Maintaining a Conference Media Strategy During COVID-19

May 14, 2020

Executive Summary

COVID-19 has truly changed the conferences and events landscape, with many being canceled, postponed or moved to a virtual format. This does not mean, however, that promotional opportunities have gone away; in fact, there are many ways to utilize digital promotion tactics to reach HCPs where and when they prefer.


Impacted by COVID-19, major medical conferences are resulting in key data releases and clinical updates being disseminated online. In order to maintain a surround-sound approach, media promotion will need to shift into a digital-first landscape.

Having a defined conference media strategy is an important way for brands to increase visibility during times when engagement is heightened, and HCPs are actively learning about treatment developments. The benefits of conference media include: •Maximizing awareness of brand positioning and maintaining SOV within competitive setAssociating the brand with the latest clinical data Driving foot traffic directly to the brand booth or on-site event to connect with reps or MSLs

Beginning in March 2020, global travel restrictions followed by local stay-at-home orders have impeded large gatherings. Although this is not the first time that meetings have been canceled – AACR canceled its 2003 annual meeting just three days before it was due to begin in Toronto amid the outbreak of SARS, which is also caused by a coronavirus – we have seen an unprecedented number of cancelations and shifts to virtual formats in recent months.

Below is an example from April 22nd of upcoming May meetings previously scheduled within the US:

Impact of COVID-19 on Conference Media Channels 

A traditional convention media plan includes coverage pre-, during, and post-meeting, including both onsite sponsorships and digital surround-sound. Convention media channels will continue to be impacted by COVID-19 as these events move to online formats and it will not be possible to execute on-site sponsorships, such as banners within the convention hall, escalator or elevator clings, print ads included in daily convention newspapers, Wi-Fi sponsorships, hotel key cards, hotel door drops, airport signage, and billboards in the area surrounding the convention center. The communication strategy during conferences will also be impacted as creative often features booth numbers to drive foot traffic to the brand’s booth.


While in-person meetings have been canceled, some media channels are no longer recommended as meetings shift to online-only and brands should look to shift funds away from these opportunities. Committed to their partnership with CMI/Compas, many suppliers have enabled us to cancel programs without incurring cancellation fees, as we look to evaluate new sponsorship opportunities for re-investment. New and custom opportunities recently available to support virtual conferences include targeting attendees from previous conferences through display banners, leveraging third party websites for branded content distribution, and highlighted sponsorships including webcasts, podcasts, and virtual symposiums.

Digital Surround-Sound 

In a pre-COVID-19 environment, digital conference strategies included custom email invitations leading up to the meeting, display banners geo-targeted to HCP mobile devices in proximity to the convention center or hotels, social media extension targeting conference attendees and hashtags, as well as third-party sponsorships that aligned banners to conference recaps or KOL presentations. Some of these channels are no longer recommended as meetings shift to online-only, while others have become increasingly important.

Custom Email

Custom email has historically featured booth numbers and been used to drive foot traffic to brand booths. Long form content also provides HCPs with insights on what to expect from a brand at a conference. While “invitation” style emails may no-longer be relevant, emails post-conference to share new data would likely still resonate. eNewsletter buys can be activated via direct buys, or via Programmatic buys through our proprietary AdMission DSP, which has broad email provider inventory scale. A recent survey conducted by CMI/Compas to over 500 HCPs found:

• 86% of all HCP responders agreed that it is appropriate for the pharmaceutical industry to provide information related to their products to professionals during this pandemic—with 59% in strong agreement.

• One out of every four HCPs also stated that product/brand safety and efficacy information was important for them to receive.

• 21% of HCPs indicated that email was a preferred channel to receive information from Pharma during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Messaging will play a more important role than ever, and brands should consider whether their updates are educational and filling an unmet need. 68% of HCPs find the most helpful information to be COVID related, followed by 52% with info they can share with patients. Consider holding on more promotional pieces particularly to most-inundated specialists during this time including Infectious Disease and Pulmonologists.

Geo-targeted Display 

Targeting display banners to HCPs within a small radius of the conference event, aka “geofencing,” has been a key method for keeping brands top-of-mind outside of the exhibitor hall and during convention off-hours. Similarly to traditional on-site promotions, conference geofencing buys will no longer be applicable, and investment should be shifted to other channels.

Social Media 

Developing a social strategy to coincide with a conference has become the norm for brands trying to capture the attention of active and engaged users across various social media platforms. After years of seeing social activity rise during various conferences such as ASCO, ASH, AAD and ACC, this year is presenting new challenges that indicate the growth will not be at the same level; however, social media offers enormous opportunity to marketers looking to leverage virtual events.

CMI/Compas’ social media team analyzed the social data produced by one of 2020’s first virtual conferences, ACC (American College of Cardiology). As the chart below showcases, there are significant decreases when comparing the 2019 data to 2020. However, there is still high value for brands that run social campaigns.

