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Smart Thinking blog

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

Is pharma’s mobile budget going down the drain?

It’s looking good – your app is ticking the right box in your digital strategy. But does it reflect best practice? Does it, in fact, offer value for its audience… or indeed for you?

Picture the scene: you've just been diagnosed with an overactive bladder and you've just discovered there's an app about the condition.

Now, imagine that you're a little confused by how this app works. Perhaps you're unsure how to gauge the “voiding volume” the app urges you to record; or maybe you can't work out how to enter the number of “leaks” that the tracking functionality would like you to log?

Obviously, as someone so comfortable with apps that you'd be using one to keep a diary of your bladder movements, you'd expect some online help. After all, this is what other apps offer; it's why Apple asks publishers to provide a “support” link.

In this case, however (and the app in question is Get BladderFit, produced for a pharma company), the link for support goes to the homepage of a digital agency. Nice site. But do they offer any support for the application on their site? Hell no.

Nor is there any link to online support within the app itself, (which refers to the agency as being “the sole proprietor of this application... taking no responsibility for the information given being up to date, correct or complete.” How reassuring).

Admittedly, taking shots at mobile apps developed by the pharma industry is something of a fish in a barrel game, and this is just one example of a drug manufacturer not hosting any online support for the apps they fund. There are many others where similarly there's neither an appropriate support link nor any real transparency or accountability as to ownership.

Obviously, in the real world this is irrelevant. Who cares about a thin stream of the application market and whether or not it observes good practices? I do.

Certainly this is where all the activity seems to be. As the UK legal head of a top 10 pharma company remarked to me the other week: “We've got 94 application concepts globally that people want me to approve, and I'm not sure why anyone would use any of them.”

It's bizarre. Just as the industry starts to accept that its existing digital activities require greater control and something resembling rationalisation (I don't know a single big pharma out there that isn't looking to re-platform, reassess or re-apply consistent compliance processes to its current portfolio of owned websites), there appears to be an increasingly incontinent stream of mobile applications splashing – albeit quietly and largely unnoticed – into app stores.

While I think it's great that the industry is trying to adopt new technology and channels, and gain early experience in the mobile space, I can't help but think that some proper planning would help to focus minds on the potential value (or indeed the lack of potential value) that these offerings present.

  • What do I mean by proper planning? Well, if you're bursting to develop the world's next great (or at least 'just about OK') pharma app then you might want to consider the following:
  • Firstly, the obvious question: it's possible that a significant percentage of your audience will engage with your app, but is it really that probable? Call me cynical, but the lack of proudly published case study data on industry apps speaks volumes about whether the majority of initiatives are delivering...
  • Is your app integrated into a wider platform, campaign or initiative, or is it exactly the type of entrepreneurially developed point solution that your compliance, regulatory and IT teams are trying – for good reasons – to remove from your company's current web portfolio? Because they will.
  • Why an app rather than a mobile-optimised site? With access to the internet via devices set to outpace access via the desktop, this starts to look like a hygiene requirement. Obviously, in terms of customer experience even the best mobile sites are simply 'handshakes' compared to the 'hug' that can be delivered through a native app, but – given how infrequently the average pharma property is visited – a handshake is good enough.

So beyond considering mobile optimisation before native app development, what do I think qualifies as intelligent thinking around mobile for pharma?
Two thought-starters for you:

  1. For public/patient audiences: If you're in retail, entertainment, publishing or any sector with highly trafficked, frequently visited web properties then mobile's potential as 'The Third Screen' almost certainly merits you producing applications. But when it comes to patients you may be better advised to concentrate on computing power rather than devices' screens. There's a wealth of tracking, monitoring and outcomes behaviour that devices will be increasingly able to gather, transmit and aggregate. This won't be 'your' data, but it will be a rich resource that can (and will) be anonymised, then mined for outcomes and effectiveness data. Plan for how to access and extract value from this and payers will thank you.
  2. For healthcare professional audiences: The same information and service providers who dominate HCP web use are already demonstrating their dominance in the mobile arena. Why produce your own dosage calculator, interactions checker or literature guide if someone else is already doing it better, more professionally or with more likelihood of regular usage?

Again, don't think about silo'd point solutions, think about adding value by looking to better place your content and services within the healthier, stronger stream of existing day-to-day customer workflow rather than letting them leak out in an unstructured and unsupported fashion.

Article by
Duncan Arbour

head of strategy at Blue Latitude and can be reached at

23rd November 2011


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