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How can pharma cross the digital chasm?

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An HR Director once surveyed the diverse jobs I had done (from lab research to international marketing) and asked “What do you like most?

“Change” I replied without thinking.

“I meant, which particular job role were you most comfortable in?” (pause) 

 “Well, it’s best for me when I’m not comfortable...”

Like many, I’ve been on the leadership programmes, the ‘solution selling’, ‘customer-centric marketing’ and ‘marketing excellence’ initiatives. But I’ve long been a student of human folly, and one thing that has consistently struck me through all the changes I’ve seen is the way human beings react to and embrace change – or not.

Geoffrey A. Moore had it spot on in his seminal work Crossing the Chasm (1991); he hypothesised that adoption of new technologies follows a normal distribution (as originally described by Bohlen, Beal and Rogers at Iowa State University). 

In other words, from a small number of ‘innovators’ (the techies who play with the new stuff for its own sake) to a larger number of ‘early adopters’ (visionaries who see the possibilities of new technology and are willing to accept it is unfinished) through to the ‘early majority’ (mainstream early users), followed by the ‘late majority’ and ultimately the die-hard ‘laggards’.

Moore’s hypothesis differed in that he said if the technology is ‘disruptive’ (i.e. completely unprecedented), then there is a very large gap between the early adopters and the early majority – the CHASM. 

Characteristics of early adopters: 

• Give credence to the innovators and listen to them

• Can translate from technology innovation to business success

• Willing to ‘finish’ the product with their own resources

• Understand it is unproven and will take the risk.

The early majority are totally different. They:

• want a product that is complete, stable and supported

• look for proven return on investment

• expect a good support infrastructure

• want product reliability and good references

• will not risk their reputation on the new technology. Why should they?

Therefore, the WORST person to sell new technology to the early majority is, in general, the early adopter.

I have had personal experience of this. In the early 1990s I was brand manager for a market-leading financial software product when we introduced the new Windows version of the product that would replace the much-loved and very successful DOS product.

We recruited client development partners, ran focus groups, had an extensive beta test programme, and were confident that the new Windows product would (eventually) have all the capability of the DOS version and would be much easier to use. We had one particular pharmaceutical company as our main development partner. It was a very happy and productive collaboration.

Most of all I remember our annual user conference, when the Financial Systems Director of said company stood on a platform and told 300 Finance Directors and Financial Controllers (note the keyword – ‘finance’) about “hundreds” of people working on this new platform and “millions” spent implementing the new Windows software. For him, this size was impressive and reflected his leadership well.

Not so for me. Looking round the room I saw 300 aghast faces and my biggest career own-goal, looking back. Not one person would migrate to the Windows product. (They did eventually, of course, but that event didn’t contribute – not one bit.)

That was the day I fell into Geoffrey’s Chasm. Twenty years later, where are we with Digital Pharma? Innovative brand managers and eMarketers have run pilots and certainly shown ROI. Plus everyone knows that customer-centric marketing, with digital as a core component, is the future… right?

But look what is happening. Visionaries who built websites 10 years ago are now building apps, yet digital channels are still not core in brand communication plans. Brand managers in other industries are reprimanded if their product site isn’t ‘Google No. 1’ in their country... but this is rare for pharma brands. 

The problem is that early adopters are, generally, not excited by ‘training’ or ‘embedding’ or ‘standard operating procedures’.

Our industry rewards ‘innovation’ not ‘embedding’. A forward-thinking brand manager who does exciting new stuff is quickly promoted to a regional or global role, leaving the innovative new practice without a parent to nurture it into adulthood. 

Meanwhile   our   core   business   model   is 50 years old and creaking. What we need is ‘leadership will and management skill’ to really embed a digital/multichannel customer-engagement culture, backed up everyday training, best-practice documents and SOPs. 

Here’s my step-by-step guide to implementation, based on John Kotter’s 

‘8-step change’ model:

1. Establish a Sense of Urgency: Create the Leadership Will

 It is not about ‘another channel’ or an ‘additional marketing capability to support the sales reps’. This is about a root-and-branch change to our business model.

Our leaders (many started their careers as sales reps) recognise that change starts with them. Other industries have transformed in the past 20 years through the ‘information revolution’ (the internet) and latterly the ‘interaction revolution’ (the explosion of channels and user-generated content) and we can learn from their experience.

