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By ExtendMed on March 01, 2024

Pharma Advisory Boards: 5 Best Practices for Better Engagement in 2024

Whether you're on the business's commercial or medical affairs side, if part of your role involves running advisory boards, you likely encounter some common challenges: being able to quickly and effectively engage advisors, gather valuable insights from them, and turn those insights into informed decisions.

The specific information you need to gather from your constituents and stakeholders differs depending on your function. But the practical challenge of facilitating those communications is shared across departments—and in projects large and small.

While infrequent communication may be much more apparent for, say, a clinical operations team struggling to orchestrate a new trial across several sites, it’s no less an obstacle for smaller-scale projects that hinge on the input of a handful of people.

Imagine, for example, you're part of a commercial team that needs to decide whether to continue using a particular visual aid in your marketing materials. You want to quickly pulse the market to understand whether it’s working or not. Now raise the stakes: The team needs to make this decision in two weeks. Typically, you’d run a focus group—but one week is too little time to plan and execute one. You need another, faster channel to get the insights the team needs.

It's easy to find examples of teams needing speedy insights on the medical affairs side, too. Maybe there's a congress coming up fast. Your team is worried about how many people will attend its poster sessions. Again, you need to survey a specific audience to answer that question quickly. “Is this material you'd be interested in seeing in three weeks? And by the way, are you even going to be at this congress?”

No matter what insights you need to solicit or for what purpose, the central question boils down to one that most teams find themselves asking at some point: “How can we get answers to questions quickly so we can demonstrate we’re making informed decisions, and ultimately hit our deadlines and the company’s goals?”

"Soliciting useful information quickly is a really challenging communication problem that cuts across all departments and up and down the lifecycle of a product. Our clients often tell us that when they needed insights quickly, they'd pick up the phone and dial a handful of people. And it was often the same people. You start to see the problem here.

They didn't always get the breadth of responses they needed. Even worse, the calls often fell flat on their head; if no one answers, they get no answers. Those responsible for driving ad board programs that find themselves in this position eventually look around and realize they aren't doing enough reaching out before making important decisions. And the methods they are using aren't working.

Suppose they had a way to—in a fairly timely manner and without adding too much cost to their budget—pulse the market quickly and get some focused answers from a key audience cohort. In that case, they could make better decisions, demonstrate why they're making those decisions, and be confident in those decisions."

Amy Ravi, ExtendMed

— Amy Ravi, CEO, ExtendMed

Here, we briefly explore why many advisory board engagement practices are broken and present some best practices informed by our experience helping pharma teams equip themselves with the tools they deserve to keep pace with fast-moving project timelines and deliver outstanding work.



Best Practices

Want to talk more about tackling the engagement challenges in your ad board program? Get in touch with us and we’ll talk about exploring some of the solutions we’ve implemented for companies like yours. Get an overview of the ExtendMed platform on our solutions page.

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Many popular advisory board communication strategies don’t work—at least as well as they ought to.

Many pharma teams don’t have quick and convenient ways to solicit deep insights from their advisors, both inside and outside the confines of a formal advisory board meeting. Their decision-making power, speed, and confidence are all diminished as a result.

Teams in this position often find themselves explaining their decisions with rationales like, “this worked last year, so we’re doing it again this year.” Because they don’t have a good way to gather feedback on time-sensitive questions, they often recklessly rely on:

  • what’s worked in the past;
  • hunches about the future, and
  • generally imprecise or old advisory intelligence.

Before we dive into some best practices for getting better insights in 2023 and beyond, it’s helpful to briefly address two problematic communication practices that come up a lot, highlight why they’re flawed, and explain why they’re worth fixing now.

Problem #1: making unexpected calls to a small group of known contacts

This is a common practice—dialing a handful of reliable advisors and asking for as much feedback as they’re willing to give on short notice. These calls usually go something like this: “Hi, Doctor. You participated in one of my speaker programs a few months ago. Among the doctors there, you had a lot to say and we really valued your input. Do you have a couple of minutes to give me some feedback on something I’m trying to better understand?”

