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Catching the right market

With internet use by doctors and patients on the rise, maximising online content can assist pharma in widening its sales net

With internet use by doctors and patients on the rise, maximising online content can assist pharma in widening its sales net

There is no shortage of high-quality content available for use in digital marketing. The challenge for pharmaceutical firms is how to engage their target audiences with online content and, subsequently, change their prescribing behaviour.

Before delving further into this issue, it would be useful to define two key terms that relate to the digital environment:

Online community - a group of people who communicate primarily via email or the internet rather than face-to-face. Online communities often include social networks that join people with certain interdependencies such as values, visions, ideas, trade etc.

Digital marketing - the practice of promoting products and services using digital communication channels to reach consumers in a timely, relevant, personal and cost-effective manner.

Pharmaceutical companies have traditionally been conservative in their use of digital marketing. The evidence is seen in the budget currently allocated online, as opposed to that spent on more traditional marketing activities.

The industry is changing however, more rapidly now than at any other time in the 25 years I have been involved with it. The influence of Primary Care Organisations (PCOs) on primary care prescribing options and National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) on whether products are recommended, prevents many medicines from becoming freely prescribed. It is also becoming more difficult to see target customers frequently enough to change their prescribing habits.

In a survey conducted by medeConnect, Healthcare Insight involving 1,943 GPs and 2,533 secondary care doctors, 60 per cent said they only see reps once a month or less. Not surprisingly, many companies are down-sizing their primary sales teams, talking about flexible hotspot sales resources and concentrating on smaller, specialist sales teams to influence decision makers.

Independent trusted sites clearly don't have this challenge, but they do have to be careful in the way they partner with the industry. The best communities keep standards high in order to retain members. Successful sites such as have the trust of their members, who are essential to building the site's content and community. Most of the content is not sponsored and this is important. Content sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry that is sent to members and allowed on the site is limited and balanced with public sector sponsored content (NICE, HPA, Department of Health etc).

Legal and Regulatory Boundaries
Digital marketing of pharmaceutical products is regulated in a similar way to how offline promotion is regulated. Clearly, the ABPI plays a key role in determining what material the industry can use for online promotion. It is therefore important to make sure your content providers understand and comply with the ABPI. This will hopefully speed up your internal medical sign-off.

The method of promoting your material online is less represented in the ABPI Code of Practice. The good news is that this partly reflects the lack of complaints in this area. Revisions to the Code tend to follow complaints and a need for clarification. The key parts of the Code relating to digital marketing are clauses 4.1, 9.9 and 21.

One of the key misunderstandings seen in this area is around sending emails to healthcare professionals (HCPs) with links to sponsored content. Does this count as one of the eight mailers per product per year allowed in the Code? The answer is no, as this entry in the Code only refers to mailers sent through the post. The use of email addresses is very different. You can only send emails to HCPs, if you have their permission. If you do have their permission, you have a very valuable communication channel to your customers. But don't abuse it. Ask members for permission to receive emails with sponsored content and ensures the content is targeted and relevant to each doctor that receives it.

The other area that can cause confusion is the use of data captured from HCPs. If a doctor visits a website and views a product presentation, what should be done with this information? Unless the HCP has granted explicit permission for this information to be used for additional or follow-up marketing activities, it should not be used, stored or shared.

The same applies to email databases. Check that the recipient of any communication has given his/her permission for you to send information.

Engaging with online communities
Once you have identified the community then you need to decide how to communicate with its members. There are three main promotion tools: email invitation, website promotion (eg banner ads) and search engines. A combination of all three has the greatest impact. Using all three maximises the number of customers who interact with your content.

Pharmaceutical companies have many options to engage their customers online. We all know about e-details, or product presentations, and they have their place, but there are many other exciting elements to consider. These include accredited online education modules, conference highlights, KOL web/podcasts, product or disease microsites, case studies, guidelines, press releases - the list goes on. This medium allows web analytics to monitor and report on myriad different customer interactions.

For example, time spent viewing, number of unique users and customer feedback on content. All this data can be segmented by speciality, grade, interest and location. Use this data and feedback from your customers to refine your campaign. Think about the depth of engagement you require and plan the marketing mix in line with your brand's life cycle.

The table above shows the average time doctors spend viewing various campaigns. This is based on over 200 different campaigns delivered on for over 40 companies in the last 12 months. So if you want 2-3 minutes to put across your product's key messages, then look at an e-detail but if you want 20 minutes plus then look to education or conference highlights.

Does it work?
Content and channel/community providers have been notoriously poor at providing credible RoI measures over the years. If this wasn't the case, pharmaceutical companies would have been far more willing to embrace fully this medium. Or perhaps the industry is still just too conservative and expects its marketers to continue using the same formulaic roles and tools.

With over 200 campaigns in the last 12 months, has collected a huge amount of RoI data, ranging from achieving 7,600 doctors to complete an accredited educational module, to generating 1,315 call-back opportunities for the sales team with target doctors following an e-detail. In addition, numerous DFUs (detail follow-ups) show that doctors retain key messages and show a propensity to increase prescribing. These are all valuable measures but they have to be backed up by solid sales data.

Again, has used various measures including IMS Xponent, which is recognised by many as being an effective tool to measure multiple marketing elements. If you want to measure the effect of digital marketing in isolation, then you have to remove all conventional sales and marketing methods. has worked on over 30 such campaigns and can demonstrate its effectiveness in terms of IMS RSA brick sales or ex-factory sales.

Patients and the medical community are increasingly turning to the internet for information and communication. The pharma industry should not miss this opportunity to engage with its customers, widen its reach and maximise its sales potential. The time is right.

The Author
Paul Concannon is operational director at He can be contacted at

25th November 2007


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