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Internet Advertising: Diving In

Internet developments offer pharma the opportunity to better engage with healthcare professionals. But who will be the first to maximise on these new technologies?

Web advertisingAfter the 2000/2001 crash, the internet was licking its wounds and looking for ways to get going again.

The catalyst came in 2003 when, thanks to companies such as Google and Overture, the old cost-per-mille (CPM) model went out the window and cost-per-click (CPC) advertising was introduced. This meant that the advertiser would now only have to pay its host websites for visitor 'click-throughs' to its homepage.

The advent of the broadband boom of 2004 and leaps in tracking capabilities resulted in the internet going stratospheric. People could, at last, monetise the value of their websites and calculate accurately the return on investment of online advertising spend.

The phenomena revitalised electronic advertising and provided marketers with a cost-efficient and effective means of talking directly to target audiences. However, the online professional pharmaceutical market appeared to miss the boat completely. Hampered or hiding behind their legacy models and legislative restrictions, this group of professionals stuck to the old way of doing business.

To this day, advertising is almost entirely sold by the healthcare publishers on a tenancy basis at exorbitant rates. Some pharma companies even continue the practice of buying exclusive space on an entire category for up to a year at a time, just so others can't get it. This approach to blocking the competition implies a basic misunderstanding of the power and potential value of the internet and its messaging capabilities. It is no longer about the spending power of the advertiser, it is about choice and user empowerment.

Fear of the unknown

Lack of knowledge and fear of the unknown can be partly blamed for the slow evolution in digital pharmaceutical advertising and marketing. It can also be argued that there are only a finite number of healthcare professionals (HCPs) in the UK and thus the battle for their attention on the internet is tougher than for their consumer counterparts. This is true, but HCPs are highly intelligent people who use the internet as much as any other group of professionals does. To treat them differently is to open the door to whoever realises first that HCPs are also consumers.

For those wishing to distinguish themselves in the electronic arena and successfully communicate with HCPs through the internet, the following basic guidelines should be considered. As a starting point to this discussion, it might be helpful to divide the digital market into three categories: Opportunity-to-See (OTS), Click-Through (CT) and Push.


Opportunity-to-See (OTS) is all about getting a brand message across, based on the theory that if enough people see a brand enough times, it will eventually rise to the forefront of their minds at the critical moment of prescription or recommendation.

This form of digital marketing is the internet equivalent to driving past a roadside billboard at 60mph. One of the common mistakes made by pharmaceutical marketers when using OTS is to buy space for this type of advertisement in exactly the same place where consumer advertisers would place banners on a site - namely in the site header at the top of a page.

OTS ads do not provide a click-through but are seen rather as a means to display brand messages. If website users, professional or not, see one of these ads in a position where they would normally see a click-through, they will naturally expect that if they click on it, it will take them somewhere. This serves to create a negative impact by not delivering to the expectant clicker.

The advertiser would be well advised to think just as carefully about the positioning of the OTS as the messaging itself. Look for other ad spaces on a web page where the wrong expectation is not set. Use messaging clearly designed to grab attention, make a point, but not raise the expectation of a click-through.

Click-through (CT)

One of the most startling factors about the professional pharma digital market is the lack of attention given to Google. In the consumer world, it is all about Google. The Microsoft Network - MSN - while it probably delivers a higher-end audience, has just five per cent of the UK search market, while Google has 76 per cent.

There are two aspects to Google: natural search rankings, which generates approximately 60 per cent of traffic and paid for advertising (cost-per-click), where the remaining 40 per cent comes from. The reticence to use Google is founded in the belief that professional healthcare information should not be on the open internet. This is of course absolutely true, but not only does it miss the point, it ignores a staggering opportunity to individually target the message. At the beginning of every internet userís digital journey, he or she is an unknown (beyond an IP address). The trick is to put a name to the faceless surfer and 'own' him or her.

