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Qualitative Market Landscaping Helps Pharma grow better brands

For every prescription drug that makes it to market, millions — sometimes billions — of dollars are invested in research and development. Yet less than half of these products ever recoup this ante. So, when a pharmaceutical company considers a new area of biomedical research or thinks about entering a new therapeutic market, it cannot afford to go in blindly. Exploratory market research with key customers is critical.

For every prescription drug that makes it to market, millions — sometimes billions — of dollars are invested in research and development. Yet less than half of these products ever recoup this ante. So, when a pharmaceutical company considers a new area of biomedical research or thinks about entering a new therapeutic market, it cannot afford to go in blindly. Exploratory market research with key customers is critical.

Early in the market assessment process — when clinical trials are being considered or when a significant market event occurs (such as a competitor launch or withdrawal from the market) — companies will often conduct a market landscape study. This kind of research objectively explores a market situation and identifies needs — from a bird’s eye perspective.

Get the Lay of the Land

Market landscape research generates information ranging from market size and consumer perceptions to the competitive environment and unmet needs. Landscape studies precede more ground-level research, such as segmentation, forecasting, brand equity or tracking projects, all of which focus on specific business issues.

Pharmaceutical market researchers and brand teams conduct market landscape studies to better understand a therapeutic environment. The research offers directional cues for developing new products, formulating market strategy or adjusting outdated plans. Results typically provide insight to one or more of the following market dynamics:

  • Perceptions of a class of drugs
  • Treatment flow
  • Distribution of market share
  • Drivers of use
  • Barriers to adoption
  • Reasons for therapy discontinuation

While market landscape studies can include secondary (or previously collected) research — such as competitive prescribing data — to identify general use patterns for a class of drugs, primary data collection and analysis are usually required to meet specific information needs. A good first step in generating this data is to conduct qualitative research with thought leaders in a therapeutic area or market. This approach to strategic qualitative research can reveal a broad spectrum of issues and perspectives that exist in a market.

Consider the Source

Given the increasingly scrutinized and competitive environment of the pharmaceutical industry, drug companies need to carefully consider where information is coming from and be sure to tap the right sources for the information they need. An increasingly important source is expert physicians, also known as thought leaders or key opinion leaders (KOLs).

KOLs set the pace for industry trends. More importantly, from a brand perspective, they provide highly credible exposure for a product in the medical community through speaking engagements, articles in medical journals and general practice. These physicians guide the opinion of other physicians and, often, even patients.

And pharmaceutical manufacturers notice. Throughout a product’s lifecycle, KOL physicians regularly provide pharmaceutical companies with industry insight into a myriad of issues, ranging from clinical science to advertising concepts. For instance, at the recommendation of physician advisors, drug developers will design clinical trials to focus specifically on attributes that are likely to improve patient compliance. This influential group of physicians can also help companies identify which promotions are most likely to resonate best with prescribers, both in and out of the expert segment.

For these reasons and more, there is a growing demand for feedback and information from thought leaders in the pharmaceutical industry. These physicians, who are generally considered to be the most valuable market segment in the industry, comprise a small portion of the actual population, but they account for the majority of the market and clinical experience within a product category.

Engaging this group in market research, however, has never been more challenging. KOLs tend to be extremely busy and rarely have time to participate in traditional research, such as surveys, personal interviews and focus groups. Nevertheless, they are pursued heavily, often receiving multiple invitations each week to engage in a study. So, how can market researchers and brand teams break through the clatter of requests and access the thoughts and expertise of the industry’s most recognized — and influential — physicians?

Cultivate KOL Relationships at Medical Meetings

Companies that seek marketplace insight from their most critical — and hard-to-reach — clientele are finding that medical meetings provide an attractive forum. These events are educational in nature, and they are typically well attended by leading physicians. They tend to feature cutting-edge clinical and scientific data related to a therapeutic category that is presented by well-known scientists, and the meetings provide physicians an opportunity to socialize with their practitioner colleagues.

Conducting landscape research in tandem with medical meetings tends to generate a timely wealth of therapeutic information and meaningful feedback from thought leaders. The meeting environment tends to break down barriers and generate rigorous discussion that is often more involved and frank than what emerges in traditional research, such as focus groups or in-depth interviews. Since medical meetings are designed to facilitate interaction among participating physicians, the setting enables KOL physicians to share clinical experience and speak to each other openly and comfortably about treatment algorithms, disease management and new medical information, without the distractions of a scripted platform.

To gather this “organic” data, third-party facilitators with a high level of technical and scientific training along with exceptional interpersonal skills are used to manage discussion among participants. They encourage peer-to-peer interaction among top healthcare providers, clinical scientists, researchers and pharmaceutical companies.

