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Diving Deeper

Skimming the surface of digital technology is no longer sufficient when tailoring a marketing campaign

BubblesThese days many of our actions and interactions are in an i-space, where it's virtually impossible to avoid buying stuff from Apple or checking out old (and also current) friends and colleagues on websites like Facebook, MySpace and Friends Reunited. Music flashes across from iTunes to iPods, the BBC news zaps from iPlayer to iPhones, future spouses meet through iDate and we even swap used belongings on eBay. We live in an i-world and work in an e-world, so why is digital marketing not yet the bedrock of healthcare communications - and will it become so in the future?

One issue is the lack of a universal definition for digital marketing (DgM). Email and the internet are key tools, but DgM is not solely about online marketing. Because interpretations of DgM vary so widely across the industry, there is confusion about what it is, how you should do it and how much it ought to cost.

According to those with specialist knowledge, many pharma marketers still use digital as an add on tactic only, not a bespoke component of strategy. A lot of people don't fully understand it and, though they may feel obliged to do something digital, patchy knowledge of the practice and anxiety over the regulations means that campaigns can frequently fall short of their full potential.

To date, pharma has shown a tendency to use few, if increasingly popular, DgM options - e-detailing, webcasting the annual financials or launching a bespoke product website - from the dozen or so available to e-reach and i-influence the customer through their definable digital space. This refers to the digital channels people use habitually, as well as periodically, to keep up to date with everything. In pharma marketing at present,
e-detailing is the primary designation for DgM. In truth, however, it's barely the tip.

By failing to really explore as well as experiment with the profusion of new DgM options, pharma brands have missed a whole box of tricks

Digital marketing to me is the practice of promoting products and services using any and all digital distribution channels to reach customers in a timely, cost-effective way, says Peter Ward, managing director of specialist DgM agency, Free Think Digital. It does include techniques associated with internet marketing, but extends far beyond it to a titanic world of choice, from interactive exhibition walls to active display banners, mobile phones, video streaming, KOL networking forums, podcasts, GP virtual discussion communities, wireless media, the list goes on. (See box overleaf for more information).

The opening gambit in creating strong DgM is, as with any type of marketing, to know where customers go and why they are receptive in those places. The truth is, we are all (whether we're aware of it or not) creatures of digital habit. We frequently revisit the same e-places and remain receptive to their content. This is why, Ward explains, it's important to define this locale with precision.

Psychiatrists, for example, are a totally different breed online to anaesthetists who, in turn, have a different digital space to cardiologists. There are obviously common denominators because they're all doctors, but the first thing an effective DgM campaign should do is establish an accurate digital profile for each type of customer. Only then can we provide a campaign that has all the right digital pressure points in place.

However, many people in pharma have yet to welcome DgM properly to the fold. OnMedica, an online information portal for healthcare professionals, says that DgM can improve speed of dissemination, quality and consistency of message and cost-per-head in prescribing behaviour. However, as head of business development, Jon Vernon notes: Some companies have been slower than others to understand the power of digital delivery, often seeing DgM as too difficult to undertake from a regulatory or technical perspective.

By failing to really explore as well as experiment with the profusion of new DgM options, pharma brands have so far missed a whole box of tricks, adds Danny Meadow-Klue, managing director at Digital Strategy Consulting.

It doesn't mean that the internet has to be at the heart of every campaign, but DgM has given us entirely new ways of thinking about how the marketing process works. We have a range of new tools, approaches and models. Whether it's the precision of Google's search engine advertising, harnessing the power of referrals through Facebook, the role of brands as publishers or the richness of CRM through email, these techniques are all - and only - available in the digital networked society.

Pharma's limited use of a few favourites notwithstanding, DgM experts predict a lot of extra marketing gain for forward-thinking companies willing to meet their customers, i-face to i-face, in their digital space.

DgM should engage, educate or entertain. While meshing seamlessly with the broader communications campaign and therefore, doing its job properly, it should enhance traditional marketing by enabling individuals to become a dynamic part of an actual event. Whether it's a clinical discussion or opinion swapping session, DgM can render them participants rather than just recipients.

Value is in involving customers directly. A key ally for this is the new Web 2.0 platform. Essentially this software invites and enables the users (rather than the hosts) to provide and influence the content of websites (eg YouTube and Facebook). Creating and drawing people in to a credible milieu - a place that they consider to be theirs and where they feel they want (and ought) to get involved, can be an immensely powerful motivational stimulus.

Yet, all too often pharma's digital planning gets shunted down the schedule, claiming an undersized part of the marketing budget. As healthcare's e-society burgeons, this oversight becomes growingly salient, warns Ogilvy Healthworld's digital business director, June Dawson, who adds that the internet is rapidly becoming not only the universal mechanism for researching and evaluating products and services but also the principle sales mechanism in some sectors.

