COVID-19 forced event organisers worldwide to cancel, postpone or adapt their programmes, with many pivoting to virtual congresses at incredibly short notice. Over the past year, Ashfield Event Experiences, part of Ashfield Engage, has partnered with the International Pharmaceutical Congress Advisory Association (IPCAA) on a global study mapping HCPs’ experiences of these virtual events – and drawing a blueprint for the industry’s future.
There’s no doubt that virtual congresses have been a powerful tool for pharmaceutical congress organisers (PCOs) and HCPs, enabling education, collaboration and networking to continue under unprecedented circumstances. But the experience is, inevitably, different – and IPCAA wanted a deeper understanding of what did and didn’t work for HCPs in a virtual environment.
“The aim of our research was not to determine if virtual congresses will surpass physical as the preferred model for attendance, nor was it to expose the limitations of virtual with a view to it being a stop-gap solution and an immediate and necessary response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Andrew Moore, Ashfield Client Partnership Director. “It was purely to assess the end-to-end virtual congress experience from the perspective of the HCP – identifying which elements of traditional, in-person congress can be, or have been, successfully replicated in a virtual setting.”
“We knew that Ashfield would be the perfect partner for this research thanks to their unrivalled congress expertise and previous white papers on the subject.” adds Nicky Simpson, IPCAA Co-President.
Creating actionable insights
Together, the two teams designed and delivered an online survey gathering insights from over 300 physicians across six countries and 14 therapy areas. The two-phase study generated an interim report in October 2020, followed by a second paper in spring 2021, including top 10 learnings and top 10 tactical outputs.
The surveys aimed to identify the high-value elements of a virtual congress, as determined by the HCPs themselves, and to understand what made for rich, impactful experiences. They gathered professionals’ thoughts on accessibility, technology, online behaviour and preferences, building a clearer picture of how companies can effectively interact and engage with their audiences online.
New opportunities for everyone
The findings were, on the whole, very encouraging. Virtual congresses have been positively embraced by HCPs, who anticipate them continuing post-COVID and helping a wider audience access scientific content in the future. While it’s clear HCPs’ overwhelming preference is to attend an event in person, survey responses show that they appreciate the choice virtual congresses offer – and the flexibility to attend in person or online, depending what works for them at the time.
“It’s this choice of participation that signifies a hybrid approach is the blueprint for the future of medical congresses,” says Nicky. “HCPs would generally prefer to meet face-to-face, yes. Physically relocating to a congress centre safeguards their time and enables them to be totally dedicated to their medical education and networking with peers. But being able to attend virtually provides an effective solution to time-restricted HCPs. They’re now attending events that they wouldn’t normally have considered going to in person, and they’re exploring the online environment and engaging in more online activities than ever before.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been the catalyst for transformation for so many industries and organisations, and medical congresses are no exception. These findings point towards a seismic shift in how associations, PCOs and industry will need to collaborate to evolve the congress format for the post-pandemic generation of HCPs. Only then will these vital events continue to be the medical education channel of choice for physicians.”
Click here to download the report.
Top 10 tactical outputs (you can also find ‘top 10 learnings’ on page 30 of the report!)
- Industry needs to focus on high-quality content and increased online presence.
- HCPs want to view content on demand.
- They prefer downloadable or pre-recorded content to live-streams.
- They want to access content for an extended period, post-congress.
- Personal invitations and emails are most likely to encourage engagement.
- Sponsoring European HCPs to attend is an effective tactic.
- These HCPs want updates from their sponsor company.
- Targeted social media campaigns have the power to drive HCP interaction.
- HCPs prefer sessions under 45 minutes, and ideally not in the morning.
- There are clear opportunities to supplement congresses with localised meetings.