As the medical congress excellence lead at Biogen Inc., Joelle McCaslin supervises the team responsible for developing and executing congress plans for Biogen's neurology portfolio. Prior to her current role, McCaslin focused on the development of publication processes and policies for Biogen and its international affiliates. She joined Biogen in 2011 with several years of experience in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries.
For most marketers, trade shows are not life-and-death scenarios. But for those who brave the highly competitive – and even more highly regulated – world of health care, face-to-face marketing is serious business. As you might guess, the no-nonsense atmosphere at medical events can make effective marketing more difficult than curing the common cold. Further complicating matters is the fact that trade shows serving the pharmaceutical industry are riddled with rules about everything from what booth staffers can say to the ways in which marketers can lure attendees to their stands, essentially amounting to what one All-Star Awards judge called "a headache of massive regulations and restrictions."
Enter Joelle McCaslin, medical congress excellence lead at Biogen Inc., a biotechnology company specializing in the research and treatment of neurological diseases. McCaslin, who's well-versed in exhibiting within the aforementioned parameters, tackled these challenges by turning traditional health-care exhibiting on its head. By reimagining Biogen's exhibit-marketing strategy, she was able to help her company stand out at the 2018 American Academy of Neurology (AAN) annual meeting – and earn an All-Star Award in the process.
Most pharma and biotech companies arrive on a show floor with two distinctly different exhibits. One is for commercial purposes and typically displays new-label pharmaceutical treatments. This commercial space is staffed by sales reps who are able to discuss those treatments with U.S. health-care professionals. (Expats and
attendees from the European Union must speak with special EU reps.) The second medical exhibit is typically smaller and strictly reserved for scientific exchanges, research, and discussions with medical liaisons. Staffers inside this second space are forbidden to discuss sales, prescriptions, pricing, contracting, or promotions of any kind, and they aren't even allowed to invite attendees into the space as they walk past. For all intents and purposes, the commercial and medical booths must function as discrete units with entirely different agendas: one focused on sales and the other on pure, unadulterated education. Since the point of exhibiting at medical congresses like AAN is ultimately to boost sales and establish new business, it's no surprise that biotech companies put most of their eggs in the commercial exhibit basket.
Biogen Inc. would take a never-before-seen approach by inverting the hierarchy of its booths, more than doubling the size of its medical exhibit to 2,500 square feet.
"At the AAN meeting, booths have traditionally been marketing-focused, with the commercial booth being significantly larger than the medical one," McCaslin says. "Biogen had historically followed this approach, just like the rest of the exhibiting companies."
It was the same formula every year, until McCaslin asked a hard question to which no one had the answer: Was this approach providing Biogen's booth visitors with the best possible AAN experience? Granted, the established method had served the company well, even though it wasn't generating off-the-charts returns. But McCaslin believed any improvement in the attendee experience could translate into a proportionate rise in measurable results. So starting in 2017, she set out to identify the shortcomings of the status quo and devise a different plan of attack.
McCaslin's first step was to solicit feedback from Biogen's target market. "We conducted 30-minute interviews with our main customers: the health-care professionals," she says. "Specifically, we were seeking to understand what they value about the congress experience, their goals for attending congresses in the first place, and how we can enhance and differentiate ourselves from the competition."
The qualitative research revealed simple yet powerful insights. Health-care professionals' primary goal in attending a medical congress, McCaslin found, was to expand their knowledge. Yes, they were attending to learn about new treatments from companies like Biogen, but what they really craved was education to give those treatments a greater medical context. Interviewees also indicated their goal was to better impact their patients' care, and they could only do this by deeply understanding the research that led to a given treatment and by staying up to date on new developments that could help them improve their clinical practices or academic endeavors.
McCaslin's inquiries also dug into how health-care professionals wanted to receive information and their preferred learning styles. Responses showed that there were four distinct ways that AAN attendees learned: listening and taking notes, hands-on activities, reading, and engaging in face-to-face conversations.
With these fresh insights in hand, McCaslin announced a significant shift in Biogen's exhibiting strategy for AAN 2018. Since attendees were clearly yearning for more educational experiences at the congress, Biogen would take a bold, never-before-seen approach. It would invert the hierarchy of its booths, more than doubling the size of its medical exhibit (from 1,000 square feet to 2,500 square feet) and giving smaller allotments to its two commercial – i.e., sales-driven – exhibits. The underlying goal for this radical approach was to demonstrate Biogen's neuroscience leadership and differentiate it from competitors by giving attendees exactly what they wanted: education.
