What to ask your digital agency

Written on Friday 28th March 2014

We recently celebrated our first year anniversary at The EarthWorks. In the past 12 months we have worked very hard to make sure we ‘do the right thing’ for our clients at every stage. When working client-side at Lilly, GSK, and J&J, Alex and I were often keen to ensure we worked effectively with our agencies. There are a number of questions, phrases and topics of discussion that can help shape a great working relationship between client and agency to ensure delivery of the right solutions, particularly when it comes to digital communications.

Here are the top five questions from The EarthWorks we believe every client should ask their agency. These largely relate to digital communications and how we work, so I hope some of the commentary is of interest and use when working with agencies in the future. 

1. Are you sure that this will add strategic value to our business?

Instead of suggesting creating something of value, it is often deemed more important to suggest something innovative. One of our favourite agency quotes whilst client-side was: “This is the opportunity to do something really innovative”. In reality, no one should ever do anything simply for innovation’s sake; a highly innovative programme that delivers little or no value to the business is unlikely to be well-received. The EarthWorks is part of CHIME, and we share digital learning from brands across the group, such as Microsoft, Nike, and Easyjet. These companies would rarely do something innovative purely for the sake of it; instead they seek value from their campaigns. Their example shows it is far more important to focus on what’s key to the customer, instead of focussing on what’s new.

NB This doesn’t mean no one should ever do anything innovative; innovation should always be based on true value for the customer.

2. How can you help us use the right channels?

There is a lot of buzz around the phraseology ‘multi-channel’ in today’s pharmaceutical marketing landscape, but what does it really mean? It is crucial to understand the channel mix that exists and the relative merits of different channels, but even more important is to be selective in choosing the right channels. In other words, it’s not about how many channels you use, it’s about how you use them. Different agencies have skills in different channels, and should be able to recommend the right ones based on their individual merits.

Another issue seen in recent years is the integration of these multiple channels. In recent times the sales force sees increased time pressures and scrutiny of perceived value of interactions, yet it is rare to maximise impact of customer calls with integrated personalised websites or email communications. The same can be said for email marketing: Many companies still collect email addresses but are unsure what to do with them, yet an email database could be used to communicate content relating to ALL the channels a company uses. Ensuring integration across multiple channels is key to better communication with customers and stakeholders.

3. What can we do to improve our presence in social media?

We know that engaging with patients can be tough. They are regularly using social media to help them solve problems, connect with like-minded individuals, and find tools that help them live their lives in a better way. However, social media is a complicated area, and engagement can’t be bought or promised. An agency that truly understands social media can simplify this complex world and offer solutions that will make a difference. They must understand the processes required to monitor, report, and escalate issues, as well as have a fundamental understanding of the overarching strategic business objectives.

In addition, adverse event reporting is often a topic of concern with social media. All companies will have policies to ensure compliance with monitoring and reporting any AEs posted on social platforms. One of the key elements around social media is ensuring an applied content strategy is in place for the social media channels being used. It is also imperative to have a clearly defined measurement strategy (but more of that in point 5 below).

Finally resource: Run a social media programme on the cheap, without appropriate internal resource, and the results will be less than thrilling. All good digital agencies know this and should suggest appropriate strategy accordingly.

4. Can you help us ensure compliance with the code, particularly with digital?

In January 2014 the FDA published social media guidance. Then in February 2014 the PMCPA published a revised digital communications guide. Citing the code as a barrier to working in digital is often a false objection; many digital programmes can be conducted within the relevant code of practice. There are a lot of things that can be communicated via digital channels within code. Having spent time running a number of PM Society digital breakfasts with Heather Simmonds, director of the PMCPA, it is clear that businesses are not always as knowledgeable about the code as they could be. More often than not, it is simple mistakes (such as promoting a prescription medicine to the public, or over-egging a product claim) that cause issues. These examples are not digital issues, and are the most common causes of breaches.

There can be slightly grey areas when it comes to discussion forums, multi-country programmes, and utilisation of KOLs online, but by-and-large, digital is an excellent means to communicate with a digitally-savvy audience.

NB All agencies you work with should have a deep understanding of the code.

5. What are the KPIs for the programme?

This is essential. All programmes and spend need KPIs, and success has to be measurable.

It is absolutely crucial to measure the RIGHT things. Too often with digital engagement the WRONG things are measured. There is a litany of quips about measurement, my favourite being the three sentences below, all reflecting one statistic:

"The user loved our website so much that they read 23 pages of content!”

"Our website is so difficult to navigate that it took 23 pages for the user to find what they were wanted.”

"After a 23 page hunt, the user gave up, cursed us, abandoned the site, and went on to tweet to 3,000 followers that we are rubbish."

At The EarthWorks we talk about ‘core conversion metrics’. We measure things that have a genuine impact on our clients’ businesses, and a positive impact. Other metrics are worth recording but may simply be measurable indicators or contributory measures. If in doubt about which metrics to measure, let us know – we tend to frequently eulogise about this!

In summary, there are a great many fantastic digital pharma projects in the offing that will have a big impact on the landscape and how we communicate with customers (if they have not done so already). But before taking that step, ensure the right questions are posed to allow you and your campaign to get the best from your agency.