Research shows that in Europe, doctors and their patients on prescription medications and/or suffering from long-term conditions are increasingly likely to go online to ask questions, share experiences and garner opinion.

The future, she says, will see DgM further enhancing the existing one-to-one conversations between physicians and pharma, acting as a communications gateway to provide bespoke and, thereby, highly relevant and meaningful interactive connections for the user.

Ultimately, choices for receiving information will be personalised, based on individual preferences and profiles, as the digital channel provides the opportunity to customise. There is the potential to sponsor highly targeted disease awareness or concordance programmes, while online conferencing and symposia will become standard, along with web-based accredited interactive medical education services. Information on demand will become the norm with conference delegates probably receiving information directly to their PDAs as soon as new data is released.

In DgM, you can reduce costs massively over traditional marketing. It may be the difference between a company spending £100k and £200k to generate the same returns

Advocates of DgM claim that in an i-world where people have access to information and entertainment media at the time and in a format that suits them, these high-tech approaches not only have sit-up-and-take-notice potential, but are also economical.

In June 2006, someone called Weird Al posted an entry on An adaptation of an American pop video, it comically spotlighted the junk that's bought and sold on eBay. When this magazine went to press, his three-and-a-half-minute spot had been viewed almost 10 million times (an average of nearly 20,000 views a day) globally in the 18 months since its creation; and he barely did any marketing.

While Weird Al's post is patently humour and not healthcare, it is an eye-opener to the potential power and reach of just one part of the digital space when users connect with it. What would you pay Weird Al, hypothetically, for access to his global audience of 10 million users, all of whom have been proven, by definition, to not only visit this e-space but to be receptive and reactive to it?

If it were healthcare, it might be difficult to say, given the fairly broad diversity in DgM pricing at present. No universal benchmark or even price bracketing has yet been set for a live GP discussion forum or delivery of medical education to a fixed number of handheld PDAs, for example. How much does it cost for someone technical at a DgM agency to put your material online, or send it down a digital channel? Each project will be different of course, though each DgM provider may provide a (notably) distinct cost estimate, with prices varying significantly.

"There's confusion about how much some of this stuff costs," admits Free Think Digital's Peter Ward. "In DgM, you can reduce costs massively over traditional marketing. It may be the difference between a company spending £100k and £200k to generate the same returns. The market should aim to achieve better clarity of what actually works and what the costs and values are."

He adds that of any DgM provider, "Pharma needs to question the costs per interaction, as this is how they can compare it with traditional rep-doctor meetings."

The real question of value, of course, depends on the reach and outcomes. DgM offers an absolute measurement of return on investment (RoI) so it is possible to know, down to a single click, how well a programme is working and who engaged with it. This data can be captured and crunched to suit.

"Digital channels are the most accountable of all media," notes DSC's Meadows-Klue. "Learning what to count and how to use what you count takes practice, but once you're through the learning curve, it's easy to tell exactly what works, when and how. It just takes time to find out what to trust and what to ignore."

"The need to benchmark DgM value is becoming paramount," adds Nick Bartlett, managing partner at media buying and planning firm Medical Media Services. Bartlett believes that some marketers may be holding back on significant investment in DgM until they feel more savvy about the costs and returns.

"There is an element of paralysis by analysis currently, with some still refusing to go digital because they want ultimate proof of the returns. Very few companies have a two-to-three year plan in place to embrace DgM - not just with regards to e-detailing, but from a strategic perspective. E-detailing has proven its RoI and has brought DgM into the industry, but companies currently don't log their successes where they use DgM, so it drifts along, rather than being pushed along."

"For brands to be digital, they need to fuse the best insights from CRM with the richest understanding of customers," concludes Danny Meadows-Klue. "They need to get close to the primary customer, building up enough knowledge so they send only the most relevant of messages. Savvy digital marketers will then leap further, building brand image through integrated campaign marketing and using the power of search for diverse customer acquisition. That's a big ask for many, however, and with marketing teams still over-focused on the classic communication channels, it's not hard to see the disconnect between where customers have gone and where marketing budgets remain."

"If there's a limiting factor at the moment," says Tim Spence, director at TVF Communications, which in January won the Pharmaceutical Marketing Society's new award for Digital Media, "It's people's knowledge of, and attitudes to new technology." He believes that improved awareness of digital media and the changing shape of the industry, led by shrinking salesforces, will drive DgM further into the centre ground as marketers come under pressure to work smarter and more cost-effectively. 

The Author
Rob Skelding is a freelance pharmaceutical journalist

4th March 2008


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