On its face, it may seem like a perfectly reasonable ask, and it’s free. But consider a few of the drawbacks:

  • You’re engaging someone who isn’t expecting it. Whether you’re calling a customer, physician, or someone else, they’re likely not going to be prepared for your questions—at least not as well as they probably could (or should) be. As a result, their insights may not be as thoughtful or, well, insightful as they otherwise could have been had they prepared ahead of time. Are you really getting useful intelligence this way?

  • You may be asking someone whose input is valuable to you to give it away for free. How exactly does the stakeholder perceive a call like this? Are you essentially asking them to do you a favor? Are you asking them to give something away that they typically charge a consulting or advisory fee for? Navigating these questions is awkward at best, and may send exactly the wrong signals to people you’re trying to foster long-term relationships with.

  • There’s no easy or convenient way to document or share any insights you do solicit. Even if the person on the other line is offering you solid-gold answers, how are you going to record those insights and then do something with them? Suppose your goal is to engage ten customers for feedback. How do you demonstrate what you did, much less collate that feedback and turn those raw answers into actionable data that informs your decision-making? How much time are you prepared to spend drawing conclusions manually? Is that the best use of your time?

In short, many teams resort to picking up the phone without any purpose-built advisory board platform for reaching out to an individual or group outside of a planned meeting. It's simple, and it's easy.

But in situations where time is tight, the questions may land on an unprepared interviewee who may feel they're being asked for free knowledge that actually commands a price. And no matter what information you're able to solicit this way, there's no easy or convenient way to document and operationalize that information for use.

Problem #2: saving up a backlog of questions for the next scheduled meeting

Like phone calls, this practice isn’t so much a deliberate communication strategy as much as a lack of one. Without a good way to get questions answered quickly, and perhaps acknowledging the downsides of calling an advisor out of the blue, teams simply collect their questions in a running document to bring to the next scheduled meeting.

But the problem with this sort of question-collecting becomes obvious when time-sensitive questions go weeks or months before they’re asked. Important decisions don’t always wait for the next big ad board meeting.

But again, without a way to ask those questions and digest the answers thoughtfully, teams may wrongly assume they have to wait for actual meetings. In reality, most modern pharma teams can’t afford to wait for answers to key questions twice a year. They need to keep pace by facilitating more frequent engagement without sacrificing the quality of those insights in the process.

Teams carrying on in either of these situations must often hope they’re never asked one of the following questions—lest their lack of an effective communication strategy be exposed!

  • “We’d love to see your visual aid for this. How did you share this with your customers, and how did their insights reflect what we’re looking at today?”

  • “How did you test this message to ensure it resonated with this narrow audience we’re trying to reach?”

  • “I see you’ve selected some congresses to attend next year and put some budget aside. How did you ensure our constituents are going to be there?”

  • “Also for those congresses, how did you determine that those are the most trusted associations to participate in?”

  • “How did you get feedback to know you’re going to be in front of the audiences you need to be in front of?”

In the case of a medical affairs team being asked about their choice of congresses to attend throughout the next year, the difference in answering “well, we attended last year, so we’re attending again this year” versus “we engaged this target group over the past six weeks several times to validate their attendance and interest” can be huge.

As ExtendMed’s Amy Ravi summarizes below, the stakes of making informed decisions are often higher than many teams might appreciate. The investment in the tools you need to do it right the first time far exceeds the costs of re-work when avoidable uninformed decisions are made.

"We all live by budgets. We all have limited resources. If I'm a medical affairs leader and I decide we need to be at a certain congress, and it turns out that most of my audience isn't there, that outcome has a real business impact.

Here at ExtendMed, most of our clients are spending at least a few hundred thousand dollars on attending a congress or, likewise, developing visual aids that are going to be shared by their field force for the next year. When they're making decisions more or less in a vacuum—without bringing stakeholders into the conversation—they're executing on things they haven't tested in the market. And if that falls flat, they can really lose ground with competitors that could take years to regain."

Amy Ravi, ExtendMed

— Amy Ravi, CEO, ExtendMed

5 advisory board best practices to enhance your engagements

Now that we’ve touched on the problem of efficient engagement in an ad board program, let’s dive into some simple but impactful best practices.