When AAN's 2018 annual meeting opened on April 22 in Los Angeles, McCaslin and her team were eager to unveil Biogen's divergent exhibit strategy. "This was an evolution of the medical booth, but I wanted it to feel familiar and still serve its purpose of scientific exchange," McCaslin says. "To achieve our goals from a creative perspective, I was inspired by the idea of a science museum. We wanted to provide an interesting space in which to learn and engage with creative educational and scientific content in a way that allowed guests to explore on their own or with a guide."
The resulting medical exhibit resembled a science museum on steroids. The 50-by-50-foot space made its presence known with a circular rigged fabric banner featuring the company logo projected in such a way that, according to McCaslin, it resembled electrical signals passing through an intricate network of neurons.
Friendly medical-science liaisons staffed each of the four activations positioned throughout the booth. Most attendees were immediately drawn to an augmented-reality (AR) experience dubbed Revealing the Brain. A 3-D brain sculpture positioned at the center of the space and perched on a 6-foot-tall pedestal was surrounded by five round decals affixed to the floor. Footprint graphics helped visitors easily identify these as trigger locations for the AR experience.
Participants were given HoloLens headsets and instructed to stand atop any footprint to initiate one of five neurological learning modules, which included
infarction in the brain and neuromuscular degeneration. Through their HoloLenses, participants saw AR images projected onto and within the brain sculpture, and moving to different trigger locations enabled them to access various learning modules.
The second activation was Biogen's Mechanism of Disease (MOD) video wall. This 32-foot-wide curved element featured eight 32-inch monitors, each focusing on areas in which Biogen was investing in new research, such as epilepsy and Parkinson's disease. The eight unique videos played on a loop, and attendees could tune in by putting on any of the headphones positioned nearby. Attendees could explore one or all of the videos, engage in conversations with medical-information staff, and scan a Quick Response code that would download and/or email a file with further information. According to McCaslin, the variety of content entry points was a reflection of Biogen's attentiveness to attendees' various learning styles.
Because multiple sclerosis (MS) is such an important area of research and treatment for health-care professionals, Biogen devoted its third activation to the subject. The MS Patient Journey experience was a 12-foot-tall curved wall with text highlighting key messages and iPads containing self-serve content that allowed participants to dive deeper into such topics as early diagnosis, appropriate treatment, and diligent monitoring of the condition.
The fourth activation area included four touchscreens with interactive clinical trial programs. Traditionally, these trial programs would have been displayed as static text, but given her desire to cater to multiple learning styles, McCaslin enabled attendees to sort and explore the data according to study phase, geography, and therapeutic area. Along these same lines, Biogen sprinkled additional QR codes throughout the exhibit, which allowed attendees to access brochures, videos, and PDFs to review later.
It takes a confident exhibit manager to pivot away from a sales-centric focus in order to emphasize education instead – especially when that shift brings with it the slew of rules and restrictions implicit at a medical congress. But McCaslin trusted the insights gleaned from her market research, and it paid
off handsomely. As one All-Star Awards judge said, "The metrics from this exhibit speak for themselves."
At AAN 2018, Biogen saw its quantitative lead counts increase by a whopping 314 percent, soaring from 165 to 518. And from a qualitative perspective, feedback provided via a post-show survey was highly positive and confirmed what McCaslin had hoped to convey: that Biogen was a biotech leader bringing science to the forefront of the medical congress.
The highly interactive activations with their choose-your-own-adventure learning approach also netted Biogen kudos from attendees with a variety of learning preferences. The Revealing the Brain activation, in particular, was extremely popular among attendees. Roughly 90 percent of those who participated in the AR experience viewed all five trigger locations and remained engaged with the activity for an average of six minutes.
But perhaps the real proof that McCaslin had scored major success by focusing on the medical exhibit was the fact that several competitors imitated her education-first approach at AAN 2019 by allocating more space to their medical exhibits and far less to their commercial ones. In other words, McCaslin did more than successfully reimagine Biogen's exhibit-marketing strategy. She also blazed a trail that others quickly followed, effectively reinventing the medical-congress model in the process. E