Like many verticals, pharmaceutical marketing is at a turning point. Right now, technology is being implemented that will shape how they relate to their customers, the healthcare professionals, in the years to come. So it’s important to be certain about the kind of future that we want to create and be aware of the shared tendencies in other high quality business-to-business industries.

Closed Loop MarketingThere are currently two schools of thought. The first says that we apply technology as a ‘helper’ – to improve what we are currently doing. The second school says that the technology should enable us to try something new and seek better ways to relate to our customers.

As to the first school, it’s inarguable that technology does offer great opportunities for more efficiency. Removing paper from communications means that we can produce materials much faster and no longer need to physically transport them around the world. It has a major impact. Effectively you can reduce the amount of time between campaigns.

Yet, these benefits aside, I don’t feel that this approach solves the underlying problem, which is that our customers, in this case the healthcare professionals feel over-marketed to and increasingly close themselves off from the industry. Access is being denied and I fail to see how this trend can be reversed though greater efficiency of communication alone.

It’s interesting that increasing the amount of contacts actually seems to reduce the attention that you get from the customer. The problem, I believe, is that these messages are simply not relevant enough. Because they don’t address each customer’s particular circumstances and needs, they don’t receive much attention from the audience. Why would they?

Adding technology simply makes for more efficient ‘push’ communication – one-way, mass messaging. So efficiency here means that you can shout louder and more often, but it isn’t fundamentally changing what you’re doing. Or how your customers will react. It’s like trying to treat side effects by increasing the dose. How can that work?

The second school, and the one that I believe to be the road that we need to take, is technology as opportunity – a way to do something new. Information technology can mean more than efficiency; it can actually help us to communicate better.

It’s now possible to relate to our customers in ways that simply were unimaginable before. We can stop ‘shouting’ and alienating our customers with irrelevant information. Instead we can use technology to work on an individual level and start being relevant to each recipient’s particular needs. In effect, we can move from ‘push’ to ‘pull’ communication.

If we make use of the full opportunities that information technology offers, we can create individualized communication that takes the customer’s personal understanding, needs and interests into account. This means highly relevant information. And that means higher value for the customer.

This is a huge opportunity. Firstly, it means that we free ourselves from running mass campaigns, which only addressed the needs and concerns of a subset of your customers and could only be run at certain times. Now we can start doing continual communication that precisely matches our customer’s knowledge level on any particular topic. This is revolutionary. It means that our outreach to customers stops being an annoyance and starting bringing true value. It’s my belief that, if we embrace the personalized communication that technology offers, healthcare professionals amongst many will re-engage with the industry.

Unfortunately, as we have seen with the ‘first school’, simply adding technology won’t automatically bring this about. If we only change the technology then we can only achieve the efficiency. To realize its full potential, we need to change our behavior and, I would argue, raise our expectations.

It may sound counterintuitive but ‘going digital’ really is more about strategy than technology. We have to think differently; designing individual, relevant communications and seeing beyond quarterly campaigns. It’s easy once the right methodology is in place, but without it we’re really not doing much more than transferring paper-based communications to the screen.

So which of these two schools will win out? The question here is whether we can overcome our habits and think broader. Will we find the right use for the technology or will we let old thinking dictate the future?

This is the question that the industry is deciding right now. The good news is that there are already great examples of highly relevant personalized communication out there, though it depends on where you look.

New technologies are usually first applied using old methodologies, with their full potential only explored later. This is completely natural. So places that were first movers in digital communication have a tendency to be more ‘first school’ but it is changing rapidly.

Ultimately the opportunity to move from a ‘mass push’ communication to an ‘individualized pull’ brings too many benefits to be ignored: better communication, more receptive audience and safeguarding access. So I’m confident that the industry will embrace the full potential of technology and move into a new era of communication. There are exciting times ahead.

For a more in-depth look at this topic, join Morten Hjelmsoe at SMEI’s live webinar being held on February 19, 2013.