1. Connect with stakeholders promptly—especially during follow-up.

We’ve talked about some of the consequences of slow, infrequent advisor engagement in a world that demands more information in less time. In pharma, projects simply move too quickly to wait around for answers. But by the same token, teams can’t sacrifice quality for quickness. They need both.

The pandemic only sharpened this point. COVID forced teams into virtual meeting spaces, including ad boards. As a result, teams were also forced to see the value of how easy and convenient it is to connect with advisors virtually while keeping basically all of the positive nuances of physical, on-site meetings they enjoy.

As Amy Ravi explains below, one "silver lining" of the shift to online workspaces is realizing that virtual ad boards really do provide basically all upsides in terms of speed and convenience without really losing anything in the process.

“Teams that move to virtual ad boards are usually surprised to see just how much of the magic of an in-person event is retained with the proper tech platform. On video, you really can read people like you would if they were sitting across the table. You can see when something resonates.

You can see when someone’s confused. COVID forced just about everyone to do things differently—and virtual ad boards are one of those things that teams are sticking with permanently now that they see they’re getting things done a lot faster without really losing anything. The timeliness and cost components of virtual ad boards are really significant.

Now, instead of paying an honorarium to a consultant for a day of travel, plus a day of advisory floor, plus another day of travel, teams can rent two hours of their time to get their questions answered.”

Amy Ravi, ExtendMed

— Amy Ravi, CEO, ExtendMed

Case in point

Many points in the product lifecycle demand timely communication via ad boards. One of the most pertinent is immediately after the FDA approves a product.

As soon as a product receives FDA approval, companies want to talk about their brand and how it makes a difference in the lives of patients. They can't do that without having a quick way to reach out to as much of their target audience as possible. This is where a platform solution becomes invaluable in demanding timelines.

Here are two specific steps to consider taking to boost the speed of your engagements. All of these are made easier to implement—and enjoy outsized results—when using a virtual platform solution.

  1. Make dedicated space in your workflow to debrief immediately following an ad board meeting—ideally online. This is really the only opportunity to get real-time feedback on the format and content of your discussions while it’s still fresh in your team’s heads. This immediate input can inform any changes or improvements to subsequent meetings and reveal the need for follow-ups between them.

  2. Establish a channel for soliciting feedback from advisors on follow-ups. As noted before, follow-up questions shouldn't be locked away in a document to gather dust. Open a channel to ask those questions and allow convenient asynchronous engagement between meetings. This is where a dedicated ad board platform becomes critical, as it's difficult and cumbersome to paste together such a system on your own, much less manage it regularly.

2. Make discussion materials easy to disseminate and share

While sharing discussion materials is technically a “best practice,” the pandemic made it more of an essential capability for ad board facilitators.

Sharing materials was—and continues to be—a significant technological gap for those administering these discussions. Many teams who quickly moved to virtual ad boards found themselves without the tools necessary for facilitating meetings and discussion. Without other options, many teams have strung together some combination of email and file sharing systems to at least give stakeholders basic access to materials.

But neither email nor file-sharing systems were really built for highly-managed, interactive asset sharing with multiple groups of people. As a result, ad board leaders often spend their valuable time managing the management rather than getting to the substantive work. It’s frustrating for both administrators and stakeholders who are saddled with working in systems that often waste their time, too.

Because these tools are fundamentally limited for facilitating ad board engagement, it’s hard to prescribe a best practice for using these tools any better. Ad board admins really deserve a dedicated ad board platform that makes it easy to send and receive discussion materials in the context of an ad board discussion.

Such a tool satisfies the unique demands of these types of engagements.

  • They enable admins and stakeholders to share, consume, and discuss materials from a single place.

  • They enable admins to quickly and conveniently upload materials and get them out to specific individuals following an event.

  • They enable asynchronous message-board style discussions to take place in line with certain materials.

  • They open up a whole new level of interactivity. For example, admins can test participant knowledge or gain feedback about materials embedded in a questionnaire or posted in a resource center.

Case in point

Let's use our product launch example again to demonstrate the real-world utility of a sharing tool built for ad boards, specifically.

