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Marketing to the modern healthcare audience involves embracing new approaches
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For pharmaceutical marketers, working in a regulated environment means much of the dialogue focuses on what they are and are not allowed to do, rather than on what engages their audiences most effectively.

No matter how fast the regulatory landscape is shifting, change is slow in comparison with the evolution of information consumption habits. The rules that marketers must comply with can have a bridling effect on how quickly they can respond to these changes. However, asking 'is this alright with the Code?' before 'is this right for our audience?' approaches the challenge from the wrong perspective.

Though today's consumers are enjoying unprecedented access to knowledge, some would argue that they are time poor and struggling to navigate this torrent of data. Their concentration is becoming fragmented and they are able to absorb only small chunks of information.

Plus, physicians and patients are part of this world. Their consumption habits are changing and pharmaceutical marketing tactics are struggling to keep up. Opt-out rates are increasing, response rates are dropping and it is hard for messages to be heard.

For doctors to be informed enough to prescribe a particular medication, they need to understand dosing and treatment options, side effects, efficacy and comparisons to competitor drugs. Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies have played a central role in educating doctors about their brands, but their control over the learning process is being challenged.

The role of the sale representative is witnessing one of the biggest changes. The declining number of doctors who will see sales representatives has been well documented and as large sales forces have failed to deliver ROI there have been corresponding job cuts. A survey by Cegedim Dendrite in 2010 found that 88 per cent of European sales and marketing executives acknowledged the need to change their approach to market access. In the search for greater efficiencies, Key Account Manager models have become popular, with a smaller number of employees aiming higher up the chain of influence in their interactions with healthcare stakeholders.

However, reforms such as the UK's 'Equity and Excellence' NHS white paper, are seeking to cut bureaucracy and put prescribing power back into the hands of doctors, so there remains a need to adapt to the changing ways in which these influential individuals prefer to learn.

Engagement thinking: difficult questions to ask

• Why would a patient/physician choose my content over others?
• Is my source the most credible and easy to use?
• How much time would someone realistically spend viewing this?
• Am I doing this because 'we always have'?
• Am I creating an experience or a reference source?
• Does this really work within the context of the patient/physician's life?
• Have I asked members of my audience what they think, and did I implement the feedback?
• Have I struck the right balance between creativity and compliance?
• Am I truly catering for the cross-channel consumer?


Reflecting the wider consumer trend, time-pressed healthcare professionals want to shape their information consumption habits around their own needs. They cannot be expected to wait on a rep visit, or scan through pages of tiny text. They want information when they want it, in an engaging format that makes it easy to digest. The internet is serving this need, with over 60 per cent of doctors surveyed by Digitas and Kantar Health in 2010 expecting their online communication to increase.

eDetailing and the development of online brand portals are some of the more established ways that big pharma is catering for doctors' preference to learn on their own terms and in their own time. They are also a more cost effective way of distributing information and managing relationships than representatives and direct mail. But drug brand owners are by no means the primary source for information on their own medications. Health professionals will search for the source that best suits their needs.

A 2010 Kantar Health study demonstrated that European physicians consume a varied diet of health-related information online. Compared with the healthy 50 per cent who log on to pharmaceutical company sites, 70 per cent visit professional portals, 55 per cent use Wikipedia, 54 per cent access doctors' forums and 23 per cent view video content sites such as YouTube. With so much competition, what can drug companies do to make their site the resource of choice?

The answer is to develop content around what physicians are seeking, rather than what brand managers want to tell them, because if they do not find what they need, they have plenty of other places to look. If research demonstrates that health professionals like video content, strip back the word count and tell the story through rich media assets. If browsing habits suggest that they seek the insight of their peers, offer key opinion leader content and community forums. Offer them something they genuinely cannot find anywhere else, but do not damage credibility with a clumsy and obvious sales pitch.

The online hub for sanofi-aventis' (S-A) 'Excellence in Diabetes' programme demonstrates real understanding of the modern consumer of information. S-A created a personal experience for nurses, who are welcomed into a virtual 'café' where they can listen to peers' testimonials, watch straight-talking educational videos and access tools that help them manage their progress through the programme. The experience is shaped around the learning objectives and preferences of the visitor and is not compromised by an overt commercial agenda.

