Amid COVID, pharma commercial teams must operate like primetime TV news crews trying to cover a breaking news story. A production rundown, which is used to orchestrate the live news broadcast on normal days, is of no use when news is breaking live. Similarly, commercial teams have their own playbooks and SOPs and must “throw out the rundown” to plan a way forward.


While the focus over the last couple of months has been on quick wins, such as setting up response teams and situation monitoring hubs, here are three ways that pharma commercial teams can prepare for the next phase:

  1. Embrace agile: While agile as a concept has been gaining traction within pharma to make transformations, there are only a handful of organizations that have truly adopted an agile mindset. Get comfortable with the idea of experimentation to build viable products, run tests and learn from them. The focus over the next 8 to 12 months must be less on precision and more on agility. Every state, county and city will be dealing with COVID and its implications differently. The new normal will arrive at a different pace depending on geographies, and reps will be returning to the field at different times, so plan accordingly. For example, if you’re seeing higher web activity and lower co-pay card usage in New York, put a coupon download on the homepage for web traffic coming from New York, while all other visitors see information on mail-order fulfillment.

    This applies to physicians and practices too. Larger IDN systems may be better equipped to handle the crisis than a private practice, but they will also be harder hit by the burden of care. Private group practices full of high volume prescribers may be facing severe financial strain. COVID monitoring hubs can identify these trends early and use insights to design experiments for different customer cohorts to understand changes in customer behavior.
  2. Accelerate digital: ZS research says that HCPs are more inclined to engage through pull channels such as websites and social media. Customers’ channel preferences will undergo a larger change in the next 12 months than they have in the last 6 years. Physicians are turning to social media for information. They are connecting with patients on Twitter using hashtags. Display and social ad rates for Facebook and Google have fallen significantly, driven by the current downturn in travel, sports and retail, so pharma should capitalize on that opportunity to reach more customers.

    Content affinity is more malleable than channel affinity to begin with, and the effect will be more pronounced in the coming months. ZS research also suggests that across the industry there’s a significant gap between available content and customers’ content affinity. Pharma marketing teams need to significantly increase their velocity and variety of content. Our work with clients shows that content optimization can drive a 30 to 40% increase in engagement and a 1 to 2% increase in top-line sales. Brands that can stay relevant are the ones that will come out ahead.

    Push the envelope on what you’ve been willing to discuss with your customer, be it through emails, remote or virtual rep engagements, or always-on web channels. The first step here is to take a modular approach to content development. Leverage tools already at your disposal to drive automation, generate actionable insights and improve customer experience.
  3. Personalize: Personalization has been the industry maxim of this past decade and is every marketer’s holy grail. It’s also never been more important to reach out to customers individually. After COVID’s first month or so, many commercial teams leaned towards reducing or stopping communication to be empathetic towards their customers, and this may have been the right approach at a broad level, but physicians and administrators who weren’t satisfied with pharma’s COVID response cited “complete absence of contact” as a primary reason.

    Personalize your marketing messages at scale through artificial intelligence and machine learning. Build models to understand what channel and content customers prefer now that they’re not seeing any reps. Fine-tune old models with new data to see which channel drives the highest value and do this more frequently than you would normally.

    Next best action (NBA) and orchestration programs enable a seamless conversation with your customer. We have seen brands leverage NBA programs during periods of uncertainty and increase digital engagement with their customers by 1.5 to 2 times. Start setting up these capabilities to prepare for the next phase. If you already have the capability in place, supercharge the execution by bringing in more data and updating your models. This could mean predicting physicians’ newfound preference for remote engagement, or identifying demand-supply gaps, or understanding shifts in message relevance through social listening. Mobilize your resources across field, marketing and patient service teams. Set up AI and technology capabilities to identify your audience and reach your customers on platforms they prefer with the messages they need.

Breaking out of your comfort zone and learning to run without a script is the first step on the journey to post-COVID success. COVID-19 is today’s breaking news, and for pharma commercial teams, it’s time to throw out the rundown.