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Collaborating in a Digital World: How Can Pharma More Effectively Engage Healthcare Professionals in Virtual Events and Advisory Boards?

COVID-19 is fundamentally transforming healthcare and how the pharmaceutical industry engages healthcare professionals (HCPs). Although much of this shift stems from the immediate impacts on healthcare systems, many changes will persist long beyond the current crisis. These changes include the shift to more virtual meetings and interactions, which were already growing in popularity and are now seeing hypergrowth.

This evolution will have long-term implications for our industry as we engage our audiences in new ways. Virtual events require a different approach to foster interactivity and engage on a personal, human level when face-to-face interactions are not possible or practical.

Although it can be more difficult to build relationships and hold attention through a screen, virtual events have benefits. Logistically, these events offer a streamlined alternative to in-person meetings from planning and budgetary perspectives. You may need to invest in a technology platform, but you avoid the logistics and expenses involved in arranging travel, meals, hotels, and venues.

Planning carefully ensures that these engagements provide as much value as possible for your team and your audience. Key tips to maximize virtual events are presented in the infographic below. If you seek to engage HCPs, whether for an advisory board or a peer-to-peer education event, we offer more detail on these tips and key considerations in this blog. Keep reading to better understand how to maximize virtual events, ensuring that you receive the insights you need and that your audience feels like their time was spent productively.

Virtual collaboration tips infographic

Types of Virtual Events

HCPs face unprecedented burdens, from changes in their ability to care for their patients to personal disruptions due to the pandemic. Beyond Rep interactions with HCPs, meetings that may need to shift online include a variety of external events, from advisory boards with key opinion leaders (KOLs) to virtual symposia or interactive speaker programs. These may also encompass cross-functional internal meetings or training programs, particularly for regionally or globally distributed teams. Additionally, medical conferences and congresses are being canceled, postponed, or shifted into virtual formats.

Not all meetings should move into a digital environment permanently—there are objective reasons to conduct a meeting in person vs virtually. COVID-19 is forcing the shift to digital for now and potentially into 2021, but those virtual events do not need to feel forced. You can proactively design meetings to fit the virtual environment more effectively, rather than shoehorn in-person content and formats into a virtual platform. A 6-hour, in-person advisory board with a large group shifted directly into a virtual format with no adjustment can lead to less engaged attendees and less valuable feedback drawn from fatigued or distracted participants.

Some lessons are essential, no matter your virtual event: Clarify expectations with participants in advance by providing an agenda or outline, and avoid overscheduling lengthy events where it will be difficult for participants to maintain engagement. Screen fatigue should be avoided.

Choosing Virtual Platforms

So how do you successfully move your advisory boards, training, and other collaborative activities online? Some virtual collaboration platforms are more conducive to live, synchronous, and more conversational meetings, in which all participants engage in a simultaneous virtual event. These platforms include basic functionality such as video and audio conferencing, chat boxes, and document/screen sharing. Leading platforms include Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, and Zoom, which vary in terms of features, participant maximums, and pricing models.

Alternatively, asynchronous platforms like MedThink Connect and ExtendMed allow a collaborative environment to open for an extended period so participants can interact at their convenience. Platforms in this category focus on reducing the cost of holding in-person advisory boards or insight-generation events and providing HCPs the flexibility of participating at any time during a defined window.

Choosing the right platform is critical to the success of your event. In some cases, a hybrid solution, which combines a live meeting element with an asynchronous collaboration tool for pre- and postmeeting discussion, may work best. This approach is particularly helpful to fight virtual meeting attention fatigue or when you need focused responses from the group.

The hybrid approach also creates relationship-building opportunities through more frequent but less time-consuming interactions. Instead of a multi-hour virtual advisory board and follow up, consider a weekly, 1-hour live virtual ad board complimented by small assignments done asynchronously. You engage your KOLs over a period of time and have the ability to alter follow-up requests as you gain insights.

There are detailed guides on choosing a technology solution elsewhere, which we won’t explore in detail here. However, pharmaceutical marketers should consider these factors when selecting a platform:

  • Disease state: More complex therapeutic areas may require a hybrid model with more detailed pre-event feedback compilation and in-person discussion
  • KOL needs: Physician level of knowledge may require more or less up-front preparation
  • KOL relationships: Live meetings offer a better opportunity to build relationships with HCPs if they are new to the company or therapeutic area
  • Geography: When broader input is sought across time zones, scheduling live meetings becomes significantly more challenging
  • Audience size: Depth/Nuance of feedback can be limited if a meeting has a large audience, with each member competing to be heard

Invest in Premeeting Planning

Our virtual interactions are fundamentally different than in-person activities, so planning is vital. After you (or your IT team) select your technology solution, run a test event or dress rehearsal to ensure all functionality works correctly. Each collaboration platform has its nuances, and your event leaders need to feel comfortable running the event without worrying about technical issues. This can also be a great opportunity to test the lighting and audio for each of your key speakers to ensure a more effective and better quality live experience.