This requires a special set of skills that differ from those required for facilitators of a traditional focus group or interview. Meeting-based facilitators must be socially adept, flexible and able to glean critical information from healthcare leaders in a less-structured environment. They must have an ability to understand scientific details and interact comfortably with high level medical professionals to discuss therapeutic- and market-related topics.

When conducted appropriately, medical meetings yield timely and reliable information about market issues, while helping manufacturers establish critical relationships with those who most influence their products.

For example, if a major competitor withdraws its leading brand from the market or if the FDA implements a significant new requirement, the company’s response must be swift and effective. Teams can assess the impact of a market change much more quickly through the interactive setting of a medical meeting than through a standard market research project.

As well, physician input through qualitative market landscape research at medical meetings can improve overall patient care by triggering development of needed products, and it can help pharmaceutical companies appropriately target and communicate existing therapies.

Record the Data

If the peer-to-peer dialogue among physicians at medical meetings is objectively monitored and recorded, then companies can identify which marketplace issues are truly important. Methodologies that have proven to be successful with KOLs in settings ranging from small dinner meetings to international events with 500 or more leading physicians include:

Small-Group Discussions

A small-group format provides the greatest opportunity for meaningful interaction with select physicians. Small groups often generate the most robust opinions and perspectives among this population. Facilitators who are expert in not only qualitative research but also in interpersonal, small-group dynamics tend to maximize the results of these discussions about the market.

From the larger audience, small groups of physicians are broken out so that topics can be explored in greater detail than what is possible in a larger setting. Groups are often pre-selected by geographical area, which allows for deeper discussion and analysis of varying perspectives and practices. However, when a group contains different types of doctors — specialists and primary-care physicians (PCPs), for example — researchers can explore differences between the two groups in terms of treatment algorithms and patient types.

As small-group discussions are informal by nature, participants often raise important auxiliary issues about the market that they do not feel comfortable presenting in a large-group setting. In this case, the small-group format uncovers landscape considerations that would have otherwise gone unrecognized. The informal setting also enables group participants to share information and ideas about treatment approaches, particularly with difficult cases, and this enhances the overall meeting/research experience for these physicians. Real-Time Polling A large audience of experts can provide valuable information about particular market dynamics through real-time polling. Using a hand-held Automated Response System device, participants provide feedback, real-time, on a set of issues. Questions often relate to practice characteristics, treatment algorithms, concepts presented by speakers and more. This technique can work well in combination with small-group meetings (described above). By identifying physician views and practices at the beginning of a meeting, researchers can appropriately direct discussion and areas of exploration in small-group discussions. As with small groups, polling data tend to be most insightful when participant results are grouped by geographical practice area or specialty type.

Self-Directed Small-Group Activities

Often, landscape research through medical meetings is designed to facilitate specific decisions or outputs. For example, some companies pursue this methodology to gain design consultation for clinical trials or treatment protocols. In this situation and others, the large group of meeting attendees can be broken into small interactive circles to generate ideas using audio/visual materials and workbooks. These activities typically include a case study, a group discussion and exercise, and presentation of recommendations or findings to the larger group.

Small-group activities are also helpful to pharmaceutical companies that are evaluating administration options for an exploratory or new product under investigation. This format is also useful to companies that are unclear on directions for a marketing strategy targeting various groups (by physician specialty or socio-economic patient demographics, for example).

Whatever the interest or need may be, small group activities in the form of case studies or other group consensus-building activities can be effective in providing companies with insight into what physicians perceive to be relevant and important in their practices.

As with any market research project, the scope of data collection and other considerations related to methodology and outcomes of a market landscape study should be designed to address the current situation. A valuable study will focus tightly on a specific set of business and research objectives. While other types of research can be effectively conducted at medical meetings, it is best to avoid the temptation to include brand-specific or market-segmentation issues in landscape research. Exploration of these topics is best conducted separately.

Time Research with Lifecycle Seasons

Knowing when to conduct a market landscape research study is fundamental to strategic marketing and brand planning. These studies can help pharmaceutical brand teams develop strategy based on current market conditions, and they typically have a lifespan of several years. However, certain product lifecycle stages and market events warrant a new study. To develop effective marketing strategy, brand teams benefit greatly from up-to-date information about the market at the following four points in a therapeutic product’s lifecycle:

(1)Opportunity Assessment: When considering the development of a new therapy, it is often necessary to identify unmet needs, knowledge gaps and other important topics related to potential products and business strategy. This type of market landscape assessment helps put a potential new product in perspective and identifies why it might be valuable to the market. It helps manufacturers avoid pursuing product development that is unnecessary. Utilizing facilitator-led discussions, a group of physician advisors — as well as other healthcare professionals and even patients in some situations — can provide unbiased insight and feedback regarding:

  • What therapy/MOA/delivery is most needed in the therapeutic area?
  • What currently available products are addressing these needs?
  • Who would use the new product(s)?
  • Who should receive information about them?
  • How should the information be shared with the market (sales force, internet, CME, direct mail, DTC)?