Other pharmaceutical marketers are looking at more direct ways to drive traffic to their web resources. Recognising that the online space is cluttered, and that learning experiences take place across channels, they are looking at tools that engage physicians in the physical world, then create seamless and direct paths to online learning tools.

Tactile, multi-dimensional direct mail and detailing aids have long been used to gain advantage through using physicians' natural instincts to learn through touch and interaction. But when there is no way to carry on learning on the spot, the message can get lost in the moment and the engagement ends when the piece is put aside. Emerging 'phygital' technologies are now giving brands ways to keep the momentum going by delivering health professionals directly to the front door of their online assets where they can continue the experience.

Smartphones are one way of creating this link between the physical and digital worlds and adoption rates are rising; a 2010 Knowledge Networks US survey suggested 50 per cent of physicians owned a smart phone and 17 per cent used them for edetailing. Mobile barcode technology was recently used by Inspire Pharmaceuticals which featured a 2D barcode in the award-winning print creative for the launch of AzaSite, wherein to learn more, professionals simply 'scanned' the code with their mobile to be instantly connected with a web video on how to administer the medication.

Another approach is to present the physicians with the kind of audio visual content they like to consume online, through offline channels. Marketers are finding ways to bring rich media content to physicians and patients without requiring them to go online. Print-based detailing aids and direct marketing pieces can now incorporate ultra-slim electrical components such as LCD screens and audio players with speakers or earphones. These tools are gaining popularity as a way to deliver key opinion leader insight, spoken voice stories from patients and product demonstration videos.


Patients share many of the same information consumption preferences as healthcare professionals. They expect instant access to easy-to-digest learning materials. They do not want to read through endless pages of text to find what is important to them. They make sense of illness and treatment in relation to their own lives and they want to contribute to the conversation. They seek out the views and experiences of friends, family and fellow patients.

Frustratingly, European pharmaceutical marketers have less freedom to provide this kind of information about their own drug brands than others. While unregulated websites may post inaccurate or unqualified information about medications and patients can speculate wildly about possible side effects in forums, strict European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) regulations stop pharma companies speaking to consumers directly about their medications.

However, this may be set to change as in September 2010, the European Parliament voted in favour of proposals to give patients better access to information about prescription medications, and to allow pharmaceutical companies to provide unbiased materials.

If the ruling is passed, brands will be seeking to balance the need to communicate complex and serious information with the need to present information in a fresh, creative and engaging way. This will be a challenge. Information on treatment and diseases can be complicated, lengthy and dull. It deals with issues that can be linked to negative emotions and often creativity is the slave of regulatory compliance.

In the US, where the rules on DTC marketing are more relaxed, progressive brands such as EMD Serono's Rebif are tailoring their communications to what research shows their patients like. To empower multiple sclerosis patients to make decisions about their treatment regime, EMD Serono traditionally provided them with a weighty folder of comprehensive materials about the medication. However, they began to note that patients preferred online research. Their response was to develop the Rebif e-Kit, using a special webkey tool. This pocket-sized device plugged into a USB port to connect patients to a private site containing all the information previously handled by the bulky binder.

"We're using this to deliver information to people trying to make a decision about their next treatment. That's a very specific website for a very specific audience, and we're hitting them at the point when they need to make this decision," said Melissa Hill, EMD Serono's director of communications. Costing 90 per cent less to produce than the binder, the e-Kit provided greater cost effectiveness.

This is an exciting time to be a pharmaceutical marketer. The age of the active and empowered consumer has arrived and there is a learning curve to be navigated. To get around it, a lot of listening is needed. The accompanying shift in mindset is driving the initiatives that truly support patient care. The weight of insight and innovation coming out of the industry is leading to a flurry of new ideas, and the toolkit of the healthcare marketer is becoming more interesting and mixed.

The Author
Linda Miller
is creative communications manager at Kyp

To comment on this article, email

30th March 2011


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