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All things Pharma

Hybrid, online or face to face events for pharma after COVID

With the return to some semblance of (new) normality, will pharma return to face-to-face events? Or will the future for pharma be hybrid events?

Covid accelerated digital engagement across the world, remote working became the norm wherever possible, and it is shaping future working practices in many industries.

In pharma marketing, there’s no denying that things have taken a turn for the digital. Customer engagement has been digital first and foremost for over a year now and it’s been adopted well.

When we could no longer meet customers face to face, get them in a room for a conference or meeting, eConferences and webinars emerged as essential tools in the omni-channel marketing mix.

But as the world opens up, will we return to face-to-face meetings? Or will future events be hybrid?

Customer preferences
It’s clear from research over the last 12 months that healthcare professionals (HCPs) prefer digital engagement. By September 2020, only 11% of UK doctors were willing to accept regular face-to-face visits from sales representatives, despite many areas no longer being in lockdown.1

As experts in digital engagement at E4H, we were ready for this, and enabled our customers to reach an additional 40,000 healthcare professionals throughout the 2020 pandemic.

But things are changing, restrictions are easing and with that thoughts naturally turn to meeting in person. But there is not likely to be a rapid return. Research by Accenture Healthcare found that 87% of HCPs want either all virtual or a mix of virtual and in-person meetings2 – even after the pandemic.

So where does that leave you? If digital events are more accessible and preferred by many, but face to face is wanted by others and offer unique benefits, it’s time to consider the role of hybrid events.

What are hybrid events?
This is a burning question, and, in all honesty, they can be whatever you want them to be to a certain extent. There is no set format, but there are key considerations.

Most importantly, what does your audience want? Understanding your audience, their information needs, and channel preferences is central to omni-channel engagement, and these insights will help you to shape whether your audience will want the event format, and content, that you’re planning to deliver.

Your customers are unique and so are their requirements, but in our experience, we’ve found that digital events offer more opportunities to engage HCPs who you may not have reached with a face-to-face event. There are barriers to getting out of clinic to attend an event. Study leave approval, a day off work, travel, caring responsibilities, last minute urgent issues, even the location of the event can all impact the ability to attend.
But that said, there’s still something truly beneficial to a face-to-face event and a lot of people prefer the format for networking, building genuine connections with peers, speaking to exhibitors, and catching speakers for private one to ones.

So, how can we reach both groups in a way that best meets your needs, those of your customer and your budget?

Different locations, same experience
Some consider this the ‘true’ hybrid format as all attendees get the same experience, at the same time, by simultaneously live streaming your face-to-face event to your remote audience.

Questions, polls and surveys can be taken from the floor and the virtual audience, pulling together answers and conversations from all attendees. This gives everyone access to speakers, a chance to share their views and network. For exhibitors, team members can be present online via an eConferencing platform, and in person. Breakout rooms can also be streamed.

This sounds like the best of both worlds and, to an extent, it is, but there will be an element of innovation and creativity required to ensure everyone is included and engaged. Explore ways of bringing everyone together through interactive solutions, augmented reality or gamification so you don’t end up with silos of live and virtual attendees.

Running the event simultaneously does, however, involve a large amount of technical support to ensure both elements come together seamlessly, making delivery potentially costly. However, with an experienced digital and production team this is not only achievable, but you can create a fantastic, integrated experience for everyone in attendance.

Stagger your events
If running simultaneously isn’t for you, you may wish to hold one event before the other. If you hold your face-to-face event first, you can film, edit and then host the presentations on-demand for a virtual audience. This reduces the integrated feel of the event, but still delivers the information to everyone.

That said, it’s worth exploring how your virtual audience will gain access to speakers and exhibitors, contribute to polls or Q&As. Just like a pre-recorded webinar, one solution may be to have the speakers join for live Q&A sessions online, as long as they have the availability.

Or it may be that you use the interactive benefits of the live event to boost in-person attendance and then promote the on-demand as purely video content.

Pre-learning and discussion
Flipping the previous format around, the hybrid model offers the opportunity for your attendees to access pre-learning or pre-recorded webinars in advance, with in-person discussion and workshops later. All attendees have access to the digital platform where content can be delivered via mutliformats such as video, audio, handouts or quizzes. Attendees then come together in smaller live group meetings for discussion or workshops.

Hub and spoke
The hub and spoke model successfully incorporates virtual presentations with live discussion. This allows overarching national or international messages to be delivered virtually to a wide audience, then crystallised and explored for detailed, localised in-person discussions. Attendees gain access to a wealth of information that is then targeted to their specific area’s priorities and needs giving nuanced, relevant discussions.

On demand
Whether you follow one of these formats, or have your own ideas in mind, making the most of the virtual platform and making the event available on demand for all attendees enhances the experience for everyone, and gives those who may have missed it a chance to watch at a more convenient time.
Access to handouts, downloading presentations, re-watching and revisiting the information can also help to build and engage your customer base.
Hosting this on an educational hub can further boost the impact.

On-demand hosting also supports the all-important data capture and analysis which is so crucial to omni-channel marketing and more difficult to collect with solely face-to-face events.

If you’re running paid-for events, pricing is critical. Are there tangible benefits to face-to-face over virtual which justifies a higher ticket price? Alternatively, you could charge one price and allow attendees to choose how they want to attend. This approach enables those who have last minute commitments to join online instead of in-person but runs the risk of you having a venue with only a handful of attendees.

When considering pricing, factor in whether live event attendees will have access to the event on-demand? Will virtual attendees have access to live Q&As with speakers? Weigh up the benefits and package for your audiences to consider the price versus return on their investment.

Creating a community
One of the key draws of a face-to-face event is meaningful engagement amongst attendees, speakers and exhibitors which is difficult to replicate in a virtual environment. Innovation will be required to make it work for you and your audience.

An online platform where all attendees can engage, whether in person or virtual, can be beneficial – depending on the nature of your event. This is easier to achieve with eConferencing platforms which have online networking lounges. However, this will mean all attendees need access to the virtual platform in real time, which may stifle in-person interaction.

Alternatively, a simple solution may be to create a LinkedIn group for the event, where discussions, questions, downloads and videos can be posted for on the day and post-event conversations. Attendees can easily connect, and the event can keep delivering value long after the speakers have signed off. This also creates an engaged audience for any future events or work, though it does require ongoing management.

Speaker flexibility
Finally, it’s not just delegates that benefit from a hybrid format. It can give you the best of both worlds when it comes to attracting speakers. If your audience isn’t in the same room, there’s no reason why your speakers need to be either. An experienced technical team can seamlessly stream global speakers into the live event and virtual platform giving everyone the same experience from anywhere in the world.

Marketing mix
As the world shifts, hybrid events will find their place in the marketing mix. To ensure they deliver for you and your customers, carefully consider the best format to meet your objectives and budget, and maximise attendance and engagement in-person and online.


1. Ready for launch: Reshaping pharma’s strategy in the next normal, McKinsey & Company, https://tinyurl.com/readyforlaunch
2. Reinventing Relevance New Models for Pharma Engagement with Healthcare Providers in a COVID-19 World, Accenture Healthcare Provider Survey May 2020

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Emma Morriss
Emma Morriss
Emma is Head of Marketing and Content at Uniphar | Commercial, part of Uniphar. She works with pharma and biotech companies to strategise and deliver highly effective brand optimisation solutions across the brand lifecycle from pre-launch to post-reimbursement.


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