Digital Onlookers to Digital Experts – The digital adoption continuum

As a digital brand coach, I am often asked about how the Pharma industry is adopting digital tools in both the Indian context and developed markets.

While in the developed world (specifically the US), pharma has been quite progressive in adopting digital tools in customer facing functions, in India the adoption is more sporadic and anecdotal. From my limited experience, I classify firms in four buckets based on their maturity. 

A vast majority of them lie in the “digital onlookers” bucket. This is where they appear to be spectators with a wait-and-watch approach, hoping to learn from what others are doing. They constantly seek best practices, not recognizing that an evolving area doesn’t offer that easily. They also have a very product-centric approach which belies their inability to change an old (and increasingly inefficient) mindset.

The silver lining here is that with time, many firms are trying to move away from this bucket and are becoming “digitally aware”. Digitally aware companies recognize that digital is inevitable but aren’t capable enough to execute. They consider digital initiatives to be ‘additional’ to mainstream activity and tend to experiment. This makes them value technology over strategy. Therefore, they end up creating a digital team. But, instead of integrating them into the mainstream business, this team is attached to one end of the organization and mandated to ‘support’ the business. These companies then spend a lot to acquire off-the-shelf tech products and do random acts of digital which have more probability to fail than to succeed. For e.g.: they deploy tablets to a field force which struggles to find acceptance in a doctor’s clinic. A random act like this is unlikely to succeed and in the short term these firms get disillusioned, blame technology and deem digital a failure.

Companies can cross this chasm when they understand “digital utility”.  They realize that customers whom they value are well into the digital ecosystem. They also realize that digital experts who they hired, need to be mainstreamed and integrate them into marketing/brand teams. They also create teams with cross-functional expertise to shorten the go-to-market time as customers provide feedback on how slow their response is or how outdated their content is.

Very few pharma companies in India have truly understood the power of the customer and the benefits that accumulate by keeping her at the front and center of their strategy. When they do this, they develop “digital expertise” since they realize that serving customers through a single channel (the sales force) using static content (the visual aid) offers limited opportunity to create value.

Technology offers a lot more, and therefore they explore how their strategy can become more robust using digital tools. They realize that data is the lifeblood of this strategy and design ways in which more customer data streams back to them within the realms of ethics and they use that data to sharpen their targeting, making their services more valuable and understand that sales is a consequence of serving customers.

The routes they take may vary, but in the digital adoption continuum, this is the coveted spot that most pharma companies must aspire to get to. 


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