While conferences adapt to a virtual presence, it is important for marketers and brands to understand what their next best move is as the future of 2020 in-person conferences remains uncertain. As an increase in competitive SOV is expected, here’s how brands may be able to cut through the noise:

Quality over quantity: It is not about how many times you can say something, but rather what you are saying that will help elevate a brand’s message through the amplified competitive market. As seen in the CMI social listening report from April 29, 2020, HCP post volume was 197% higher than usual on April 28, 2020 driven by mentions of the AACR virtual meeting. Conversations centered around increased risks cancer patients have from COVID-19, indicating the virus will remain front-and-center during these virtual events. While Pharma shares their clinical data during these meetings, we recommend emphasizing product safety and support services, which are top concerns in the current environment. This is also a great opportunity to share product features or services that help reduce exposure such as flexible dosing schedules, subcutaneous formulas, side-effect management resources and mail-order options.

Targeting: An ‘always on’ broad approach may not be the best strategy for your brand during this time. It is important to make sure your targeting is tailored to your brand’s messaging. Platforms such as Twitter give brands the ability to engage with HCPs in real-time via keyword targeting as they are engaging and sharing clinical content stemming from the conference. As an added layer of qualification, brands can solely focus their targeting at the NPI level, whether based on Rx, Dx or specialty. Targeting can be further refined to just reach target list HCPs.

Redefining Success: As marketers prepare for a decrease in overall metrics and an increase in competitive SOV, it will become crucial to a campaign to make sure obtainable goals are established. While it’s not a typical best practice to measure social engagements as a leading IKPI, brands should consider using metrics beyond traffic and web actions to measure success. Metrics like shares and comments may be valuable for brands whose goal is to have some type of 1:1 HCP engagement to replace the live interactions that conferences traditionally present.

Third Party Conference Coverage 

This channel includes display banners or custom digital content surrounding conference coverage on publisher websites pre-, during, and post-meeting. As physicians cannot travel to meetings and many have less time to sit through virtual presentations, short recaps of events have become increasingly important and remain a viable opportunity to align brand messaging with.

Publishers have confirmed that they intend to cover the data released at virtual conferences to the same level they would have in-person meetings. From an engagement perspective, initial metrics seen by CMI on a 2020 ACC Digital Conference Package show minor fluctuations in performance YoY including a 1.4% decrease in impression volume and a 15.2% decrease in reach compared to 2019.

KOL events that have historically been filmed on-site during meetings have not been canceled but rather moved to studio filming if possible, followed by virtual filming. Additionally, discussion topics will include how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the healthcare/pharma landscape.

Additional unique opportunities have been developed to convert poster presentations into digital formats. Critical poster data can be represented in a snackable on-demand format, focusing on key data points, and distributed digitally. Contact your CMI/Compas media team for more information on these new offerings.


CMI/Compas has explored an evolving conference media landscape as result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the industry continues to pivot in real-time, digital media tactics will remain plentiful and present an opportunity to maintain brand alignment and visibility during conferences.

A complete convention media strategy is multichannel in nature and 2-3 months in duration from pre-meeting coverage to post. It is important to prioritize tactics that are quick to market, immersive, and appropriate in addressing brand objectives while also tailoring content and format to the times.


Leading up to conferences, brands should utilize journals to deploy custom cover tips or inserts. Many publications are adding to their circulation in conference issues in order to make up for missed bonus distribution opportunities. Display banners can be used to surround conference landing pages or within eNewsletters that announce conference agendas. Consumption of these resources is anticipated to increase directly leading up to and during the conference.

During the Conference

In addition to continuing display banner promotions on conference landing pages, social media targeted engagement through Twitter and Instagram can also increase visibility of promotional messaging during this time period.

Engaging HCPs online, with social, search, and programmatic display programs is especially impactful during virtual conferences. While conferences are held in a virtual format, brands can capitalize on target HCPs being online during this time, through audience targeting or contextual programs. Brands should also explore customizable virtual programming and remote learning tools as an alternative to onsite engagement. A study conducted by SERMO reports that 59% of HCPs are using more remote learning tools since COVID-19 started and 16% are using for the first time. OnDemand Players can feature live virtual conference presentations, symposiums, and discussion boards, supporting concurrent viewers, Q&A forums, downloadable resources, and social integration.

By leveraging the power of KOL endorsement, brands can look to drive faster awareness, virality and interest. Native programming ranges from workshops and seminars featuring virtual focus groups, video webcasts, interactive panels, and roundtables, allowing opportunities for collaboration as thought leaders discuss pertinent data, clinical trial releases, and treatment processes within certain disease states.


Following the meeting, continued display banner promotion on conference landing pages and eNewsletters is appropriate as physicians continue to access meeting recaps. Brands may also be able to retarget HCPs who interacted with the brand and branded promotions during the conference. Consider exploring ads surrounding recorded podcasts, virtual KOL presentations, and filmed clinical roundtable discussions. It is also a best practice to maintaining a consistent print presence as journals highlight key conference takeaways.