Key findings and recommendations for advisory boards in the 'new normal'

If virtual advisory boards were once an experimental concept or after-thought, COVID-19 has driven the acceleration of pharmaceutical digitalisation, with numerous brand teams repurposing their advisory boards and similar meetings into an online format.

Some readers may recall a recent PharmaInFocus article where I was quoted addressing the cancellation of planned advisory board meetings across the country, with a top line explanation of alternatives that leverage a range of online platforms.

Swipe Health’s facilitation of some of these early online meetings has afforded us a birds-eye view, gathering learnings and insights for organisations looking to adopt or increase engagement through an online meeting model.

Advisory Boards – a vital cog in the pharma-healthcare machine

In the early days of a marketing role at Novartis, one of the first lessons our Marketing Director taught me was “You’ve got to nail your advisory boards”, with the main rationale being that there were few better ways to build pivotal relationships with a group of important KOLs.

Insights are king!

While relationships based in trust are hugely important, engagement means little without insights and data.

Having since worked in medical communications for a number of years, I’ve had the privilege to be involved in advisory boards in Australia, the UK and US, at both local and global levels. In my opinion, as enjoyable and important as great relationships are, nothing tops the importance of insights generated by the sage minds of our thought-leading stakeholders, or the engagement of key patient groups.

The pros and cons of the traditional face-to-face approach

Assembling a group of thought leaders in a room is a great experience, valued by brand teams and participants alike. If you’re reading this, you’re likely aware of the meaningful interactions and insights garnered from open discussion around a table.

However, there are some drawbacks, notably:

  1. Even focus: often there are 2-3 more naturally dominant/outgoing personas in the room that tend to lead and guide discussion, potentially skewing the outcomes
  2. ‘On the spot’ factor: Some personalities appreciate the opportunity to reflect on their responses and contribute more considered thoughts, outside the immediacy of the meeting setting
  3. Time and money: The cost and downtime involved in coordinating in-person advisory boards is exorbitant
  4. Data and insights: manual capture of meeting proceedings can be laborious, time-consuming and risks inaccuracy. Consensus insights and data are not readily available
  5. Distance: the burden of travel (and COVID-19 uncertainty) can make ongoing engagement challenging.

With these points in mind, several brands started experimenting with ‘asynchronous’ or ‘anytime’ advisory board platforms.

The big pivot

With travel bans in place from March, brand teams scrambled to move their planned advisory board activities to an online format. With no shortage of platforms on offer (Zoom, On24, Teams etc), the easiest way to transition was to host webcasts using these ubiquitous channels.

Zoom fatigue

Those involved soon discovered that condensing a 6 hour in-person meeting into a video webcast was a laborious experience at best. Astute sponsors quickly leveraged software to enhance the online attendee experience, boosting participation and engagement with activities such as word clouds, live polling, private messaging, break out rooms, and mural post-it notes. Some even ordered uber eats for lunch for all participants! However, with the sheer number of these meetings now delivered via webcast format, one thing became clear – zoom fatigue was real, with enthusiasm to participate and engage declining steeply.

A new, more convenient method

Challenged by in-person meeting drawbacks, several companies had already begun exploring a new type of channel to augment their advisory board activities. 

These ‘anytime’ or asynchronous platforms (like Rumi) tailored specifically to the needs of advisory boards eliminated the need for all participants to be available at the same time. This format would kick off with the sharing of a short video or background materials for participants to review in their own time. The moderator would post a series of discussion points, and set a couple of polls to be completed by a determined date. A ‘live meet’ could also be set to discuss and review results, before a further week of discussions.

In this way, a few days of asynchronous discussion gives all participants ample time to consider and submit their responses; all voices are heard, and key insights are delivered. Clients have adjusted these online meetings to lengths and formats that met their engagement needs.

Participants receive notifications when new content is added, and when peers are engaging with their responses.

One key lesson is that an engaged moderator is pivotal to drive discussion, very much in the same fashion as an in-person meeting.

Engagement is the yardstick

Surprisingly, the ‘anytime’ platform yielded a greater number of words than the live video meetings (by up to 11% in some cases). Furthermore, there was more balance between all participant responses.

Sharing outcomes

Arguably the most important outcome we’ve learned is the appreciation that participants express when sponsors follow up post-event to present all of the findings (to clarify if the correct sentiment/insights were obtained), and to provide details on how the information will be used to shape future initiatives.

For any initiatives that are deployed on the back of the insights generated from these meetings – it’s a very good idea to present them to the participants.

As much as honoraria is a motivation for participation, seeing outcomes that result from their contribution may provide more value and satisfaction for participants in the long run.

7 key lessons:

  1. Consider the insights you’re after: A strategy session should be the first task of any advisory board planning. What do you want to know, why is it important, and what’s the best way to frame the questions? Would these questions be better suited to video/webcasts, or an ‘anytime’ asynchronous format?
  2. Consider the audience: If it’s a new group, then a webcast meeting or blended approach is advisable. If members of the group are familiar with each other and the sponsors, an ‘anytime’ format could be used as a stand-alone platform.
  3. Duration: Webcast/video meetings = 3 hours max. ‘Anytime’ asynchronous meetings, 1-2 weeks.
  4. Moderator: An involved and engaged moderator can boost engagement and content by up to 30%.
  5. Stand alone or blended approach: There are numerous ways to integrate webcasts and anytime platforms. Consider leading with a 2 hour webcast, then moving the conversation to the anytime platform for the remainder of the week. Alternatively, you can bookend one type of meeting with another, or just have a one-off stand-alone event.
  6. Always send a report back to each member – i.e. “This is what you said, this is what we’ve taken away from what you’ve said – and here’s what we plan to do with this information.” Online platforms have an integrated transcript function to help track engagement.
  7. For any initiatives that are deployed on the back of these insights – it’s a very good idea to share these. As much as honoraria is a driving factor in participation, the satisfaction involved in seeing their contributions lead to outcomes will prove more valuable in the long run with regards to future engagement and contributions.
Online Advisory Boards – what have we learned?
Steve Royle
Client Solutions Director
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