Pharmaceuticals & Biotech

Using sophisticated digital-forward solutions to drive launch excellence

By Emily Mandell, and Kevin Young

May 15, 2024 | Article | 8-minute read

Using sophisticated digital-forward solutions to drive launch excellence

Increasingly, launch has become the No. 1 priority for many pharma companies, large and small. Investor statements mention terms like “exquisite launch,” “flawless launch” and “disrupted launch.” This is no surprise, as there has been extensive industry talk about how many launches are underperforming. From 2019 to 2021, about 60% of pharma launches did not meet analyst expectations. The numbers improved somewhat between 2022 and 2023, especially among larger companies: the latest estimate is only 40% to 50% have underperformed. Clearly, the industry still has a long way to go.


Having listened to leaders from more than 30 companies on the topic of why recent launches have underperformed, we can identify a number of consistent challenges—and opportunities—across the board: 

  • The market wasn’t as ready as expected—and market shaping wasn’t done early enough.
  • Data and insights were too slow, not democratized or not granular enough to drive action across different organizational silos.
  • Launch efforts were not personalized, which in highly competitive markets means the message or tactic felt flat to many customers.
  • Every launch started over with the same process and did not consider the strategic priorities really needed to make it successful (such as patient activation or securing access).
  • Some launches were asked to “go lean” and went lean everywhere, rather than thinking about which priorities still needed disproportionate investment.
  • There was no organizational learning to learn from what worked—and what didn’t—in prior company launches. 

But this is not a story of doom and gloom—it’s one of excitement, opportunity and bright spots. We believe there is a significant opportunity to more effectively and efficiently set each product in motion to achieve its highest return. Much of that opportunity lies in being “digitally forward” at launch. 


What does it mean to be digitally forward at launch?

The word “digital” is perhaps one of the most misused (and overused) words of our time. In launch, many use digital to mean “non-personal channel.” It suggests an air of “efficiency” and “cheap” and “lean.” But digital solutions can add value years before an actual launch. We believe digital can drive two separate but important goals: launch sophistication for maximizing an individual launch and launch efficiency to drive scale across all launches.

In this article we will share a perspective on what it means to deliver digitally forward launches and drive launch sophistication

Creating more sophistication in drug launches

One of the ways we can use digital to advance launch is by using it to make launch better—increasing the sophistication in how we approach the market, accelerate customer learning, personalize engagement and service and measure success.


While every launch is different, there is a consistent set of “jobs to be done” that the best launches do well. The most common place for digital innovation is in orchestrating the experience, but there is an opportunity to use digitally forward solutions in each of these jobs to accomplish a more precise and accelerated outcome:

  • Shape the market: Within smaller markets, patients often spend years swirling through HCPs and moving through multiple missed diagnoses. A digital front door can help patients find the right type of specialist or even an individual physician, based on their symptom profile and disease makeup. AI-driven patient finding provides more accurate insight about which HCPs will be treating likely future patients so the organization can help get them the right care.
  • Differentiate the product: Many organizations launch with the same blanket message due to fears of overcomplicated execution for the field, which only resonate with a subset of customers. Connecting primary and secondary data using AI can support much more granular customer profiles and conviction journeys to drive the most compelling, personalized messaging at launch.
  • Orchestrate the experience: Orchestration is typically limited at launch due to a lack of customer engagement data. Leveraging local healthcare markets to affinity data, first-party data and synthetic data, we can orchestrate the ideal channel mix even at launch, with more personalization enhancing over time. This can be even more effective when the company already has a presence with the customer type and can leverage their own engagement and execution data from prior launches.
  • Secure preferred access: Contracting is essential, but many organizations over-discount some plans and miss an opportunity with others. Furthermore, it can take companies months to communicate to customers and the field that critical wins have occurred and that access has improved. Contract simulation analytics and gross-to-net optimization can drive plan negotiations and contracting and ensure immediate and precise pull-through of access wins.
  • Provide support excellence: Many patient support programs rely on physician offices to complete benefit verification and sign patients up for services. Advanced digital solutions empower the patient to accelerate this process and onboard to therapy faster. AI-enabled prediction of drop-off can be used to design interventions before adherence becomes a problem and provide targeted support throughout the journey.
  • Sense, learn, pivot: Today’s dashboards provide a static look at current performance and often evaluate gaps separately, making it hard to connect the dots and quickly determine how to improve performance. An AI-enabled launch insights hub makes connected analytics faster and easier, embedding triggers for actions that can allow launch teams to pivot within days, not months.

Each launch is different; some may warrant all of these, some may need fewer. In a previous analysis, ZS analyzed 96 recent pharma launches to determine the market factors that had the most impact on product success and strategy. Unmet need is one of the most critical factors driving different success strategies at launch, both in terms of whether the unmet need is clear or marketing shaping is required and in terms of how much clinical differentiation the product is offering to address unmet need that does exist. Archetyping launches based on these dimensions determines which strategic priorities are most critical and can guide digitally forward investments

Let’s look at two examples where companies used technology and AI in product-specific solutions to make launch better and saw positive impact in their ability to impact patient care, exceeding forecasts in the first year. 


For example, a recent rare disease launch with high unmet need and low competition (Figure 4) used ZS’s digitally forward solutions to drive multiple launch objectives. They used a digital front door to streamline patient care, used AI to predict early adopters and who would have relevant patients and fed all of that into dynamic targeting that made predictions and recommendations for how reps and other channels should be orchestrated based on where the eligible patients were in the ecosystem. They had a high-touch patient support program and used AI to analyze call center data and conversations with nurse navigators and recommended personal support interventions. 

Another product was in an established, competitive market with only moderate unmet need, but it was clinically differentiated from several existing biologic therapies (Figure 5). This launch team used primary research and AI to predict individual physicians’ needs and preferences, customized their messages and content for those needs and deployed a combination of 10 digital channels based on customer preferences that they orchestrated to align with commercial and medical in-field teams. They also used digital tools to optimize gross to net at a payer level and promoted payer wins to the relevant customers as soon as they occurred. 

Where pharma can start to drive sophistication at scale

Driving sophisticated launch requires engagement from multiple functions: marketing, medical, market access, insights and analytics. By breaking the objectives apart into sophistication versus scale, each function can focus more on a clear, achievable objective and work together to drive the dual desired outcome.


To create more sophisticated and better-performing launches, companies can take these first steps:

  • Align on the definition, goals and role of a digitally forward launch across stakeholders (from internal functions like marketing, market access, insights and analytics) required for success. Where does the organization currently have gaps? How much do you need to solve for sophistication versus scale or both?
  • Archetype upcoming launches. Don’t let launch teams build their own custom plan from scratch and spin on hard decisions each time. Communicate the most important strategic priorities—the “jobs to be done”—based on the teams where digitally forward investment will have the most impact.
  • Define and pre-vet best-in-class digital solutions at an enterprise or business unit level that a launch team can consider for their highest strategic priorities, all the way from early launch planning through execution. Consider how data and insights can be connected and democratized across functions and decisions to bring more precision throughout.

Companies that are “always in launch mode” have an opportunity to build digital capabilities that enable these solutions at scale. Much of this done through an IT function, though launch excellence functions can also have a critical role. Our next article will focus on ZS’s digitally forward solutions that drive scale. 


Register for our upcoming webinar to find out how to create more sophisticated and better-performing launches.

Add insights to your inbox

We’ll send you content you’ll want to read – and put to use.

About the author(s)