What’s wrong with pharma profiles?

What’s wrong with pharma profiles?

I used to make this joke. When you do a campaign for consumers, do you do a campaign for architects and another one for engineers, segmenting them by professional level? Because that’s what we do. We do one thing for GPs and one for gastros, and assume that because they belong to the same professional background they will respond in the same way.

Chema Guido Avila
Global HCP Marketing Lead for Sanofi


The trouble with profiles in pharma marketing is that they frequently – not always, but frequently – lack one fundamental thing – they forget that our targets are humans. Humans with irrational behaviours, beliefs and attitudes, just like  the rest of us. Their targets are not one-dimensional robots who want to be fed data on safety and efficacy (doctors) or have elevated triglycerides and cholesterol (patients). But let’s backtrack for a second. Why does pharma need to use profiles to be successful when developing and promoting a drug? And how can they do it better?

Learning more about the people we want to target, and profiling them to see them as real humans, is powerful. But how we segment can really make or break a pharma marketing approach and, ultimately, how successful our communications are.

Why does pharma even use profiles?

Any kind of marketing needs a bit of profiling behind it. Even the most basic marketing will at least use some sort of assumption or even just a stereotype about the target audience to put together a plan on how to actually target them. That’s how we always end up with the assumption that all healthcare professionals (HCPs) will be swayed by our fantastic data.

Ultimately, the reason behind profiling is to ensure that the product has the best chance of success. This might mean providing our target with the best possible experience that is tailored to their needs.

In the case of HCPs, the ambition is simple: we want to get them to prescribe our drug vs the competitor. In the case of patients, it’s a little more complicated. In some instances, pharma uses patient profiles to help
HCPs identify who to prescribe their drug to. This is the bare minimum a company will do if they are purely focusing on marketing to HCPs.

In other cases, they may want to improve adherence to the medication, especially in chronic conditions, or even generally enhance how engaged patients are with their condition and care – the idea again here being  that the more engaged a patient is, the more likely they are to adhere to their medication.

So really, it depends on who you talk to.

Profiling gives us information on how to change behavior

What all of these have in common is that they all want to achieve some sort of behavior change. So profiles should be giving us enough information about someone to allow us to tailor how we interact with them to ultimately achieve the change in behavior we want.

This could translate to:

  • How we express ourselves when we communicate with them, in terms of tones, visual and story flow
  • What content we use, including messaging• The medium we use to engage them, for instance, web, email, video, app
  • And when is the right time to interact with them with each piece of content and/or medium

Each population has different profiles

Ideally, this would also mean that we recognise that there are different types of profiles within our target population and so different strategies will be needed for each to ensure a change in behaviour – that’s how we end up with, say three or four profiles for our audience.

This allows us to tailor how we engage with someone who is part of one profile vs someone who is part of a different profile – whether that’s by developing tailored tactics or by simply interacting in different ways, for instance when in comes to sales conversations. One HCP may be more persuaded by seeing how a drug impacts a patient’s quality of life whereas another might need to see that all their peer s are using the drug. Not all doctors are the same. Likewise, one patient may need to feel a sense of autonomy by setting their own goals whereas another might need more tools to communicate with their doctor.

We have to tailor to achieve the change we seek.

How do we profile?

To avoid confusion, segmentation in this article refers to how you cut up your audience. Profiling is the interesting stuff that comes after that, which gives us the insights into what drives behaviour for each segment.

Traditional HCP profiles

The most basic type of segmentation is based on how many patients HCPs see. You label them as tier 1, tier 2, tier 3 and so on, sa ys Guido Avila, and then prioritise the ones that see the most patients as the group of
biggest opportunity. There is literally no information about how to engage. It’s purely a numbers game; if you convert at least a few of the ones who see many patients, then you get a decent market share. You just have to hope that something you say will click.

A slightly more advanced way of segmenting is the adoption ladder – here we are moving away from simply segmenting and towards profiling. An adoption ladder segments HCPs on the basis of their awareness of the new product (or new products more generally in some cases) and their willingness to prescribe. The ambition is to move people through the ladder, from sceptics and fence-sitters to advocates. It’s simple, step-wise and has some parallels to the transtheoretical model of behavior change, a model of health behavior that examines where in the process of adopting a new health behavior (say, quit smoking) a person is.

It’s product-oriented, market share-oriented and functional

There are merits to this approach of course. Paul Budhan, Oncology Franchise lead at AstraZeneca, highlights that this can help to prioritize the customer base based on the opportunities they offer. “It’s product-oriented, market share oriented and functional,” Budhan says. But it doesn’t give you enough information about what it is that defines where people are on the adoption ladder; what makes them an advocate or a fence-sitter and what we would need to do to move them along. “If we had adopted this segmentation, I don’t think it would have given us the added insight as to what drives people,” Budhan adds, referring to the segmentation we completed for his team as they prepared for launch.

Ok, so how should we profile, really?

One thing that we frequently forget is that we are talking about people here. People with beliefs, attitudes and habits, with circumstances and influences. Better yet, smaller groups of people with shared beliefs, attitudes and habits.

No regard for human behaviors or human needs

“It’s as if we’re treating [HCPs] like mercenaries: this is what you do for me, you do a prescription and I’m going to visit you. And I’m going to give you this visual aids and this publication, and I expect you to prescribe
and that’s it. No regard for human behaviors or human needs,” says Guido Avila.


Look at behaviors

If we are to change behaviors – and hopefully we all agree that this is what we want to do – then we need to understand why people are behaving the way they are right now and what we can do to change that.

  1. Speak with people. Learn more about their circumstances, their attitudes, beliefs and emotions. And then dig a bit deeper to understand what is really going on. Because, actually, we can’t take what people say at face value. We can’t just directly ask them. There is nothing malicious about it, says Elizabeth Bachrad, social psychologists and healthcare strategist. “People don’t actually do what they say they do. But they’re not trying to hide anything. It’s actually that cognitively we don’t understand that what we’re doing is actually different than our intentions.”
  2. Observe. How are people actually behaving? How are they actually answering questions on a survey or responding to an online experiment? “Watch what people do and watch how they interact and, and watch the  steps that they take to engage in behaviour. Then we’re able to really hone in on some of those barriers that would otherwise prevent them from engaging,” adds Bachrad.
  3. Look at real-world behaviors. Combine the research knowledge with real-world observations to truly understand what is going on. Guido Avila brings up the example of digital data, which often lay forgotten in a file somewhere: “these data are real behaviors of how doctors are actually reacting to the different triggers in the real world,” and it’s such a waste not to use them.

Segment by drivers

When we look at how people behave and start asking those “why” questions, patterns start to emerge. Shared traits among our stakeholders define what it is that drives their behaviours – those are our segments. And those are the segments we must build into profiles for our HCPs and patients. For each profile, which will then give us information on:

  • What are their circumstances today (for instance, their level of knowledge or skills, or the type of environment they operate in)
  • What are their behaviors
  • What drives their behaviors
  • Where are the opportunities to tailor how we interact with them to achieve behaviour change
  • How do we best engage them

this meant we could really tailor our messages

“We actually brought [the segments] to life by making them much more behaviour-driven, and this meant we could really tailor our messages,” says Budhan. Ultimately, this has helped the team have much more effective conversations with HCPs, he adds.

Learning more about the people we want to target is powerful.

No one wants to be sold stuff. No one wants generic information. No one wants messages to be just shouted at them. Pharma is a little guilty of all of this.

Learning more about the people we want to target will allow us to create tailored experiences that ultimately benefit both them (whether HCPs or patients) and us.