Imagine you're managing a product launch. After getting FDA approval, you need to distribute your new message, get product information out, deliver education, and disseminate all of the clinical studies you've done.

Those administering ad boards need to do all of that quickly. Doing this via email and a simple file-sharing tool would be a management nightmare compared to a centralized platform.

Here are two specific steps to consider to improve your material sharing practices. Again, all of these are enhanced when using a platform solution.

  1. Produce meeting recording and concise reports covering the outputs of your meetings—and disseminate them. Sharing discussion outputs is step one. Making sure these reports aren’t unwieldy is step two. Raw transcripts typically aren’t useful. Instead, produce a clear and concise report that summarizes key points alongside action items. Platforms like ExtendMed's take this to a whole new level by using AI to pull out key themes from raw transcript data and even provide trending insights over time.

  2. Allow for fruitful collaboration and discussion of materials between meetings. With a way to share and discuss certain materials asynchronously online, teams can help facilitate an ongoing conversation and receive reviews and feedback of activities and materials recommended during meetings.

“When it comes to something like a product launch webcast, we often help clients host a resource center that has the three or four clinical studies that were involved; phase two, phase three, leading right up to approval. People can read and dig deeper to understand that the company went through a lot of effort to get approval.

They can show the safety record; how many people participated; the degree of difference that p-value is from the placebo to drug, and so forth. People then have the opportunity to read and review that information on their own after the webcast, where they can ask them questions and continue a discussion. Being able to distribute materials like this is really important. And it gives the company an opportunity to get information out to those who need it very quickly.”

Amy Ravi, ExtendMed

— Amy Ravi, CEO, ExtendMed

3. Track engagement at the user level.

Tracking user activity, whether it’s consuming written materials, watching a video, completing a follow-up survey, or anything else, is another enormous value-add virtual ad boards have over traditional on-site meetings. But it’s also one capability that is next to impossible to have without a dedicated engagement platform.

Teams that find themselves communicating with ad board participants virtually—but haven’t fully invested in a platform that facilitates those communications well, often languish in engagement purgatory. They’re getting things out to people, but they have no idea what they’re doing with those things.

As stated before, resorting to traditional email to share materials can be particularly clumsy. But beyond simply getting things out to people, traditional tools give you no way to track whether or not someone has opened something, let alone consumed or completed it.

The lack of visibility into who what each individual has seen, opened, and done creates another huge management headache for anyone responsible for the project. Endless check-ins and to-dos need to be tracked and managed themselves, directing more time and attention away from the real work.

As Ravi explains, the ability to track engagement at a granular level is one of the “a-ha” moments that motivate teams to permanently shift some or all of their ad board program to virtual.

"Part of having a virtual ad board system is sharing materials very quickly and tracking who's read them or watched a video. Everything is both shared and tracked centrally. So, there's a benefit both to the consultants or advisors and a benefit to internal colleagues and across the organization—having everything both go on and be reported on from a single place. Eliminating system switching is a huge unlock."

Amy Ravi, ExtendMed

— Amy Ravi, CEO, ExtendMed

Pharma teams on both sides of the house that use ExtendMed’s platform get this user-level tracking across all of their programs. Here are some of the value-add capabilities they enjoy as a result:

  • Teams send their trusted consultants and advisors to a place they recognize. They know how to navigate it and are therefore more likely to use it.

  • Users can easily access materials that facilitators want to share beforehand. They can take a survey or review other colleagues’ comments prior to a meeting.

In short, there's a whole range of engagement tools that all conveniently live in one place, and all that data is stored centrally. Rather than staying stuck in the old days of juggling committees and chasing a trail of emails to find something someone said, ExtendMed enables managers and their teams to have everything centrally located and easy to find and share.

Case in point

Imagine for a minute that you’re facilitating an advisory board of high-profile clinicians. To get the most out of this group, you want to ensure they’ve read the materials you shared beforehand.

You’ve got some pretty complex questions to ask, so you want to know they've read your manuscript and understand the results of a clinical study that just wrapped. A dedicated engagement tool enables you to track each physician’s interaction with these resources. You know whether or not you’ll have to pose some prerequisite questions.