Think about sharing materials for pre-reading, assigning premeeting to-dos to save live event time, or surveying attendees to better understand the audience’s knowledge base in advance and to tailor content. You don’t want to overburden attendees with extensive assignments, but simple activities can free up time during the live event for more interaction.

Consider the differences in a live meeting room vs audience members participating individually from their desks. Simply staring at a screen for an extended period is a much different experience than participating in a discussion in a lively room. Minimize presentation lengths and limit the number of slides or the amount of content being shared to avoid overwhelming your audience.

Splitting up content into digestible chunks through short meetings or sections broken up by interactivity and planned breaks (clearly communicated on your precirculated agenda) is important. Giving attendees time between segments, about every 45 minutes or so, will reduce distractions and discourage multitasking.

Maximize Live Audience Engagement

How do you engage your audience more effectively during your virtual event? A few considerations will help things run smoothly and more productively.

A stage manager assigned to coordinate the event is important—this team member ensures that technical questions are resolved, agenda timing is maintained, and other logistical details are handled. Unless your group is very small, the stage manager should not be the same person tasked with moderating or leading the discussion.

Interactivity features are included in all live meeting platforms. They help capture attention and engage your audience. A few ideas to help you solicit active contribution from participants include:

  • Beginning with small talk to ease into the conversation with direct, one-on-one attendee interactions (using specific names when possible)
  • Encouraging all attendees to share their video feed to foster collaboration
  • Incorporating live polling to collect feedback, run surveys, or quiz attendees
  • Working from live shared documents to facilitate simultaneous collaboration
  • Using a whiteboard and/or annotation features that allow teams to brainstorm and prioritize ideas in real time
  • Breaking up into small, more collaborative parallel group discussion sessions if your platform allows breakouts

Another impact of virtual meetings is the loss of networking and having casual conversations with colleagues. Consider providing networking opportunities by setting aside time for people to catch up and talk informally. Adding 15 minutes for attendees to connect with colleagues, whether through video chat, chat boxes, or private group rooms, makes a virtual meeting more engaging.

To ensure a productive advisory board, your choice of a moderator is critical. Experienced, active moderators draw out feedback from attendees more effectively. A practiced moderator can direct conversation flow, elicit more detail or nuance in responses, and rein in discussions that go off track. It is easier for attendees to determine the right time to jump in when they are in the same room. Encourage your moderator to call on attendees directly to facilitate a continuous discussion.

Additionally, consider the size of the advisory group when moving online. Smaller groups often are more effective in virtual settings. Limiting the meeting to 5 to 6 advisors can foster a more productive conversation and can enable your team to collect insights in greater depth. Moreover, plan your content meticulously. Asking fewer questions per slide in virtual advisory boards will give HCPs or KOLs time to dive deeper and offer more feedback per question.

Professional norms are in upheaval, and your meeting may not need to be a slick, completely polished event to be successful. A less formal town hall question-and-answer session or a quick, casual lunch-hour video chat with HCPs could provide the insights you need in a format that is easy for your audience to participate in. We are all getting used to working remotely, physicians included, and this new environment is impacting expectations of virtual events.

Plan Follow-Ups to Increase Retention and/or Feedback

Without the in-person conversations at on-site meetings that help reinforce content, you may want to focus more heavily on virtual event follow-ups because spaced repetition of information boosts retention.

Emailed notes or highlights encourage recall. You can also share meeting recordings as a follow-up. Recorded sessions, slides, and event content can be reused and repackaged for additional educational and marketing opportunities, both to attendees and wider audiences. Also consider micro-learning follow-ups, using content that takes minimal time to review. Small snippets encourage recall and may be easier for HCPs to integrate into their stressful schedules.

After an advisory board meeting, consider following up 1 to 2 weeks later with a survey to collect supplemental feedback, building on the discussion from the virtual meeting. Surveys may be conducted digitally, or a member of your marketing team could call each attendee to ask the follow-up questions (keeping it to a 15-minute conversation). This approach would go beyond standard post-event surveys about logistics and satisfaction, highlighting key insights or confirming group consensus.

Make the most of the time that you have with HCPs, even if personal interaction is no longer feasible. With preparation, and both pre- and post-event outreach, shifting your events into a virtual format can still allow you to uncover new insights and engage audiences effectively. These lessons will be critical throughout 2020 and beyond as we all shift to new patterns of social and professional interaction in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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