The pharma industry has been slower to embrace digital technologies than other less-regulated sectors but the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly changed this long-standing mindset. In 2020 and 2021, we saw pharma forced to become more flexible and open-minded than ever before. In this article, R.J. Lewis, Founder & CEO of eHealthcare Solutions and Tap Native, offers his top ten predictions for what’s ahead for pharma in 2022.

  1. COVID is Likely Here to Stay

Let’s start with the elephant in the room.  COVID-19, which hit full force in ‘20, ran into ‘21, will continue in ‘22 and does not appear to be going away. This is likely something we will be living with until we crack the code on how to vaccinate the unvaccinated, and even then we’re all likely to be getting boosters for a long-time. With every shot in the arm, we continue to dimmish the impact of COVID, but this pandemic will leave us with long-term societal effects.

2. Pandemic Long-Haul

One of the lasting effects from the COVID quarantine is the permanent workplace changes we are experiencing. While large corporations with mega campuses will start to “return to campus” in 2022, if they haven’t already, few are drawing hard lines around a full-time return. Driven by the “great resignation,” the extreme turnover in jobs we’ve seen over the past 18 months, as well as the competitive marketplace for talent where many companies are offering fully remote positions, we are entering into a multi-year trend of “hybrid workforces.”  Until the supply and demand dynamic of employees and employers dramatically changes, which it may with a major recession, or the continued evolution of robotics and AI, we will likely see hybrid workplaces for years to come. One lasting effect we see for pharma is the their “Digital Transformation” which was accelerated due to COVID, is here to stay and is not likely to unwind any time soon – in fact continues to accelerate. Staffing changes, such as pharma hiring out of their ad agency partners, seem to also indicate that there will be some continued trend toward insourcing some digital media functions.

3. A Continued Boost in Pharma’s Reputation

COVID has been devastating to the world in terms of the loss of human life, as well as harmful to much of the economy such as small business restaurants and personal services.  Purely from a business and reputation standpoint, pharma, as well as the digital advertising industry, have positively benefited from this pandemic in several ways. As pharma accelerated its digital transformation, and was left with fewer effective sales and marketing tools due to sales representatives restrictions on customer access and the cancelling of most major medical conferences, digital advertising has become a go-to in leading tactics and has gained a larger seat at the strategy table for long-term planning. Pharma, with its rapid vaccine innovations and shift to a more service-minded customer support organization has also made tremendous strides in it’s public reputation among both healthcare professionals and consumers. Let’s hope our industry can keep that momentum and not squander it.

4. HCP Engagement and Pharma Salesforces

With sales representatives being “less useful” in the field, as they have less access with HCPs, pharma continues to rethink the role of the salesforce. 2020/21 already saw great savings in less T&E budgets for their robust salesforces, but CFOs, driven by wall street expectations, will continue to want to find “savings” in the salesforce, so expect continued cuts in large pharma salesforces. As pharma improves it’s digital HCP engagement and personalized omnichannel marketing approach, this will further reduce a reliance of the well dressed sample delivery people who are seeing fewer and fewer HCP customers, and are therefore becoming harder to justify.

5. More of an Omnichannel Focus 

As pharma transforms from a model where the product was the center of their universe to one where the customer is the center of the universe, its also shifted towards a customer service model. This customer-first model requires a polite, powerful and personalized omnichannel marketing strategy to ensure we are touching all of our key customers and prospects, through the channels that they choose, in a respectful, yet effective cadence.  One-on-one marketing has been the holy grail of digital for a long time. With large customer sets, it’s impossible to do without the aid of technology, and specifically artificial intelligence engines that can understand customer behaviors and preferences over time.  Increasingly pharma is embracing AI to facilitate next-best-actions and next-best-engagements with respect to it’s omnichannel marketing communications. Expect this to continue, because it works. This trend places a high premium on quality timely data to inform such AI engines and decisioning.

6. Innovation & Experimentation

Innovation and experimentation are at the core of who pharma is as an drug research and development organization. This continuous trial and error, innovate, adapt, experiment, measure, and evolve approach is taking over the marketing suite. Agile development, or in the case of marketing, “agile marketing” and the ability to adapt pivot and respond more quickly to what the data is telling us, is uncomfortable to pharma, but it’s working and pharma is embracing this change. Could the R&D Innovation culture expanding into marketing make pharma a digital marketing leader in time rather than a follower? I won’t be so bold as to predict that for 2022, but let’s hope so.

