Every year, many life sciences organizations host speaker conference events, or speaker programs, across the globe. These speaker programs are one of the most successful sales and marketing strategies used across the industry. For most companies, these events are a beacon of product launch announcements and promotion, executive networking (on technology, patient care strategies, and synergy avenues), and balanced information exchange between industry representatives. Key Opinion Leaders (KOL) and Healthcare Professionals (HCP) interact with one another to discuss relevant subjects such as therapy areas, drug development, clinical outcomes, patient population trends, and patient interests. The expected results of such events include appraising HCPs of the latest industry developments, educating them, and retaining them as customers, as well as new lead generation, and an overall increase in sales productivity and marketing ROI.
With COVID-19 taking the world by storm, most industries are accelerating the disruption of their traditional strategy. The life sciences industry has been significantly impacted, with most of its stakeholders no longer available for in-person interactions. For similar reasons, speaker programs, traditionally reserved for physical engagement, have recently seen a bend towards digitization. Some of the reasons influencing the life sciences industry to consider virtual speaker programs as the future default choice include:
Sales reps are not able to physically meet their target HCPs
Patients are moving towards teleconsultation with their doctors
Senior executives are meeting with their counterparts over virtual meetings
The life sciences industry is moving a significant chunk of its commercial operations to digital, trying to adapt to this unique global pandemic swiftly. Many companies have started to invest in virtual channels of interaction, especially for large gatherings such as these conferences. A recent study estimates that the market for virtual programs will grow by $4B to $18B by 2023 . Virtual programs have been gaining preference over the past few years, and the pandemic has really accelerated this newer trend. By complying with the straightforward regulations for such virtual speaker programs, life sciences companies are considering this new format as a preferred format during the COVID-19 pandemic era.
Here are the top three reasons why the life sciences industry is accepting virtual speaker programs as the leading event format.
REASON 1: HIGH NET VALUE
In-person events are significantly more expensive due to the numerous overhead costs included. Starting with booking the appropriate venues to arranging for food and beverage menus, along with travel costs for guest speakers. In addition, miscellaneous expenses range from paying for media coverage, both digital and print, badges, fliers, and souvenirs. Beyond the overhead costs, the variable expenditure increases with each additional attendee, enforcing an unavoidable restriction on the guest list. In most cases, the attendees get their expenses reimbursed from their organizations, adding to the overall cost of the speaker program.
Virtual speaker programs, on the other hand, are not as expensive. While some of the overhead costs, like blocking a conference room to host the event, paying for media coverage, and paid advertisements persist, variable costs are extensively relaxed. Due to the absence of in-person attendees, the “cost-per-attendee” does not apply, lifting guest list restrictions and expanding networking horizons.
The virtual format of such events also encourages customer data generation and collection. This data can feed into meaningful analytics for appropriate next steps towards lead nurturing, customer engagement, and omnichannel marketing campaigns. Accurately collecting such information is challenging during physical events.
Even though virtual speaker programs seldom match-up to the quality of in-person interactions and engagement, they do deliver a higher net ROI to the organizers due to the significantly lower costs.
REASON 2: EASIER COMPLIANCE
Conducting speaker programs, in-person or virtual, comes with a lot of approval-related prerequisites. All the material used during these programs needs to be pre-approved by the appropriate governing bodies. One example is the Physician Payments Sunshine Act (PPSA), which mandates meeting the requirements of one of the following bodies :
- The Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME)
- The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP)
- The American Dental Association’s Continuing Education Recognition Program (ADA)
- The American Medical Association (AMA)
- The American Osteopathic Association (AOA)
Other regulations include codes of ethics, financial compliance, and principles of interactions with HCPs . Complying with these prescribed norms helps organizers navigate smoothly through the overall process.
The virtual format makes it easier for the organizers to comply with these rules. For instance, virtual programs can follow Open Payments  regulations, ensuring open and transparent financial interactions. Because of the Open Payments regulations, local events with “free meals” and “giveaways” are becoming unappealing for participating stakeholders. Virtual speaker programs can create a more ethical brand image by providing a compliant and transparent alternative to local in-person events, shifting the focus to more valuable peer exchange.