I recently came across one forward-thinking US pharma company that effectively uses cost-per-click in this way. After typing a therapy area into Google, the company's ad appears on the right hand side of the screen. Its headline is For Professionals Only accompanied by an exert which explains the offering. In addition, the website address (URL) also has HCP at the end, and if that isn't enough to put off regular consumers, then when clicking on the ad, you will be faced with a website inviting HCPs to click on one big button and members of the public to click on the other.

Taking the consumer route results in a cookie (small file that is put on your machine to identify you in the future) being put on to your machine, which if you go back and decide you are a professional, will prevent you from accessing the professional area. If you get through (cookies can be deleted if you know how), you are required to type in your medical association number: there isn't much more you can do than that to prevent inappropriate access to your site. Meanwhile, interested consumers are dealt with by the company website, and all for only 30 cents! Compare that to the apparent cost-per-acquisition of an HCP via display advertising and then start praying you don't bump into your financial director at the water cooler.

When it comes to natural search engine results, pharma is often in quite a unique situation. Type a therapy area into Google and with the exception of some of the huge ones such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, you will find that many of them are niche. Niche equates to gold dust on the internet where there are now approximately 1.1 billion websites. Being niche provides the ability to create quickly a top-placed search engine ranking, with minimum effort.

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is undoubtedly a skill, but is not as complicated as its purveyors would have us believe; 75 per cent of SEO is just best practice and the only place where SEO specialists really show their true colours is in the last 25 per cent - fighting the truly competitive ranking battles in saturated markets.

So, why do so many professional pharma sites hide all their content behind a registration page, through which Google will not pass to look inside? In niche markets, in particular, a modest amount of content and a thought-through targeting strategy will deliver quickly appropriate rankings and results.

Click-through marketing can also take the form of display advertising designed specifically to lead website visitors down a particular path. Here messaging is key. The ad must scream 'click-me' and create the perception of added value if the visitor does so. This means delivering rich and relevant content or data-capture in return for information so that visitors think their journey was worthwhile.

Don't be bamboozled by the industry lingo of skyscrapers, MPU's, banners, uber-banners, squeezebacks etc, just start with a strategy that identifies your target audience and the single-minded objectives of the activity, and get your agency to explain which display ad types will deliver those objectives.

Good use of click-through marketing, in any of its forms, means that we can, at last, begin to attribute some demonstrable value to the ad. We are still a long way from pounds and pence generated by the ultimate prescription, but a notional value can be calculated.

What is the point of notional value? Quite apart from its estimated financial value, it is a benchmark against which to measure subsequent campaigns with the same or different publishers. Any year where results from digital advertising are not evaluated, learned from and then acted upon, is a wasted year.

Push marketing

Finally, we have 'push' marketing or, to put it another way, the delivery of rich content such as e-detailing. E-detailing is described as the technological equivalent of the pharmaceutical reps' traditional sales aid. Either internet based or loaded onto a tablet PC, an e-detail is an interactive presentation which is backed up by robust CRM systems to allow for a tailored marketing approach for every single customer.

This technology offers fantastic opportunities to have a branded dialogue with target markets which, if done well, will establish a strong bond with them. Much is being made of community and web 2.0 (a phrase referring to a perceived second generation of web-based communities and hosted services ó such as social networking sites, wikis and folksonomies), and rightly so. However, Web 3.0 is already on its way and any dialogue and loyalty building that can be achieved by delivering value and interacting with an HCP is a step in the right direction.

Google, through its purchase of DoubleClick, which will no doubt lead to domination in the display advertising market, is now accelerating its pay-per-action (PPA) advertising model in the UK. With PPA, the client only pays when a pre-agreed action (purchase, download, registration etc) is executed by the visitor. With this new development, the consumer internet will leave the professional pharmaceutical internet further in its wake. All it will take is one brand manager to work out how to truly quantify the value of online advertising spend to HCPs, and to stand up and admit it at the end-of-year conference, for the walls to come tumbling down. The question is: who's going to go first?

The Author
Sam Brownfield is digital marketing consultant at gem, a healthcare and pharmaceutical media buying and planning agency

18th July 2007


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