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Going digital

Pharma companies are dragging their heels with getting their online marketing strategies in place. Is it really that difficult?

A computerDigital marketing still sits on the periphery of marketing strategies for many pharmaceutical firms - and for many it is still a significant communications challenge. When it comes to drawing up sales and marketing plans, online promotion is often an add-on activity that marketers consider only when they have initiated the more traditional marketing activities.

If we look at all of the industry sectors in the UK, online marketing accounts for about 15 per cent of marketing budgets. This puts the UK in the top three spenders in the digital marketing medium internationally. The UK pharmaceutical industry, however, shies away from this trend, spending less than one per cent of its marketing budget on the digital medium.

In addition to the conservative spending seen by pharmaceutical companies, online pharmaceutical campaigns can experience other difficulties. Online campaigns are often the first activities to be axed or postponed when budgets start to tighten towards the year end. Among the various marketing activities engaged by a pharmarceutical company, online campaigns rarely get priority attention. Delays in getting an online campaign live inevitably results in lost opportunities and sales.

Delays are often further compounded by the emergence of new data and updated materials, so it is important to embark wholeheartedly in an online campaign to limit delays and further additions to costs.

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

The industry is changing more rapidly now than at any time in the 25 years I have been involved. The influence of PCOs on primary care prescribing options and NICE on whether products are recommended, prevent many medicines from becoming freely prescribed. It has also become more difficult for pharmaceutical companies to see their 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 representatives 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 the decision makers.

Why should pharmaceutical companies turn their focus to digital marketing? For a start we should look and see what the target audience are doing. They are actively using the online medium for education, communication, information and collaboration. With the best of these sites, it is the community that is creating and evolving the content. In the same doctor survey mentioned above, 61 per cent said they preferred to find out about prescription medicines from independent websites, 23 per cent from representatives and only one per cent from pharma company websites. The full table of responses is below left.

To reduce the time, effort and expense of creating your own online community, it may make better sense to take advantage of the existing ones that your customers have already joined. The only proviso is whether you can access these communities.

Creating your own community involves two major considerations:

1. Do you have the resources to build a quality site that will encourage your target audience to come back time after time?
2. As much as you try to give balanced views, will you be seen as a biased pharma site?

Independent, trusted sites don't have this challenge.

Once you have identified your target community, how do you engage with its members? There are three main promotion tools: e-mail invitation, website promotion (eg, banner ads) and search engines. A mix of all three has the greatest impact, as it serves to maximise the number of customers who interact with your content.

There are many other exciting elements to consider in addition to eDetails or product presentations, such as accredited education modules, KOL web/podcasts, disease and product microsites, case studies, guidelines, press releases - the list goes on. If you organise a KOL symposium, why not capture some of the content and host it online? When planning your mix of promotional tools, think about the depth of engagement you require and plan the marketing mix in line with your brand's lifecycle.

The quality of the material is essential. Use expert providers that have a track record of producing campaigns that have measurable positive effects on the target audience.

Communicating online allows web analytics to monitor a myriad of different customer interactions, eg, time spent viewing, number of unique users and customer feedback. This data can be segmented by speciality, grade, interest and location. You will get rapid feedback, so use this and refine your campaign accordingly.

The pharmaceutical industry should not miss this opportunity to engage with their customers via digital communications, thereby widening their reach and thus maximising their sales potential. It's a form of interaction that is here to stay.

2nd September 2008


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