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Digital marketing trends in the GCC pharmaceutical industry

Article-Digital marketing trends in the GCC pharmaceutical industry

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A look at the current evolution of pharmaceutical digital channels in the region and their expected challenges.

The global pandemic impacted many industries worldwide in a variety of ways and may have been the most significant catalyst for pushing the pharmaceutical industry into adopting digital marketing into its fold, with budgets, strategies, and tactics being approved seemingly overnight to cater to the inability to meet healthcare providers (HCPs) face to face.

Multiple reports in 2020 indicated how webinars, online symposiums, e-mail marketing, and even social media — a channel kept at arms’ length by the industry — received near-immediate management support and approval. The general consensus among digital marketers in the industry was a feeling of relief that digital is no longer a nice add-on but in fact a serious part of the marketing mix.

Regionally, too, the growth in multichannel marketing for pharmaceutical companies has taken a sharp upward trajectory, with companies in the GCC recruiting and investing in this space.

According to research by healthcare think tank IQVIA, more than 50 per cent of HCPs in Saudi Arabia and the UAE now engage in hybrid communications with pharma companies, split between face-to-face meetings with medical reps and two digital channels on average. Less than 20 per cent want only face-to-face engagement.

With the rapid evolution in the pharmaceutical market over the last decade, particularly in the knowledge economy currently enjoyed by consumers and HCPs alike, the healthcare ecosystem is in a state of upheaval. Customer-centricity is the need of the hour and increasing demands for medical content is forcing a shift in the speed of pharma marketing innovation.

Leave-behinds are giving way to landing pages, e-detail aids by medical reps are now less preferred in favour of self-detailing options, and social media is taking over as the peer-led platform of choice. Furthermore, VR and AR are being seriously considered as preferred channels at medical conferences to showcase drug efficacy in a virtual world.

Customers engaging with an ever-increasing number of touchpoints comes with an increase in regulations, risks, and expectations. However, government medical authorities, particularly in the GCC region, have been quick to react with regular updates to existing policies and the creation of new ones to cope with the speed of change.

Today, we look at some key digital marketing trends for the pharma industry in 2023, and challenges companies may face as they continue enhancing their multichannel capabilities:

The rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Machine learning and AI, once considered science fiction, are now being increasingly tested in public on a variety of industry applications. The Elon Musk startup OpenAI’s project, ChatGPT, is now being considered a viable and more accurate alternative to Google as a search mechanism, offering not just websites but content that will not take you to a third party. The impact of this on websites, personalisation, and direct response campaigns by pharmaceutical companies cannot be understated.

HCPs may consider asking medical questions directly to an AI system specialised in healthcare instead of spending time on search engines and Wikipedia or – critically-speaking — pharma-sponsored platforms.

With the UAE and Saudi Arabia aggressively investing in the AI space to become world leaders in the space, pharma companies having a presence here need to consider recruiting specialists in machine learning to navigate the inevitable behaviour of customers in the coming years.

Healthcare experience goes seamless

The pandemic allowed healthcare companies to enhance their digital offerings with better user experiences and interfaces. Consumer healthcare options such as drug delivery, PCR testing in the home and others became second nature as opposed to the previous experience of waiting for hours for insurance approvals and appointments. No longer a doctor-driven experience, the patient is now in control.

Digitally savvy, patients now expect the same levels of seamless delivery of services they receive from other industries like retail and hospitality. Patients today are more conscious of the treatments they receive. No more blind faith in healthcare advice, they are doing their own research and coming into consultations holding insightful questions.

Amazon, Uber and AirBnB were disrupters in their industries because of the seamless control over choice, payments, delivery and service quality. The pharma industry needs to harness similar thoughts and provide these experiences in their user journeys.

The region is already adapting to this. Regional giants in this space like Marham in Pakistan, a medical mobile application, allow patients to search for a doctor based on their symptoms, then look up the doctor’s ratings from other patients, book appointments with them, and look up insurance details and payment terms, ensuring the entire process happens at their fingertips. Similar solutions have been developed in India and are now coming to Egypt and the GCC.

