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The right way to go digital

Almost all pharma companies are now online, but don't be complacent about doing digital well

Digital directionDigital marketing in the pharmaceutical industry has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years. Nowadays it is extremely rare to find a company that has no digital presence whatsoever: most pharma companies are now happily tweeting, blogging and posting on YouTube and new, digitally-focused job titles are springing up in the sector on a regular basis.

Could you have imagined that five years ago? This advance reflects universal changes in marketing across all industries, but for pharma it represents a particularly logical step. The internet is a valuable communication mechanism and the vast majority of healthcare professionals (HCPs) turn to digital for a plethora of reasons. Common sense prevails: fish where the fish are.

However, does this mean that all digital marketing is equal, or, more importantly, successful? The simple answer is no. The online channel does not work simply by virtue of being online and campaigns should not be undertaken purely for the sake of doing something digital.

Where are the fish?
Former US President Theodore Roosevelt famously believed: "If you build it, they will come". Unfortunately, this does not hold true for websites.

Many companies spend large amounts of time and money on brainstorming, designing and building outstanding websites with stunning visuals, engaging content and innovative navigation, only for them to fall at the first hurdle: getting the right people to see it.

There is no point building a website if you haven't first considered what your audience wants and how you are going to get it to them. A flashy, all-singing, all-dancing website might impress your boss but will it influence your customers to prescribe your brand or help change behaviour?

Preparing for a digital campaign
Deciding who your target customers are is a fundamental part of any marketing campaign. However, from several years' experience of online campaigns in pharma, I'd say the thought given to how to access these customers is often lacking and can even be an afterthought.

When you decide to undertake a digital project, there are three key questions to ask: how do I get my target customers to see the information I am putting online? How do I get them to engage with, absorb, understand and act on the information I am giving them? And, how can I measure the impact my information has had on my target customers?

If all three of these concerns are addressed before embarking on a web project you are already on your way to a successful campaign. Understanding what customers want in terms of content and design and how they want to be communicated with — rather than feeding them what you think they want — increases engagement and can make all the difference to your return on investment (RoI). After all, marketing campaigns (whether on- or offline) usually involve significant budgets; a little forethought in this area can mean the difference between influencing customers and turning them off.

Drilling down
The three crucial areas to consider can be broken down further. For the question 'How do I get my target customers to see the information I am putting online?', it is also necessary to ask 'Do I want the public to see it? If not, how do I make sure the public can't see it?' and 'How do I reach only my target customers?'

To address the question of getting target customers to engage with, absorb, understand and act on the information you're giving, it is also essential to consider if you know your customers' concerns and the information they want to read; how to target specific messages to specific audiences, and what counts as true engagement.

To measure the impact your information has had on your target customers, you must first define what success looks like to you, your company and your brand and work out how to measure that.

Answering these questions makes it easier to plan a successful campaign. Knowing what you want to achieve makes it easier to brief your digital provider, who can then help to formulate a campaign around your needs that will meet your objectives while explaining why and how each element works with your desired audience. Knowledge of what doctors want is essential at this stage of the planning process.

Specifically targeted information
If the campaign is targeted at HCPs only, as many ethical brand campaigns are, there are two ways to ensure the general public can't access the information.

Either you can contact the HCP directly via a verified email list or you can deliver the messages to a closed, verified-HCP community. The public cannot access sites that require GMC-authentication to register and these sites are not crawled by search engines so cannot be found by non-target audiences. Remember however that some sites allow access when any number is typed into their landing page.

This is not verified and only sites with a verification process for entry can claim to serve HCPs only.

Customers can be targeted by the details they have provided when registering to receive marketing information, such as specialty, seniority, location and so on.

Targeting fails when delivery providers do not register exactly who is using their site or your resource. In this situation targeting can only be achieved geographically by IP address.

To target doctors, or groups of doctors, it is essential to verify their GMC membership.

Getting customers to engage
Doctors are time-poor and tend only to want to engage with resources that will help them to improve their practices.

Dr James Quekett, GP and medical advisor to, summed this up: "When it comes to brand information, is it new, cheaper or better in terms of efficacy or side effects? If not, I don't want to hear about it. Information from pharma also needs to be succinct and to the point."

Understanding your customer needs comes from a variety of sources including (but not limited to) market research, social media, salesforce feedback and getting feedback directly from customers or via an HCP community.

Targeting specific messages to specific audiences is an area in which the online channel truly comes into its own.

Digital marketing is all about cost-effective, tailored, targeted and measurable communication. It is ideal for delivering tailored messages to specific audiences, whether at PCT or brick level, or based on job title or seniority. The more profiled the audience, the more targeted the campaign can be.

While the success rates of individual campaigns will unquestionably be specific to individual brand and business objectives, the steadfast principle across the board when measuring engagement is to assess in terms of quality rather than quantity.

The key to achieving this is in developing trust. 

Carwyn Jones, head of pharma sales and marketing at and ex-pharma marketer, gave his view: "Engaging with doctors is not as easy as sending them an email shot. True engagement, and thus valuable communication, comes from having a trusting and mutually beneficial relationship."

Trust is probably the biggest factor when it comes to quality engagement. As a consumer, who are you more likely to engage with and be influenced by: someone you trust or someone you don't know?

Defining and measuring success
It is imperative to decide what success looks like before embarking on any campaign. Your definition of success may be as clear-cut as increasing sales figures or getting positive feedback from customers or requests for more information. But how can you attribute success to each element of your marketing mix?

Digital campaigns stand out as being the most measurable part of the marketing mix when it comes to quantity of interaction, such as how many people are viewing your resource and for how long. To look at the quality of this interaction savvy marketers can add perception change questioning to the resource or look at campaign impact assessments, eDetail follow ups and focus groups versus comparable controls.

The ideal campaign
The ideal campaign is one of forethought, insight, tailoring, integration, measurement and reaction:
• Having the forethought to think through messaging, positioning, concept, who your key audiences are and how to access and measure, forms the foundation of every successful campaign
• Having insight into your customers' needs and concerns should guide what content is provided and how it is delivered
• Information that is tailored to a doctor's profile and needs will be absorbed, understood, retained and influential
• Integrating digital assets with salesforce activity and offline materials will produce a cohesive campaign greater than the sum of its parts
• The online channel lends itself to measurement like no other: this is important when monitoring success and comparing against other elements in the marketing mix
• There is no point in measuring all parameters and getting valuable feedback from your customers if you do not react accordingly. Listening is as valuable as communicating.

Digital marketing is not an exact science; there is no formula for success, but it is a valuable, measurable and necessary tool in the pharmaceutical industry.

To avoid or ignore the online channel, regardless of the reason for doing so, is short-sighted.

To quote Roosevelt again: "In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."

The Author
Marie Pickford is the client services director at

To comment on this article, email

13th January 2011


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