3 digital megatrends (and how to apply them to the life sciences)

Back to Insights

What we can learn

At Anthill, we keep a keen eye on digital marketing and sales innovation. Over just the last couple of years, things have continued to change at dizzying speed. There are new centres of innovation established around the world. Countries that were playing catch up are now leading in several areas. Commerce itself is changing, with digital-first businesses engaging people in novel ways and at a scale that might surprise you. And there continues to be a rapid evolution in digital payments and entirely novel forms of ownership emerging.

Not every trend is entirely applicable to the life sciences. But even in the highly regulated healthcare business, some elements will work. To show what's possible, here are just a few technologies and digital marketing strategies that have emerged recently — and how they might be ‘translated’ to fit your healthcare professional (HCP) engagements.

Social commerce

What’s happening: China is instructive. It's home to the largest e-commerce market globally, generating 25% of total retail sales — well ahead of the 14% share in the USA.¹ That means China is more of a mature market. To break through, startup companies need to try new things. Recognising that social media occupies an increasing share of consumers’ time, e-commerce companies are experimenting with a blend of the two: ‘social commerce’, which combines the convenience of online transactions with the network effects of social media.

Reviews and recommendations, though important, are just a part of this development. Companies are also introducing more game-like interfaces and encouraging their customers to interact — generating social benefits that attract people to their platforms and encourage them to stay.

Lessons for the life sciences: We think too much about using existing social networks and not enough about how to become one. We know, for example, that HCPs value peer-to-peer communication, but pharma companies could do more to facilitate this contact.

  • Post-COVID, webinars have become a popular channel for medical education and product training. How might these be expanded to encourage peer-to-peer communication?
  • Learn from Chinese e-commerce platforms like Pinduoduo, which use recommendation algorithms — a much more active strategy than a passive search-based model.
  • eDetailing presentations can highlight topics that other HCPs in their area found interesting. This social endorsement technique – ‘customers that bought this also…’ – is familiar from e-commerce sites like Amazon. And it’s particularly effective with on-demand channels such as self-service detailing, where HCPs look for guidance on where to direct their attention.


What’s happening: Another digital megatrend that's highly popular in China is ‘livestreaming’. Livestreaming, as the name suggests, means real-time video streaming. Therefore Zoom is a kind of livestreaming, but non-live media like video-on-demand (Netflix), vlogs and standard YouTube videos are not.

In China, livestreaming platforms such as Kuaishou, DouYu, and Bilibili have vast numbers of users. Often hosted by category experts, influencers, and other trusted individuals, livestreaming regularly includes product reviews and sales pitches. This commercial aspect of Chinese livestreaming got noticed during the COVID pandemic, particularly regarding the sale of hair and makeup products. People employed in department stores started to go online to demonstrate products and gained a huge following — far greater than was possible in their previous roles.

Given its success in China, livestreaming will likely play an important role in e-commerce globally. In the US and Europe, it could cannibalise TV shopping channel audiences. And it has already arrived through services like Amazon Live, Facebook Live and Twitch.

Lessons for the life sciences: Livestreaming is one area where pharma already has established a leading position compared to other industries. The use of webinars to highlight scientific advances and product training was ramped up significantly during COVID and proved very popular with HCPs. The combination of high-value content and the convenience of online accessibility already makes livestreamed events powerful, and they will likely become more sophisticated in the coming years.

  • A webinar series is an excellent choice for product launches, with HCPs keen to learn about the innovation. Also, consider it for ongoing medical education in specific disease areas.
  • Influencers are nothing new in the life sciences. Key opinion leader (KOL) programmes have been running for many years. What's different is that many companies have enabled an expanded role for KOLs in medical education through livestreamed webinars.
  • Look to integrate webinars with other channels. For example, there are opportunities to follow up livestreamed events through one-to-one communication such as eDetailing or remote detailing. And, working the other way, reps can use such channels to invite HCPs to live online events.

Off-the-shelf infrastructure

What’s happening: Digital infrastructure may not sound as exciting as social commerce or livestreaming, but it quietly revolutionises our world. While all attention focuses on what the customer sees, 'backend' service providers have been connecting inventory management, logistics, and front-end user interfaces. The result is 'off-the-shelf' infrastructure that makes it easy to set up e-commerce operations. There's no R&D and little capital expenditure. Instead, there's a monthly fee.

One example is fulfilment-as-service solutions from organisations such as Amazon, Shopify and BigCommerce. These services enable new companies to start small and scale rapidly without building the infrastructure themselves. In fact, the cost of entry is so low that some vendors never see the products they sell — a practice called ‘dropshipping’. Other technology companies like Square are helping businesses with their broader commercial operations, offering everything from payment solutions to banking and even marketing services.

Lessons for the life sciences: While life science companies are not going to start dropshopping, greater use can be made of digital infrastructure solutions. Excellent off-the-shelf solutions exist to manage digital channels, for example, that improve efficiency and enable better experiences for HCPs.

  • Companies that have operated with a decentralised organisation will likely have many different IT systems. In the past, moving everyone onto the same platform was a massive effort. Now it's much easier.
  • One immediate area to apply off-the-shelf solutions is a company’s web presence. Most companies have hundreds if not thousands of websites. It’s now possible to unify your entire web presence on one system. That makes it cheaper, more efficient, and simplifies content distribution to local markets. And it benefits affiliates by making it easier to update web content (read the case study).
  • Also look to boost your existing digital infrastructure investments. For example, our own solution, Anthill Activator, gets more value from your Veeva investments by making it easier to create and edit your Veeva Vault content. And it can play a key role in a content excellence programme to improve your entire content supply chain.

The takeaway

It’s a good idea to look at what’s happening in digital technology and e-commerce globally. While we can’t implement exactly what’s occurring elsewhere (and often don’t want to), we can take inspiration and consider what these trends mean for the life sciences. As our industry has already shown, ‘livestreaming’ doesn’t have to mean direct-to-consumer marketing. It can be educational webinars and more flexible kinds of online HCP engagement like remote detailing. Likewise, ‘social’ doesn’t just have to be corporate posting on large social media networks. It can also mean making our existing channels more social and enabling HCP peer-to-peer communication.

Who knows? Maybe other industries will start looking at the life sciences and wondering how they can make great things happen for them too.


1. ARK Investment Management LLC, 2021; China Renaissance, The NPD Group

Sign up to newsletter banner


Customer Experience

The 3 building blocks of pharma omnichannel product launches

Learn how to access the full potential of omnichannel in pharma product launches. This Insight explores the fundamental building blocks and highlights techniques that every company can apply.

Content Excellence

Design systems in pharma marketing

As pharma marketing becomes ever more digital, the way that we create content is changing. In the past, everyone focused on individual assets. Now, forward-thinking companies work with ‘design systems' to unlock digital technology's scalability.

HCP Engagement

Best practices in approved email

Approved email can be highly effective – empowering reps with pre-approved content to engage HCPs. And it’s definitely been proving its worth right now with face-to-face HCP meetings being restricted. But it still has to be done right.