The annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is the largest cancer research meeting, as well as one of the largest medical meetings generally, worldwide. So it was with great interest that a cross-agency Intouch team attended the 2021 virtual ASCO conference, both to learn the latest in oncology research, as well as to consider virtual conferences as a platform for brands to offer education to healthcare professionals (HCPs). With only about a quarter of oncology reps going back into offices as of April 2021, oncology brands are especially reliant on digital and virtual communications.

The Pendulum Is Swinging
Whereas our teams saw a great deal of creativity and investment in 2020 virtual efforts — including flourishes like 3D and extensive interactivity — the pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction this year. We noted quite a few simple virtual booths, in some cases little more than a list of downloadable PDFs. In addition, the conference platform itself seemed to be a flat, less-customizable, and not particularly intuitive experience to navigate.

While the “traditional” live conference will certainly revive, we do believe virtual conferences are here to stay in some capacity. The accessibility, convenience, and affordability that virtual meetings enable is not something that attendees will stand to lose.

While the “traditional” live conference will certainly revive, we do believe virtual conferences are here to stay in some capacity.

Conference Platforms Are Lacking Value
In addition to brands seeming to invest less in virtual exhibit booths, it appears that many conference organizations haven’t significantly built out their virtual capabilities. In some cases, this may be because they didn’t see uptake of the tools in their first efforts. Chat functions, for instance, don’t appear to appeal to HCPs much. But in other cases, this may simply be because conference hosts aren’t digital developers by trade, and don’t have the expertise to design or oversee the design of such spaces. While the cost of a virtual booth is a small fraction of an in-person booth, even that price may not be worth the engagement that brands are seeing from HCPs. This is difficult to ascertain, however, as most conferences are cautious about the data they release to participants.

Access to Medical Affairs and Medical Science Liaisons Is Increasingly Vital
We noticed some nice touches with scientific communications – for instance, AstraZeneca added a helpful “what does this mean in plain English” explainer to their posters, which was a feature that many might want to emulate.

With reps unable to see HCPs, it makes sense that there is a demand for non-influenced scientific content and medical science liaisons to converse with. We’ve also seen this reflected in hiring patterns, as companies look for MSLs where once they might have been hiring for reps.

What Does All of This Mean for Brands?
We noted above that we’ve seen the virtual-conference “pendulum” swing back and forth between complexity and austerity. We believe the middle ground is the right place to be: to create easily updatable, aesthetically pleasing microsites that efficiently give HCPs the information they want most, that capture informative data, and that work with surround-sound tactics like a strong Twitter presence during the conference to enable additional conversations and interactions.

Our research into virtual conferences shows that, statistically, HCPs are likely to enter a virtual booth, watch one or two minutes of video, and download some PDFs before leaving – no more. So: Create a digital booth that facilitates that, with your PDFs, your ISA/IDA content, perhaps a 1-minute MOA video or CEO welcome. That’s how virtual booths can be an intelligent investment.

Content can, and should, be recycled and repurposed, but it can’t look re-used and dated – it has to be able to be refreshed and customized enough to look specific for the conference at hand.

Physicians at Intouch tell us that their oncologist colleagues are particularly leery about attending in-person events out of an abundance of caution for their immunocompromised patients. As noted, reps aren’t seeing oncologists at the same levels as before. But our data also demonstrate that oncologists are opening emails at three times a pre-pandemic rate.

Oncology brands have to get smarter, and better, with their digital and virtual presence and activities, to help HCPs and patients get the information they so badly need.