On the other side, you can track your advisors’ responses, enabling you to make efficient use of a short period of time. Compare this to what you’d otherwise have to do in convening an on-site meeting—passing out these materials and budgeting time for people to read them.

Now, you can see and report on who has looked at the materials and have a sense of whom you can count on in during the live virtual session to answer critical questions and drive the project forward.

4. Moderate engagements and dig deeper to uncover more precise insights.

Moderating discussions has always been a part of ad board management. And while a skilled moderator can steer in-person discussions to uncover incredible depth, virtual ad boards, when moderated well, make it possible to go even deeper and centrally document all of the insight generated—planned or unplanned.

Spontaneous discussions can be incredible wells of insight and are often sparked by follow-up questions and other opportunities for stakeholders to take the discussion into new places. It's the moderator's job to both provide opportunities for follow-ups and push those with excellent insight to give as much as possible in these moments.

Whether you’re running on-site, virtual, or hybrid ad boards, it’s clear that those who are intentional about their moderation practices—and soften what can often become an overly rigid and overly-controlled discussion—are masters at teasing out rich insights that can’t be planned for, but are incredibly valuable and perhaps controversial.

“We hear from many teams who realize their advisory board is just too strict when it comes to a starting point, ending point, and what happens in between. There’s so much planning—and so many questions to get to—that there’s no room for an actual discussion to evolve naturally. And then you can't get the group together again for months.

The teams who’ve invested in virtual and do a great job of moderating those discussions get so much better output from tearing down some of the structure. And because everything is happening from a central place, they can give themselves some time to process the insights they gathered all at once and follow up afterward with some pointed questions for more asynchronous discussion.”

Amy Ravi, ExtendMed

— Amy Ravi, CEO, ExtendMed

Leaning into the advantages of virtual moderation can take some retraining—something we routinely address with our own clients that aren’t familiar with the nuances of virtual meeting moderation. And it’s not always encouraging teams to let go of some of the traditional ways of running ad boards. Sometimes, there’s too much change, to the point where the space between meetings isn’t filled with rich discussion, but only an occasional question tossed “over the fence.”

Part of our best practice here at ExtendMed is helping teams spot fascinating and thought-provoking communications—things that may spark great discussions with the proper follow-ups.

Here are a few specific tips for leaning into moderation and digging deeper for insights:

  • Find the perfect balance between general and specific questions. General questions invite general answers. However, questions that are too specific start to feel like a live questionnaire rather than a fluid discussion. Great moderators find a balance here. The goal of the initial question should be to spark discussion that can then be teased out further through more decisive questions.

  • Establish your discussion “endpoints” ahead of time so you can moderate with outcomes in mind. The better a moderator defines the end objective in terms of what insights they want to solicit, the better they will be able to manage the meeting—and direct their questioning—to meet that objective.

  • Be comfortable going off-script. Effective moderators don’t handcuff the conversation to a prepared list of questions. They create opportunities to go off-script and encourage enlightening conversational detours. Consider using prepared questions as an outline and plan to follow up on surprising or unexpected insights that may emerge naturally. Ask other participants to respond to particularly salient or thought-provoking points.

Case in point

Here at ExtendMed, one of our clients wanted to better understand the perspectives of the nursing support staff working with a particular group of patients.

They took the opportunity to bring in one of the company's PharmDs. This person had already fostered a relationship with these nurses and understood their perspectives. She began participating in a monthly engagement with the nurses.

Now, whenever the team releases new questions for these advisors, she logs on almost daily when the discussion board is open and active—drilling down with the advisors a bit more. Before she was involved, the client typically would get one response from the active participants; they now receive an average of three responses per active participant.

Much of the PharmD's input hinges on asking pertinent follow-up questions. How are they communicating with their care team? Is the physician listening to them? Do they feel like they have the appropriate training?

5. Break down the hidden silos that obstruct high-quality communication.

Increasingly, teams have come to acknowledge that everyone functions in silos to some degree, and critical communications don’t always get to everyone that needs them. A conversation from two months ago about a particular discussion may not have been relayed to someone who needed it on their radar, and now there’s re-work to do.