7. Amazon as the Third Horseman

The walled gardens of Google and Facebook have an increasingly powerful advertising competitor in Amazon. With Google’s move to eliminate the 3rd party cookie (see next prediction), Amazon and its plethora of first-party purchasing, and Alexa-based voice data is rapidly becoming an advertising juggernaut. It is unwise to underestimate Amazon. Apple has taken a high road with respect to user privacy, while the three horseman capture increasingly larger segments of the market. Amazon will get it’s share. Advertisers welcome alternatives.

8. The Cookiepocolypse

Under the auspices of following in the footsteps of Apple (Safari browser), Firefox, and to appease the angry mob of congress, Google is pulling off what may go down as one of the most brilliant strategic shifts in history. With Google Chrome’s ~70% market share of the browser market, having dominated the online advertising business, and having first party data on much of the planet based on the plethora of Google services that require registration, Google is now coming out as being anti-cookie. The light-weight little text files that have lived on your browsers since the advent of the Internet, have contributed billions to googles revenue, and have empowered digital marketing’s ad targeting and attribution measurement, are now schedule for execution.

In 2022, I predicted we will all scramble. In early 2023, Google will use its market dominance to change the entire game of digital advertising by withholding support of 3rd party cookies. With a mass trove of first party data on users, most of which takes the form of an “identity graph” complied of far more invasive and in-depth information on a user, Google doesn’t need cookies anymore. So eliminating them, empowers the big three.

For the marketer, the demise of the cookie will be an interesting period to live through. While the world and market is scrambling to assemble “identity graphs” of their own, that enable first part data to take the place of 3rd party data, there will be hiccups and struggles as marketers adapt. Challenges will arise in both targeting and in attribution and measurement. Understanding the audience your digital messages are reaching and the return on your digital investment will be more difficult. You will need to “trust” even more in the black box systems who hold the keys to the identity graphs.  Contextual advertising will again become an important part of your marketing mix. Publishers with valuable first party data are waiting for your call. Oh, and the government is not done with the subject of “privacy” yet.

9. A Bigger Shift to CTV

Connected TV & addressable video are rapidly disrupting analog TV, the last big bastion of pharma advertising budget. Moving away from analog TV will accelerate. Empowered by cord cutting data, and exited by targeting and attribution at unprecedented levels, marketers will continue to shift budget to CTV and digital video over analog, old-school television. I won’t go so far as to say 2022 will be the nail in the coffin for analog TV, but the mortician of former industries disrupted by digital is rubbing his hands together and smiling.

10. Web3 & Metaverse

While everyone is scrambling through the headwinds of the above, Web3 is evolving at record pace. New business models are emerging based on blockchain technologies that transfer power between publishers and aggregators to users and creators. Business models where users own and control their own data are evolving. Users will sell their (verified by the blockchain) data to marketers at their discretion in exchange for (verified by the blockchain) crypto currencies. The model of paying a user for his/her attention in a similar manner is also on the horizon. Blockchain based non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are enabling sharing in the ownership rights of creations such as data sets, studies, content, or creating value in other ways that require true authentication via NFTs. These “assets” can be bought and sold in marketplaces as easily as stocks and bonds are today.

Augmented and virtual reality, technologies that have been around for decades, are finally hitting their strides as computing costs have come down and hardware has become less of a burden. These may be the next major frontier.

Facebook (I mean Meta, their new parent company name) is betting their future on the Metaverse – a move from a two dimensional Internet to one that provides a three dimensional immersive experience (think virtual reality, but not limited to games and movies, but all things you do on the Internet today, and more).  Can anything we do today be replicated in the Metaverse in 10 years?  What does that do to the doctor patient visit?

One thing won’t change – pharma will continue to experience significant shifts across all areas of innovation in 2022, from the R&D process to the challenges that will come with the loss of 3rd party cookies. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated projected trends and caused urgency in the pharma, where change is not only inevitable but instrumental to the digital transformation.