The social patient and the social doctor

For almost a decade, social media has been a problem for pharma companies. Either regulatory and compliance fears used to – and continue to – stop any campaign ideas in their tracks, or the lack of availability of healthcare experience social media talent made it nigh impossible to have good quality social presence. Many global pharma giants still do not have a presence on some of the biggest social networks, despite 2023 now upon us.

HCPs are not immune to this. They display the same behaviour as patients, with active social media profiles for their personal and professional lives. In 2022, a massive 87 per cent of HCPs under the age of 45 turned to social media professionally, spending two hours and 22 minutes a day on various platforms, according to research by Sermo.

TikTok is now the new destination for HCPs to get insight into patient behaviour as well as form their own professional profiles. Doctors around the world and across specialisations now offer healthcare advice on this platform, which is still considered a teen fad by most businesses.

While pharma marketers watched from a distance, intimidated by social media’s public power and ability to damage any drug’s brand, they overlooked the HCP communication benefit. The only way pharma companies can make the leap needed is to invest in young social talent that has the knowledge and expertise to navigate new platforms like TikTok, Instagram reels, and more, even if they do not have the medical experience so rigidly required by these companies. Hire them for the talent and train them on the industry.

Big data, small data, any data

Pharma companies already have large commercial business support units in their offices, churning through numbers day after day. However, in most cases, this massive amount of data consists solely of HCP prescriptions, sales numbers, forecasts, and marketshare information.

Despite spending millions on digital marketing, most campaigns run for a few weeks targeting thousands of HCPs and are analysed for their top-line metrics. And yet, the underlying insight that can be gleaned from that wealth of data is mostly ignored due to the lack of a team, with most digital marketing being done by one or two employees who do not have the time to spend on big data analytics.

With almost 150,000 registered HCPs between the UAE and Saudi Arabia and another 35,000 in the remaining GCC countries, pharma companies looking to make an impact on the HCP experience with their products need to consider augmenting their digital workforce with big data specialists who can uncover the hidden insights waiting to be used.

According to Cardinal Digital Marketing, investments into new tech in healthcare still stand at a minimal. The most significant new MarTech investments involve SEO analytics (13 per cent), marketing automation (13 per cent), and online scheduling (11 per cent). Not surprisingly, according to their research, 47 per cent of healthcare companies still do not use a CRM solution. Despite the numerous benefits to hosting one, it seems like many organisations still aren’t ready for the challenge.

The use of big data analytics and the resulting predictive modelling, particularly using the insights in a CRM system, will optimise their marketing efforts resulting in a stronger, more predictable ROI.

Understanding screen saturation

Screen time increased by 76 per cent during the pandemic, according to a study by Lenstore. The average consumer actively engaged with five separate screens at the same, those being a smart TV, mobile phone, tablet, laptop and second phone. HCPs were not immune to this, and are now frequently seen dividing equal time between the tablet on their desk, the laptop in front of them and the mobile phone in their hand. This is not including the medical rep shoving an iPad in their face.

The attention span of the average content consumer has reduced drastically from three seconds in 2017, while anecdotal estimates have this down to one second. Pharma companies are prone to long-form copy, extensive video and busy websites. Even their social media content is usually text-heavy.

Now with the increasing use of short-form, vanish-in-24-hours social media content, there will be greater pressure on industry content experts and marketers when engaging with HCPs and patients who fall in this segment.

There is hope on the horizon, however. Platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, and even TikTok now have dedicated healthcare and life sciences divisions whose sole purpose is to enhance output from healthcare companies to cater to HCPS and patients alike. With TikTok and LinkedIn now aggressively expanding into the GCC, engaging with them now will provide many benefits in the coming year.


While there are many things to expect in the coming year with regard to digital marketing innovations in the pharmaceutical industry, a few things will dominate boardroom discussions on marketing. Increased penetration of AI, expectations of seamless healthcare interactions, a push to greater social media medical engagement, multi-screen behaviour, and the increase in usable digital channel data will dominate where investments and expertise will feature in the marketing mix.


This article appears in the latest issue of Omnia Health Magazine. Read the full issue online today.

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