Did pharma get what it needed from congresses in 2020 and what’s in store for 2021?

Hannah Tivey

Chief Scientific Officer & Executive Creative Director

It’s safe to say 2020 was a year of unprecedented change, particularly in the world of pharma congresses. But it wasn’t all bad. We saw brands, congress organisers and agencies rise to the challenge and pivot quicker than they ever have before, adapting to the new world of digital events.

What virtual congress services were on offer?

With travel and in-person events off the cards, our goal was to continue delivering high quality content and customer engagement activities for our clients. The challenge was that nobody really knew how these online congresses would be received by HCPs. This meant that clients were slower to make decisions and reluctant to spend money without understanding their ROI.

By June 2020 congress organisers were offering online platforms, but every platform was different and the user journey was ill defined. Clients were left unsure what the technical specifications of these platforms were, what sponsorship opportunities were available to them and how their content would be delivered to their audience. The feeling was very much one of “suck it and see”.

As we progressed through the year, it became clear that online congresses were here to stay. Our clients were becoming more comfortable with this ‘new normal’ and looked to us for creative ideas of how to reach their audience.

The question was, how do we create memorable and immersive experiences in the digital space? One thing’s for sure: simply recreating the physical space digitally is not the way to go.

There’s a reason online shops aren’t laid out as 3D spaces like the real thing – because the way people navigate the online world is totally different to the physical world. So why would we bind ourselves to a 3D space when the laws of physics no longer apply? For us this was the exciting part!

It was clear that the focus for the congress organisers was the main scientific programme and as such, most of our clients were underwhelmed with what the Industry Exhibition areas had to offer. That’s why a crucial part of our strategy was to create external event microsites that gave our clients flexibility and control over their content and allowed us to engage audiences in more immersive brand experiences. It allowed us to flex our creativity and ensure their presence at the congresses landed with impact.

“The question was, how do we create memorable and immersive experiences in the digital space?
One thing’s for sure: simply recreating the physical space digitally is not the way to go.

What was missing from digital events in 2020?

It’s true that digital congresses have a number of upsides: lower carbon emissions from reduced travel; greater accessibility and volume of people able to attend, to name a few. But, like the digital version of most things, they’re just not quite the same. So, what’s missing?

The short answer is time. Part of the joy of attending conferences is the change in environment. The very act of getting on a plane to a different city (or even country) and leaving behind the pressures of the clinic makes HCPs more receptive to learning. Once they arrive at the congress there are ample opportunities to network and explore without distraction. Delegates are far more likely to engage with Industry activities as they wander through the exhibition area whether in search of their next caffeine fix, looking to meet

But all of this changes in the digital space. We’re hearing more and more that HCPs are expected to juggle their attendance at conferences and their work commitments, often logging on during breaks between patients or in their own time in the evening.

So it’s no surprise that they are more focused in their viewing. HCPs are spending the short time they have at digital events actively hunting for the data that interests them and ignoring the wider activities. We need to be mindful of this shift and help our clients to find new ways of connecting with their audience.

The human interaction. We know that the scientific programme and educational opportunities are not the only reasons HCPs attend conferences. The networking element is also a huge draw. Let’s face it, how many other chances do HCPs have to be in the same space as thousands of their peers? Physical conferences offer the perfect opportunity for chance encounters in the corridor, reunions with old colleagues, and ad hoc conversations that lead to collaborations that otherwise may never have happened. It’s these spontaneous interactions that are difficult to recreate in the digital world, so it’s up to agencies like ours to come up with innovative ways of prompting conversations and helping delegates to feel like they are part of a community.

“The very act of getting on a plane to a different city (or even country) and leaving behind the pressures of the clinic makes HCPs more receptive to learning.

What’s needed at pharma congresses this year?

Industry collaboration will help refine digital event platforms Last year saw an explosion of digital event platforms. Some were better than others in terms of flexibility and user experience. But now a year later, the industry as a whole has experience to draw on, and an opinion on what works and what doesn’t. We predict that our clients will continue working closely with congress organisers to inform the design of congress platforms and will become more vocal in pushing for what they need. We are excited to be part of these conversations and to continue pushing the boundaries of creativity to help our clients nurture relationships with the people most important to them.

There will be a shift to hybrid. Despite the glimmers of hope in the UK with the roadmap out of lockdown, it’s likely that global events and congresses will continue to be conducted digitally. And even as travel becomes a possibility again, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever return to physical-only congresses.

The challenge will be in understanding how to connect the digital and physical worlds. Travel to events will likely become more considered and selective, so live congresses will become an opportunity for our clients to recruit HCPs into their digital comm unity where the relationship can continue and grow.

With a wealth of developing tech at our fingertips, we’re trying to now identify where the value will be found in making these connections, and how.

Live will be back with a bang. With the recent success of the vaccines, we’re of course excited about the prospect of physical events returning and it’s clear that feeling is shared by our clients. We believe we’ll see a rush of travel and a return to f2f events, as soon as it is safe for us all to do so. We’re eagerly anticipating the raising of ideas from paper into awe-inspiring real-life installations, the reactions of clients, the buzz of the crowd, the smell of the coffee. We can’t wait, and we believe customers will be clamoring to get back to ‘live’ too.

But with digital engagement likely to remain as a strong component in the events it will be a careful balance to cohesively manage the range of audience experiences required in this new world.

That’s why we are already helping our clients to reimagine the customer journey and demonstrate that we can create bespoke, engaging experiences, no matter the environment.

“We believe we’ll see a rush of travel and a return to f2f events, as soon as it is safe for us all to do so.
We can’t wait.”

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