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Virtual engagement strategies and the power of digital 

Unlike many other industries that put a halt to their event and engagement strategies, pharma has continued full throttle in its endeavour to deliver clinical studies that support the development of medicines and contribute to improving patient lives.

There is no room for digital complacency and, despite the gradual return of face to face, many future meetings, conferences, and events will still offer a digital alternative. This means a strong virtual engagement strategy will be crucial to the ongoing success of pharma companies.

A recent GlobalData poll which surveyed pharmaceutical industry professionals in April and May this year found that 75% think that virtual interactions will stay in place after the pandemic recedes, either as a standalone option or a hybrid of virtual and in-person. (Source: Pharmaceutical Technology). Clearly, virtual is here to stay.

The shift towards engaging remotely will only continue to gain momentum, due to its flexibility and efficiency. Virtual interactions will be paramount for pharma to continue engaging and encouraging feedback from healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients in the drive to develop and launch new drugs.

With many delegates accustomed to meeting colleagues, peers and HCPs in a live environment, they will expect increasingly more from virtual. They will want an opportunity to connect with speakers, the content, and each other in a dynamic setting. That’s why it will be so important to get it right.


At the beginning of the pandemic, most industries pivoted towards video conferencing platforms that were familiar and easy to access to host meetings, events and collaborations between their chosen audiences. ‘Online fatigue’ quickly set in, and many sectors realised they needed a better digital strategy to keep levels of virtual engagement up. Pharma was no exception.

The latter half of 2020 saw the advent of mass adoption of hybrid models - building meetings and event agendas, combining virtual streams with live elements. Research by Accenture Healthcare in May 2020 showed that 87% of HCPs want either all virtual or a mix of virtual and in-person meetings, even after the pandemic. (Source: Pharmafield) As COVID-19 strains appear and disappear, many new and existing live events will offer the option of virtual attendance.

The good news is that many HCPs are digital natives and already familiar with the virtual element of meetings. This format has been in use for a while for briefer sessions or those with a shorter lead time, to fit in with their busy schedules.

Hybrid will be vital in being able to accommodate time-poor delegates or any attendees that can’t travel. Companies will need to cater for those who want face to face, while also providing an alternative for those that can’t travel or don’t feel comfortable being at the event in person. To avoid creating live and virtual silos, in-person and virtual components will need to be integrated seamlessly, offering the same high-quality and engaging experience to everyone attending.

Hybrid elements can also be used to augment face to face meetings where there may be last-minute changes to the schedule or circumstances surrounding it.

Adopting tech trends which can be leveraged for compelling storytelling in both online and in-person spaces, will help to optimise how pharma marketers talk about new products and innovations. It also allows you to report valuable delegate data that is not available from a live event.

Learning these virtual engagement strategies in the hybrid space is a must.


Virtual platforms provide a unique opportunity for companies to gather more data than ever before. Even if the event is being held in person, these platforms are useful pre-event to help optimise the planning and value of any in-person interactions.

Feedback can be gathered from stakeholders and past attendees to gain insights into what they would value as a focus, and as part of the agenda, at an upcoming event. Gathering this data during the event itself can pinpoint what is and isn’t working, making responses to satisfaction levels more nimble and agile.

This plethora of data can also be harnessed to create tailored and personalised messaging to different market segments. Whereas before pharma companies might have led the conversation, social media will now be integral to finding out what conversations are taking place between key opinion leaders (KOLs), patients and HCPs. Traditional platforms such as Twitter should be monitored alongside HCP-focused ones such as SERMO, Doximity, and Figure1. The ability to tap into honest discussions around a product can revolutionise how you speak to different audiences in the future and how you create content that resonates with them.

Making sure that compliance isn’t overlooked in the virtual world is critical. HCPs will still need to sign contracts before attending, with their attendance tracked and certified, and even attention tracking needs to be used in some cases. Content and data sharing must be confidential, so whatever virtual platform is used should have this capability.


Delivering content virtually is very different to the in-person experience. Speakers will have to develop new skills, allowing them to hold their audience’s attention remotely as well as engaging a live audience, and promote inclusion across all. Participants will expect the speaker to be dynamic and create a sense of community to encourage discussion and the sharing of ideas.

Both pre-recorded and live sessions should be briefer to factor in typically shorter attention spans for online viewing. Creating digital on-demand content which can be accessed in participants’ own time offers the opportunity for delegates to watch pre and post-event, allowing more time for discussions and workshops on the day. It enables companies to generate excitement before the event; for attendees to build on discussions from during the event; prolongs the lifespan of the buzz around it and amplifies the return on budget. Post-event this acts as a resource centre for people to re-watch segments missed or re-visit sessions of interest.

Ideally there should be a combination of asynchronous and synchronous sessions to take into account different personality types. Synchronous sessions that can be joined in real time will be preferable for some, especially if they are more extroverted.

Running sessions asynchronously will be an important part of virtual strategy to accommodate peoples’ busy work and personal schedules. Some people will appreciate having more time to review content and think through it before responding. These sessions will allow people to learn in their own time, with the chance for all attendees to join a larger closing session where key feedback and findings are summarised. 

Offering this combination of engagement tools allows for better personalisation and optimisation of interactive and virtual elements, and increases virtual engagement through the power of digital.


Virtual has levelled the playing field. In theory, people can tune in from anywhere, opening up new audiences and participants. Geographical location, disabilities and the ability to travel, just to name a few, will no longer be barriers.

Making sure the cohesion of any traditionally physical events is maintained in virtual and hybrid formats will be key. Virtual programmes and platforms will require the same planning and production values as live, considering the flow of the event, real-time interactions between attendees and tools that encourage engagement.

Online will need to be completely reimagined to align with event goals, potentially with custom builds for the software being used to incorporate interactive elements, facilitate networking or add gamification capabilities. This will all add to the feeling of community building that can sometimes get lost in the virtual space.

Allowing participants to individualise the experience and plan their own agenda will lead to complementary groupings of participants, skills and experiences, making the event more relevant and engaging for individuals. This means they are more likely to attend and take away something valuable from the event.

Connecting with customers that were unreachable before or previous customers where contact has been lost will also be possible. Virtual healthcare, including remote monitoring of conditions in patients’ homes, will continue to grow as a trend. Pharma can use the online space to provide advice on new scientific and technological breakthroughs, positioning themselves as a go-to resource for signposting and a community hub for patient wellbeing.

Pharma sales reps can also build key relationships with HCPs and increase sales by engaging virtually. Using digital channels to communicate with them and sophisticated data to build profiles of their preferences, can foster important connections outside of face to face visits.

Of course, any successful virtual engagement strategy needs to factor in local cultures and customs, so should always be tailored with the specific audience in mind. 

Successfully capturing audience engagement virtually, is pivotal to fostering a relationship. Effective communication, providing valuable sources of education and maintaining patient retention all build a sense of trust. It is easy to underestimate the importance of trust, but in a post-pandemic world reputation with KOLs and patients will be even more important. Those that nurture it, will be remembered.

Putting virtual engagement strategies in place

To find out more about how SWM Partners can help you engage with virtual audiences and put your own virtual engagement strategies in place, get in touch today:

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