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Smart Thinking blog

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

Digital: tactics first, strategy later?

Pharma's spend on digital continues to grow at 20 per cent per year, according to an annual survey of the digital landscape, yet still only accounts for 7 per cent of total marketing spend

Pharma's spend on digital continues to grow at 20 per cent per year, according to our annual survey of the digital landscape among life science leaders investigating the status, challenges and future of the industry. This expenditure sounds positive and if personal savings grew at this rate, those investors would be very happy. Plus, if a mature brand grew at this rate it would also be considered an achievement.

However, the challenge is that digital, which includes virtually every form of electronic marketing communication, accounts for only 7 per cent of the total marketing spend. Plus, the predicted rate next year will see a rise to 8.4 per cent spent on digital; still a very modest sum.

Consider this seemingly random question: are you good, average or poor at your job? The majority will say good, but not everyone can be right, assuming an average audience, and not just the high performers, is reading this.

Interestingly, when the survey participants were asked if their companies were ahead or behind the competition in digital adoption, nearly three times more respondents said they were behind than ahead. The research questioned almost 200 leaders from the EMEA region, with 87 per cent from pharma across a broad functional spread, including Marketing, Sales, e-Business, Medical and IT. There was an even response across all top pharma companies, so there seems to be a degree of self flagellation by companies, with most feeling they are behind the industry curve. 

The good news is that not everyone can be behind in the same industry. However, two thirds believed that they were significantly behind other industries when it came to digital spending and in this instance they were right.

However, two thirds believed that they were significantly behind other industries when it came to digital spending and in this instance they were right

The average digital spend for other industries tends to be significantly higher, at around 20 per cent. However, this still seems low to me. As a pharma brand manager, I calculated I was spending around 50 per cent of my budget on digital and with hindsight, this was too low.

It is important to explore what the reasons are for this low spend and also if an increase in spend on digital is automatically a good thing.

We are overwhelmed with data that tells us how clinicians and patients are spending so much time online and how we need to engage with them, wherever they are. To be fair, the survey points to the fact that pharma understands that it needs to change in this regard, but it still claims that significant barriers are in place which prevent it changing.

The industry needs to spend more on digital to align itself to its stakeholders and enter a dialogue with them on their own territory. The critical point is that it must spend this money on the right things. 

First, the barriers must be investigated. The survey outlined the three biggest ones preventing the adoption of digital:
1) Regulatory and legal issues
2) No clear e-business strategy
3) Return on investment (ROI) questions.

Regulatory and legal issues

That regulatory and legal issues occupy the top position may seem obvious; it appears to be all people talk about at congresses and on Twitter. What is not obvious is why this should be the case. I have led numerous digital projects within pharma, at different levels of innovation, and regulations have never prevented me doing anything. Mostly, what is described as digital is in fact taking a print version of something and converting it to an e-detail, or producing tablet detail aids or non-interactive websites, for example. Though this is a 'regulation easy' way to get the digital percentage up, it is not often an advisable course of action. One of the worst mistakes made is to take existing analogue interaction patterns with customers and transfer them to the web. Do not transfer, but re-think.

No clear e-business strategy
A lack of strategy can be a barrier to digital success, both preventing adoption of digital and resulting in the wrong sort of digital adoption.

The top three current digital investments are in company websites, product websites and disease websites. Some of these sites serve a useful purpose, while many others languish, waiting for someone to visit them or for their  'adwords fuelled' visitors actually to do what they want them to do when they visit the site. This is assuming that thought has been put into developing the customer journey.

The fastest growing digital element is tablet e-detailing, use of which has doubled in the last 12 months, mostly via reps with iPads. In some cases, this represents an effective approach, but in others it is an ill-thought-out response to seduction by a sleek gadget. My favourite quotes from companies about to embark on iPad detailing, when asked why they have chosen this approach are: 'Well we need something to give the reps at conference' or, when asked what their strategy is, they state: 'We will focus on the tactics first and worry about the strategy later'. These replies would probably have been funny had they not been the comments of senior people in major pharma companies.

ROI questions
The return on investment (ROI) question is less significant this year than it was in 2010, suggesting there is now broader realisation that the ROI of digital can be measured. There appears to be a wider recognition that it is not just about numbers of visitors, ie. getting a large number coming to a website or YouTube video is not always the best measure of success. I have heard a number of people in industry joking about the acronym HITS, or How Idiots Track Success. The fact that they are joking about it means that some people are still obsessed by big numbers, but it also indicates that the view on this is changing.

The right numbers of the target audience have to engage with you digitally and steps must be established that move them forward on their journey measurably

Clear calls to action need to be in place and aligned to brand strategy. The right numbers of the target audience have to engage with you digitally and steps must be established that move them forward on their journey measurably. For example, target patients may download information from your site that indicate they have taken the first step and made an appointment with their physician.

What should be done
It is not an easy path to adjust an organisation to the digital age. It requires the right knowledge and the right mindset. It requires new business and technology processes to be set up and good integration of all channels is essential.

All offline and online channels should be assessed in terms of the impact they will have on the target audience, via a full marketing mix analysis.

The most useful advice I can give is to put most energy into overcoming the 'no clear e-business strategy' issue. Once there is organisational alignment and an integrated approach to digital married with the company's objectives, the other barriers fall away.

In the majority of cases a well considered strategy will answer any regulatory questions. If something is proven essential for the business, it becomes easier to overcome the often spurious regulatory hurdles. It is a lot easier to get senior level support when backed by a proven business case.

Further, ROI is possible only once a clear strategy is in place and you know who your customers are, where they are and what their journey should look like. That is the hard part. The ROI question with digital is a lot easier once you know where you are heading. So the answer has to be: strategy first and tactics later.

Article by
Gary Monk

UK managing director, Across Health

12th September 2011


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