just have to ask ourselves: are we fit for the future and can we make the most of the digital world?
2-Statista.com. Employment worldwide by 2020, by generation.
6.- MSL Activities During the COVID-19 Pandemic (2020). Medical Science Liaison Society. Available on https://www.themsls.org/covid-19-survey-results/
Beatriz Cuéllar, MSc is Field Medical Excellence Manager at Takeda. She has a Pharmacy degree and a master’s degree in Pharmaceutical and Clinical Research. For the last 10 years, Beatriz has held different roles at key pharmaceutical companies, always within medical affairs. She started in research and then moved to MSL positions, which allowed her to fully understand its different particularities and become really passionate about the role. At present Beatriz is responsible for the planning, execution, and alignment of the in-field strategy, processes, and systems for MSL teams. She loves supporting and inspiring MSLs to enhance their capabilities and skills so that they become high-performing and best in class teams.