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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

Don't forget email in your marketing strategy

Could it be the most underrated marketing channel in pharma?
social media research

Fast Track

  • Pharma emails have poor open rates but better than average click-to-open and unsubscribe rates
  • HCPs crave digital communications
  • Industry emails must compete with consumer emails
  • Code compliance is not the issue

Social media may be the communications tool that has grabbed the headlines in recent years, but email remains an increasingly valuable tool for the pharmaceutical industry and yet it continues to be defiantly undervalued and often misunderstood.

It is a cost-efficient communications channel that allows brands to interact with their audience on their audience's schedule. It is also convenient, accessible and nearly universally available. This established, successful promotional tool is still improving. Return on investment increased by 16% (DMA National Client Email Report 2014) and revenue has increased by 28% (Econsultancy Email Marketing Industry Census 2014) since 2013.

Unfortunately, pharma is falling behind in adoption and execution. In an analysis conducted by MailChimp of 46 industries, pharma emails produced the third lowest open rate and achieved low rankings for click rate and bounce rate (see table).

Success of email campaigns on MailChimp by industry
IndustryOpen rates (%)Click Rates (%)
2Arts and Artists27.973.28
3Photo and Video27.034.28
Industries 4-43
46Daily deals/e-coupons13.21.88 

This is shockingly bad. Healthcare professionals within the pharma email audience are highly specialised. These individuals have defined, specific areas of interest that vary minimally over a lifetime. These are traits of an extremely valuable customer database with the potential to return the highest levels of engagement.

The MailChimp analysis results contain indicators of a growing opportunity for pharma. Click-to-open* and unsubscribe rates are better than the overall average, demonstrating that the audience is interested in the content of the mails they have received.

Healthcare professionals crave digital communications

There's growing evidence to suggest that email could be the best solution for directly contacting healthcare professionals as part of an integrated multichannel campaign. 2014 marks a turning point in digital awareness in healthcare. LBi Health has recently compiled data to suggest that we have now entered the era of the digital-native healthcare professional. These healthcare professionals have not worked without digital technology and rely on digital services for their occupation.

US prescribers continue to be open to receiving industry information but now favour digital and mobile communications over pharma rep visits, according to a poll by ZS Associates. Although EU data is not readily available, the trend could replicate on this side of the Atlantic (if it hasn't done so already).

Personal-digital and professional-digital lives are becoming more intertwined – healthcare professionals are using smartphone and tablet technology to access content for both work and play.

Accessible communications

The chance that emails are opened outside work hours has increased considerably. Pharma and consumer emails are now competing more than ever for HCP attention.

There is an increasing preference for email contact. After a recent client event for HCPs, attendees were asked 'How would you like to be contacted in the future?'. Seventy-eight per cent of attendees selected email over phone, post and 'not at all' and half provided a 'personal' address from a web-based service such as Gmail or Yahoo.

This representative example indicates that emails from the pharmaceutical industry are directly competing for valuable inbox real estate against favourite retailers, restaurants or travel providers.

Consumer brands are the competition and, at the moment, they're miles ahead. Email needs to move much higher up the priority list of campaign deliverables and, more importantly, it must be executed properly.

Pharma does have an advantage over the competition. Having delayed uptake of email marketing, pharma can benefit from enormous numbers of case studies, white papers and 'best practice' documentation all freely available about a marketing channel that has been tested and perfected for over 20 years. It can work with agencies that know the technicalities of email design, development and delivery inside out.

Tools are available to help understand audiences and develop targeting and segmentation strategy. Registration, brand interactions, CRM systems, dispatch results and website analytics allow customer profiles to be enhanced with behaviour information. Many aspects of email can be developed before the design process begins and marketing teams can generate ideas on how to tailor email communications to coincide with each stage of campaign deployment.

Compliance needn't be the issue

The ABPI Code of Practice does not restrict email communications above other permitted promotional channels or that which is defined by law. Creating a promotional email should be as easy (or as difficult) as creating a compliant and legal ad or detail aid.

Driving success

It's all too easy to become fixated on the creative elements of a campaign. Design is inherently important, but with email, the quality of data has the largest bearing on performance. Planning a successful campaign needs to begin at the point of data acquisition. It is essential to build a foundation of trust on which an active relationship is formed. For example, allowing a customer to register, amend contact details and update preferences through a brand website. This transparency is almost ubiquitous among consumer brands and needs to be adopted within pharma.

Developing the relationship can be a little more difficult. The most effective way to achieve this is to consistently provide a customer with something perceived as valuable. With every email sent, the message that a brand wants to impart, and the message a reader wants to receive needs to be aligned.

Valuable could be a well-constructed email about a new drug operating within his or her therapy area, with efficacy and tolerability profiles, study data, SMPC and AE reporting all supplied in a format that is easily accessible and visually appealing.

Valuable is not the rehash of a print journal ad inserted into an email, missing essential information in a format that doesn't render on his or her device and looks dated, or worse, lazy. Adding value is the best way to ensure the best reputation with an audience. It will help achieve consistently high metrics and meet campaign objectives.

It is the time to be brave, to recognise the competition from global consumer brands and to produce something worthy of your HCP's valuable inbox.

Article by
Aime Cox

is CRM Manager at Swordfish Advertising. She can be contacted via email

11th December 2014

From: Sales, Marketing, Healthcare



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