Oscar Wilde said that “the only thing worse than being talked about… is not being talked about!” This has never been more valid than it is now, when clinical research projects are global, communication is ubiquitous, and attention is our most valuable resource. To be successful in today’s global marketplace, individuals and organisations alike need to be at the forefront, not just of their profession (that’s a given) but also of the minds of their colleagues and customers. This is not necessarily about “shouting loudest”, but is more to do with being engaged with these people, showing you understand what’s important to them, and actively being “part of the conversation”.
The challenge of engaging effectively is nothing new, but its value is always worth restating. No matter how compelling a message you might have, whether for potential business partners, investigators and site teams, or patients who could take part in your study, it will always fail if your audience isn’t listening. And given the overload of information in every aspect of our lives, the audience isn’t often listening
Attention is our most valuable resource
Everyone knows that being entirely silent in the marketplace means death for any organisation. However, there is danger at the other end of the spectrum too: companies who are indiscriminate with their messages and routinely promote everything they do to their entire audience run the risk of any individual message being ignored (philosopher Roland Barthes termed this “the zero of the signified”).
This is something we experienced within ICR’s promotional activities a few years ago: we were promoting one of our 50+ training courses or events to our entire audience every day, without applying any intelligence to match the events to the needs or interests of each individual recipient.
As professionals are assaulted with information from all directions, their attention is increasingly divided. If the first few emails someone receives from an organisation are not directly relevant, subsequent messages are more likely to be ignored… even if these message are more relevant.
At ICR, our solution was to combine promotional messages with news items and job vacancies that would be relevant to the broadest possible range of interests when communicating with our entire audience, while sending more detailed messages about individual courses or events only to people who were in appropriate roles, had attended related events or had told us of their specific interest in this topic. The outcome was that a much higher proportion of people clicked through to find out more about the events we were promoting, while including news and job vacancies enabled us to increase our audience, as other professionals saw the value of subscribing to these messages.
Showing you care
If targeted communication is the most important item in our toolbox for building relationships in the “information overload age”, the next must surely be empathy. This helps make your audience more receptive to your message because they already know you are “just like them”. You can do this by speaking on topics that you know are important to them and by taking policy positions that are aligned with theirs.
This is an area that is very important to professional bodies such as ICR and the CCRA, who represent their members to policy-makers and other stakeholders, and indeed back to the members themselves to help reach a consensus.
It also contributes to the effectiveness of communication for other types of companies, though: by demonstrating to potential customers that your company is like-minded in its values and outlook, it naturally pre-disposes them to consider your commercial messages more favourably than your competitor who takes a different position on, say, access to medicines in developing countries or transparency around publication of clinical trial results.
The style of communication discussed at the start of this article was very much “one-way”, but for the past few years social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn and particularly Twitter have become essential tools to engage with your audience in a highly visible dialogue. Like no previous medium, the current generation of social media make it possible to have a very personal exchange that also has the potential to be seen by an audience of hundreds or even thousands who also have an interest in the topic.
This raises the stakes, as a poorly thought-through response could “go viral” and do great damage to your company’s prospects. However, it also has the potential to engage more quickly and more specifically with huge, targeted audiences around the world.
Harnessing the power of engagement
Some of the approaches discussed above might seem like inefficiency: reducing the focus on commercial messages in favour of topical or reputation-building communication, and indeed reducing the volume of communication altogether! But when done together, and done well, the result will be a closer engagement with your customers and stakeholders, which will in turn make them more receptive to your business development communication.
So, in this case, less really can be more! But only if you make sure you’re already part of the conversation…