One of the benefits of having a dedicated engagement platform is being able to apply tracking and automated algorithms to all the information generated across meeting transcripts, discussions, posts, and other communications to see trends that have changed, how practitioners are changing their practices, and what new treatments are being mentioned for certain conditions over time.

Through its analysis of all the information generated across it, a centralized communication system starts to build personas for the groups you engage.

“Having a dedicated platform for storing and processing the insights generated across your ad board, you really develop a knowledge management system where you can look across activities, across engagements, over time, and across educational touchpoints to be able to say, ‘these specific things are making a difference; I can see someone's knowledge increasing, so I'm getting more comfortable with a new treatment or a new procedure or new guidelines.’”

Amy Ravi, ExtendMed

— Amy Ravi, CEO, ExtendMed

Case in point

Here at ExtendMed, a client had a group of about 30 healthcare professionals—all physicians with the same specialty but with varying levels of experience and differing perspectives. Looking at their data in ExtendMed, the client could segment that group of 30 into five distinct groups, each ranging in familiarity with the subject they were addressing.

At one end of the spectrum were those new to the topic. On the other end, the innovators leading the space. As they monitored data across these groups over time, they saw the experience journey emerge right in front of them. This gave them the ability to design an educational journey that aligned with how these specialists naturally progressed in their field—shortening that journey through strategic optimization.

This example speaks to how teams can take action on data they collect over time to help clear a pathway for progress. Teams can understand how specific individuals move on that path and see systematic ways of segmenting people, ideas, and processes to develop better methods for getting someone from point A to point B.

The actionable tip here is establishing a process and system for sharing minutes and follow-up questions/actions across your immediate team—and those who are impacted but weren't present—after a meeting.

Communication silos often stay up because there are no systems in place to break them down. While it may be possible to develop your own ways of ensuring relevant ad board-generated insights get across the building, a dedicated platform ensures they do.

How ExtendMed helps pharma teams bring these best practices to life

ExtendMed helps pharma teams deeply understand and address their engagement challenges to better reach key stakeholders—all in service of improving healthcare for the benefit of patients. We do that by equipping teams with a platform purpose-built and customized as needed to engage their stakeholders more frequently and at a lower cost compared to traditional approaches.

For example, with ExtendMed, you can:

  • Host a virtual ad board, a steering committee, or a clinical study update meeting for participating sites around the globe.

  • Engage asynchronously with virtual discussion boards in the same platform as synchronous engagements

  • Engage HCPs and other stakeholders via surveys, quizzes, and assessments

  • Leverage educational content across regions, professions, and specialties. Manage faculty, curricula, multimedia, content, and certification in one platform.

  • Share information with stakeholders in different formats to suit each individual’s content consumption preferences.

  • Track how many participants have engaged in each of your activities in your portal through a simple reporting dashboard.

(The list keeps going here.)

ExtendMed users can easily transfer the answers and information they generate from all of their ad board engagements into actions they can take, not just among those who were present in a meeting or even in one department, but across the entire organization. Insights get distributed to those who need them—and just as importantly, in formats that help people take action on that information.

“The pharma and other life science companies we partner with see more alignment on the direction the company needs to take to save patient lives and promote a healthier world. I think that's really what it's all about. The difference our tools and service make isn’t just financial.

They also make a difference in the company’s confidence in being aligned in one direction. The capabilities unlocked by our platform also make a difference in terms of how a company’s customers feel like they've been solicited. For many, the connections enabled by these tools make them feel understood for the first time.”

Amy Ravi, ExtendMed

— Amy Ravi, CEO, ExtendMed

Ready for better ad board engagement? Let’s start the conversation.

Our goal is to help you have richer and more frequent engagements with each of your stakeholders, at a lower cost.

Visit for a quick look at our solutions and how we empower teams to have richer engagements with each of their stakeholders. Want to get in touch with questions or schedule a free platform demo? Contact us.

📄  Free White Paper

The Patient Centricity Playbook

Seven strategies pharmaceutical commercial teams are using to better engage patients—and how to deploy them yourself

Get a copy (PDF) »


Published by ExtendMed March 1, 2024