Change begins when Leadership says “Start without pre-conceptions: begin with customers and determine the most valuable relationship we can develop – for both of us”.

2. Build the Guiding Team: the Management Skill

 Too often the only digital or eMarketing role in the brand team is given to a junior person, perhaps a graduate trainee, to help build their broad skill base before moving up the organisation. Why is this?

The managers who will orchestrate change must be senior, highly experienced digital and customer-centric-marketing experts who have done this many times and inspire colleagues with confidence to make it work. It is OK if they lack extensive pharma experience – marketing and leadership are transferable. Essential, however, is the knowledge, credibility and drive to answer the difficult questions and mentor colleagues through the enormous industry transition.

Whatever their title – ‘marketing transformation’, ‘digital integration’ – these are your ticket to the future and the most valued managers in your organisation.

3. Develop a Change Vision

Pharmaceutical companies are good at this. Articulating ‘customer excellence’, ‘insight-driven marketing’ and ‘from sales push to service pull’ is a good start.

However, the vision must be specific and translated into measurable objectives. Aspirations to delight our customers are redundant if delight is not measured. It is inadequate to say we must engage in all channels our stakeholders choose to interact in and then focus on only one channel when measuring impact.

Leaders must collaborate with experts to both articulate and achieve the vision for the organisation. What will the business model be in 1, 5, 10 years’ time? What will customers think and say about our organisation? How will we measure this?

4. Communicate the Vision for Buy-in

 As in the ‘real world’, use as many interactions as possible.

• Meet with staff and announce the new model, preferably at a large company event.

• Videos on the company TV, exhibits in lunch areas.

• Use email, SMS and other channels/services (Yammer, Twitter, Google+). 

• Podcasts, apps and games. 

• Drip-feed content about change – a weekly intranet ‘Did You Know?’ post, regular newsletters (paper and email).

• Brand the change project – offer desk furniture, posters, sweets...

• Ensure managers demonstrate new behaviours.

5. Empower Broad-based Action

 This is about removing obstacles and encouraging new behaviours and risk-taking.

• ‘What you goal is what you get’ – build digital integration into the objectives of every person in the organisation, from senior management downwards.

• Have a mandatory foundational training course on digital/multichannel engagement that all customer-facing and supporting functions must attend. 

• Create a social network to replace the company intranet – make it the only way to access certain services and content.

• Create top-level guidelines/SOPs for all major channels.

• Decide on the level of risk the organisation is willing to accept and how this will be managed. A digitally enabled business model will require some people to work in areas new to them. How are you going to facilitate this? Perhaps a helpline or go-to person in each team/department, backed up by an expert forum that can scrutinise projects and offer advice? 

6. Generate Short-term Wins

 • Develop and communicate a rapid, iterative process to pilot new business models, channels and ways of working.

Reward employees who adopt new techniques; importantly, reward further for adapting, re-using, embedding and empowering colleagues with them.

7. Never Let Up

 Eliminate ‘That’ll never work here’ mentality. Managers must watch for teams slipping into familiar habits, especially when under duress. Introduce new people who don’t necessarily ‘fit’ the company mould – to challenge accepted practice and pressure-test methodologies. Prepare for discomfort – if there isn’t any, change isn’t happening. Those who can’t accept it need to rethink their role. Remove  processes  that  hinder  change. Is a 12-stage approval process for a digital newsletter needed, if by the time it goes live it is no longer ‘news’? How about a two-stage process instead?

8. Incorporate Changes into the Culture

 Draw the ‘red thread’ between behaviours and success (e.g. with customer stories, increased sales, better motivated employees, stronger company image). Continuously communicate the everyday successes. 

Reward excellent execution, embedding best practice and training/empowering colleagues, and recognise this across the organisation – not just in the immediate customer-facing roles.

A CEO boss of mine once said “everyone in this company is a sales person”. The 2012 version of this might be “it is everyone’s job to delight our customers with every interaction”.

It doesn’t matter what the channel/company/ product is; ultimately, customer-centric business is a mindset, not a toolset. The hard part is ensuring it becomes everyone’s mindset.

References: Moore GA. Crossing the chasm: marketing and selling technology products to mainstream customers. Capstone, revised edition 1998. Kotter JP. Leading change. Harvard Business School Press, 1996.

 By Kay Wesley – Global Director, Complete Digital

Kay Wesley can be contacted at or via









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