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A Year of Digital-First Engagement

Learnings from navigating the pandemic with big pharma about how to improve customer experience

By Rob Steere

It’s been one year since COVID-19 pushed the industry toward remote work models and digital as a means of sustaining engagement with healthcare professionals (HCPs). Digital engagement skyrocketed in 2020, with the use of virtual meetings for rep-to-HCP engagement increasing sixfold and field-sent email increasing fivefold globally.[1]

As commercial leaders look ahead to a world post-COVID, now is the perfect time to reflect on the lessons learned over the past year with an eye toward adapting for the future. Here are five key takeaways from a year of going digital, with recommendations for building a more effective and efficient HCP engagement model moving forward.

1-Digital channels improve rep productivity

For many years the industry has been trying to decrease unproductive travel and wait time while improving the length of product discussion. Unfortunately, these efforts have had very limited success—until the widespread adoption of digital last year.

Virtual engagements eliminated the need to travel long distances, reduced wait times, and dramatically increased the average length of discussion. In fact, in 2020 virtual meetings had an average duration of 31 minutes, which is 10 times longer than traditional in-person calls.[2]  


[1] Veeva Pulse Trends, Global Market, January 2021. [2] Veeva Pulse Trends, U.S. Market, January 2021.

Rep productivity further improves when field emails are combined with in-person and virtual engagements. Not only are doctors more likely to take action on a personalized email they receive from a rep when compared to a headquarter-sent email, but more than two-thirds of HCPs want this type of interaction.[3] This likely explains the 27% average open rate for field-sent emails in the U.S.[4]

With new digital channels, reps can expand their call deck to additional customers, including those who may have historically been deprioritized due to limited capacity or geographic distance. In this way, digital can also create opportunities to generate additional revenue without changing salesforce capacity.

2-Hybrid engagement enhances customer experience

Once in-person access to HCPs resumes, face-to-face selling will continue to be important, but blending onsite visits with digital interactions will improve customer experience, and, ultimately, commercial performance.

One global life sciences company conducted a two-year analysis to determine the most effective engagement channel in one of their emerging growth markets. The test compared the performance of three separate segments: reps engaging with HCPs using only in-person visits; reps engaging solely via digital; and reps who combined face-to-face and digital interactions.


[3] “Guide to Digital HCP Engagement,” Veeva, 2020.

[4] Veeva Pulse Trends, U.S. Market, January 2021.

The group that used a hybrid approach improved cost efficiency by 80%, surpassing the combined sales growth of the two stand-alone segments by 3%. This shows that when done right, using digital as a supplement to in-person visits can result in significant financial benefits after the pandemic. Plus, HCPs prefer it as well.

In a recent survey of 720 HCPs, 87% of respondents said they wanted either all virtual or a mix of virtual and in-person meetings even after the pandemic ends.[5] A hybrid engagement model—one in which reps split their time between in-person visits, virtual meetings, and email—will be key in helping companies better meet HCP needs and improve customer satisfaction.

3-Modular content accelerates content creation

As digital engagement grows within commercial organizations, so does the need for more content to be created faster, at scale. Longer virtual meetings and an increase in field email both rely on additional content, and all of it needs to be refreshed frequently based on market events. This likely explains why 86% of marketers, IT, and commercial ops professionals report they are producing more content now than six months ago.[6]

To accelerate the content creation process and gain greater agility, it’s important to first have the right infrastructure and technology in place. With an enterprise-wide solution to create, manage, distribute, and measure approved digital assets, for example, brand and marketing teams can easily reuse and adapt existing content for reps in customer interactions.


[5] “Is COVID-19 altering how pharma engages with HCPs?” Accenture, August 2020.

[6] Veeva DAM Forum Registration Survey, 2020.

Modular content can also help fast-track content creation. Unlike traditional content strategies that require each new asset to be built from scratch, a modular approach simply reassembles existing, pre-approved content blocks, or modules, into a variety of assets that can be used in different channels and regions.

A modular content strategy can benefit the organization in a number of ways, including accelerated medical, legal, and regulatory (MLR) review cycles. At Novo Nordisk, for example, the marketing team is increasingly leveraging pre-approved, modular content, so reviewers simply ensure the references are the way they should be instead of spending hours reviewing something as if it’s a brand-new asset.[7]

“[Reviewers] only look at the context of how that content is going to be used, and that brings down our review times considerably,” said Morten Kruse Sorensen, global director of Multichannel Excellence and Operations at Novo Nordisk.


[7] “Novo Nordisk’s Modular Content Journey,” Veeva, 2020.

4- Data is key to optimizing digital engagement

Like content, data is another critical component to effective digital engagement. Without insight into channel preferences, customer reach, engagement frequency, and cross-channel engagement history, field and headquarter teams won’t have the insight they need to identify the next-best engagement opportunity. This explains why most organizations are offering insights to reps

Sharing digital engagement data with reps and field managers can also help teams identify cross-channel anomalies across customers, territories, and districts. It’s important to remember, however, that raw data alone isn’t what will improve digital effectiveness and sales outcomes; it’s the ability to transform that data into simple and actionable insights—often through easy-to-understand dashboards and suggestions—that will lead to better decisions and follow-through.

Many companies are recognizing the importance of this distinction. According to a recent survey of 234 life sciences professionals, 24% of respondents said they offer timely, actionable insights and suggestions to field reps; 34% said they offer ad hoc, tactical suggestions; and 32% said their ability to offer insights is between these two.[8]

Sales planning teams should use data to make digital channel considerations when evaluating customer segments, territory design, salesforce size, structure, and sales models as well. Key inputs to decision making should include promotional response by channel, channel specific access data, and channel preference observations.  


[8] “Veeva 2020 North America Customer Reference Data Survey Report,” Veeva, September 2020.

A final way to maximize digital engagement and accurately measure performance is to benchmark internal data against industrywide data, as this will allow leaders to identify engagement strengths or gaps and take action based on uncovered opportunities.

5- Productivity metrics must align with digital

Rep productivity metrics have historically focused on the number of calls made during a workday. This was a logical approach in the past as in-person calls were the dominant channel for engagement and it was simple to communicate and measure. 

In a digital world, however, traditional productivity metrics need to be reimagined to reflect the variable impact of a sample drop, extended in-person engagements, virtual engagements, and email. Forward-thinking companies will use performance response curves that consider digital engagement and projected time spent promoting products to inform these weightings.

The last 12 months have shown the industry just how powerful the digitally enabled rep can be. Digital opens the door for reps to engage more flexibly and effectively to deliver what HCPs need, at any given moment. Companies that continue to sustain digital engagement as a complement to in-person meetings will benefit from more productive reps, more satisfied customers, and a more lasting impact on the patient communities they serve.

Rob Steere is responsible for commercial product strategy for Veeva CRM including customer engagement, market adoption, and direction. With more than 30 years of life sciences experience, he has deep expertise in building high performing teams, leading operational excellence, driving corporate transformation, and developing commercial strategy.

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