REASON 3: CONVENIENCE
In-person speaker programs restrict organizers and attendees when it comes to a variety of logistics. The need to be physically present at the event calls for a lot of time and effort spent in transit, whether it be local or international. Attendees often find it challenging to accommodate the conferences in their busy calendars due to:
- International flights, which take hours in transit.
- Overnight stays, in most cases, eating up more time than taken by multi-day events.
- Inflexibility to choose sessions of interest from the packed event schedules.
Fortunately, both organizers and attendees benefit from the underlying flexibility associated with virtual events.
- Organizers can tap into national industry-leading speakers versus focusing solely on local ones, as geographical restrictions do not apply. Having top-tier KOLs significantly increases the quality of the sessions.
- Virtual events usually occur in a live webinar or webcast format, and organizers do not have to be restricted by conventional event timings. For instance, virtual conferences can be scheduled in the early morning or late evenings when attendee groups have time for networking and recreational activities instead of during peak working hours.
- Organizers do not have the exercise of finding and booking the perfect venue, and participants do not have to travel, even locally, to attend the programs.
- Organizers can target a wider audience by tapping across global time-zones, an option that is more challenging with in-person events.
- Attendees across life sciences persona groups can participate in these sessions from the comfort of their offices, clinics, or home.
- Attendees can easily opt-out of sessions of lesser interest, saving them time and increasing the quality of information consumption and networking during relevant interactions.
Speaker programs are an essential part of life sciences companies’ sales and marketing strategy as they are one of the most popular mediums to stimulate personal interactions. They have proven to be a success with influencing HCP prescription patterns and raising brand awareness in the industry. Despite their high net value, simpler compliance regulations, and convenience, virtual programs do have their challenges:
- Creating an immersive experience for physically distant participants
- High-dependence on a sophisticated technology infrastructure
- Need for operational agility to avoid losing relevance with prolonged planning
- Lack of direct control over participant logistics
Even with these challenges, they have been gaining preference over the past few years. Reasons primarily include their low cost, high-quality opportunities, and the added flexibility across the board. As the life sciences industry gains more experience, companies are finding best practices to maximize their ROI with the virtual format, for example:
- Optimized scheduling and persona-friendly personalization options for attending relevant sessions
- Industry renowned speakers, appealing to a global audience
- Interactive apps and features across the program lifecycle
- Easy-to-use and mobile-compatible technology
- Immersive experiences like Augmented Reality (AR)
- Consistent customer engagement throughout the event lifecycle – pre, during, and post
In a nutshell, the critical factor to consider is how to adapt the program format with changing industry preferences and global scenarios. With COVID-19 looming over us for the foreseeable future, some permanent transformations are etching their way into traditional commercial models. When the world sees a path toward the “old normal,” it would have been long enough for healthcare stakeholders to realize the unmatched potential of increased digitization and virtual connectivity.
- Stephen A. Jonas, Ericka Aiken, and Athena Katsampes. Speaker Programs and the Pharmaceutical Industry. New York University School Of Law, published online February 6, 2020, available at https://wp.nyu.edu/compliance_enforcement/2020/02/06/speaker-programs-and-the-pharmaceutical-industry/
- Virtual Event Market Forecast. Market Research Media, published online May 29, 2019, available at https://marketresearchmedia.com/virtual-event-market/
- Thomas Sullivan. Physician Payment Sunshine Act: Final Rule Released, CMS Limits Reporting Requirements for CME. Policy & Medicine, published online May 6, 2018, available at https://www.policymed.com/2013/02/physician-payment-sunshine-act-final-rule-released-cms-limits-reporting-requirements-for-.html
- Elizabeth Richardson. The Physician Payments Sunshine Act. HealthAffairs, published online October 2, 2014, available at https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hpb20141002.272302/full/#:~:text=The%20Physician%20Payments%20Sunshine%20Act%20(PPSA)%2D%2Dalso%20known%20as,to%20physicians%20or%20teaching%20hospitals
- Manasa Shankar. Are Promotional Speaker Programs Going the Distance? BEROE, published online 30 July, 2019, available at https://www.beroeinc.com/whitepaper/are-promotional-speaker-programs-going-the-distance/
- Open Payments. CMS.gov, published online 21 September, 2020, available at https://www.cms.gov/OpenPayments