(2)Pre-Launch Stage: Market landscape research can help a brand team plan launch and promotion strategies by providing insight into a therapeutic environment. It can identify treatment flow, physician perceptions of a drug class, drivers of use, barriers to adoption and other market dynamics that can impact a brand’s performance.

(3)Growth/Mature Stage: When a product begins losing market share or its share stops growing prematurely, then a market landscape study can help identify what is happening in the market that may be affecting performance. Current marketplace data can help a brand team appropriately adjust outdated promotions or ineffective strategies.

(4)Decline Stage: It is usually a good idea to re-evaluate the market when a brand is preparing to lose its patent and a brand team is planning to extend its portfolio to include a new indication. This is also an appropriate time to explore market potential for a new molecule of the product or other revised version of the existing brand. In addition to situations related to a product’s lifecycle, market landscape research can help marketers adjust promotion strategies whenever a major market event occurs. These situations include:

  • Launch or withdrawal of a competitor brand
  • Major litigation involving the therapeutic class
  • Significant change in regulatory standards
  • Industry merger or acquisition
  • Pandemic or natural disaster affecting the therapeutic class

Landscape research helps market researchers and brand teams step back and evaluate a market situation in a general sense. These studies provide valuable baseline data for forecasting, brand equity, segmentation and other brand-specific research.

 

Choose a Fertile Sample

Pharmaceutical companies potentially interact with an array of leading scientists and KOLs in a field. To get the most from meeting-based research — or any other type of market research — it is important to know which ones truly speak for the potential target market.

KOLs are categorized most generally by the reach of their influence. The most reputed — and often toughest to reach — are global specialists of a disease state or therapeutic category. However, there are also physicians who are highly influential at a local, regional or national level. Identifying which medical meeting to use for a market landscape study depends on the objectives of a particular study and the team’s product or treatment area. It is not always necessary to access the top specialist of a field.

Limiting the study to only the most appropriate participants is critical. As explained above, KOL physicians are highly sought after, and they tend to work with many pharmaceutical companies — and even within several departments of a single company — at the same time. To establish and retain credibility as a medical-meeting host or meeting-based researcher, programs should be highly targeted to those who are invited to participate. KOLs who are targeted for market landscape research must have adequate knowledge and experience to appropriately advise a company on treatment protocol.

Speaker searches, publication lists and a review of academic/clinical positions can help researchers identify KOLs. Many companies simply ask existing contacts — including community practitioners and other provider groups — to identify leading physicians in a specific field. This type of networking effort will typically generate highly accurate information about which KOLs have the greatest impact in specific settings.

For instance, community practitioners can be queried by phone or internet on who they view as an expert in their field for complicated cases, who they would like to work with on a clinical trial and who they believe is conducting cuttingedge research. This information can be gathered in a minimal amount of time, and “reach maps” can be created to show the range of influence of certain physicians. These maps illustrate which physicians’ work and experience are known and regarded throughout a particular geographical area (community, regional, national and even international). Such reach maps can be an effective tool for identifying an appropriate sample of medical meeting-based market research.

 

Harvest the Outcome

The yield of market research means everything. It is the difference between a rewarding effort and wasted resources. By definition, market landscape research projects are thorough, and a great deal of information is gathered. To be useful, the data must be filtered appropriately and summarized effectively to help guide strategic planning. At minimum, researchers should provide a final report — usually a PowerPoint slide deck — to memorialize physician discussions and other “learnings” of the study.

However, by conducting research with KOLs at medical meetings, pharmaceutical companies gain much more than a report. The meetings provide a rare opportunity for direct interaction between drug manufacturers and KOLs. If conducted appropriately, this interaction fosters an important working relationship between these two highly influential components of the healthcare community. Once this relationship is established, a pharmaceutical company can often access certain KOLs post-meeting to obtain further advice. This kind of mutually rewarding professional relationship generates goodwill toward a pharmaceutical company throughout the KOL community.

Pharmaceutical companies that can successfully access and build rapport with KOLs in a legitimate way win a valuable and reliable source of insight about the healthcare market. These companies are able to stay competitive in an increasingly crowded marketplace because they understand how a specific product can address today’s most important healthcare matters.

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By DR. GARY SCHEWBACH

G & S Research, Inc. • Indianapolis, IN • gschwebach@gs-research.com

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