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Untangling the web

Practical internet strategies for brand managers facing tightening budgets

web_connectionPharmaceutical brands have been slow to adopt web marketing. The cautious behaviour of our sector, combined with uncertainty of regulation, has held the pharmaceutical field back while marketers in finance, professional services, manufacturing and business services have been quick to race online. I believe that with the right marketing strategies, brand teams can boost the effectiveness of their communications planning.

When new innovations arrive in business, some sectors adopt them quickly, while others move more slowly. In my experience, pharmaceutical firms have been among the slowest of all. The combination of big management structures, global frameworks, understandable conservatism and unclear regulation has left pharma marketers five to seven years behind other sectors in the use of the web. From clinicians to administrators, those involved in the purchase process have switched to the web, but few pharma brands have followed. Many rarely reach out beyond their own websites.

I believe that this is a massive missed opportunity. Now that budgets are tight and firms must make cost savings, it is sad to recognise that, while every brand has a website, few have had the vision and strategy to turn it into a high-traffic hub that customers use regularly. Most pharma brands have only dipped their toes into web advertising, have failed to build relationship marketing through email, and have never properly optimised use of the search engines.

However, now that the financial climate is forcing firms to innovate, the pharmaceutical sector is facing its biggest shake-up in a decade. Change is coming, and for the marketers who are bold enough, I believe there's a competitive wave that they and their brands can ride for the next five years.  

Relationship building
Every brand needs to find ways to reach its target customers directly. Whether through renting lists from online media, or building the lists themselves, investing in a database is key to starting successful relationship marketing.

Email is the longest-established form of internet marketing, pre-dating the web by over a decade and providing the most cost-effective touch point. Today's HTML mailers provide smart gateways to brand websites – and at a marginal cost of almost zero. Marketers can track open-rates and pass-on rates, identifying when and how deeply target prospects engage. With none of the intrusion of telephone interviews or surveys, a customer's real attitude can be uncovered in days.

Simple, one-size-fits-all email broadcasts are only a starting point. The power of email lies in the richness of its targeting. Segmenting the market into different types of prospect, with different interests and attitudes, unlocks response rates and lead generation. In the right hands, email becomes a self-learning tool, building more concrete profile data that can then be integrated into sales management systems like

Harness web media
In almost every country, doctors and medical purchase decision makers are now heavy online users. It's no surprise that they over-index on web audience research because between PubMed, the journals, Trust websites and pharma sites, the internet has become indispensable. For GPs it has even become an essential first line of defence as patients present themselves with self-diagnoses drawn from an alarming combination of Google and Wikipedia sources. Clinicians, medical administrators and policy advisors simply cannot practise without networked computers.

If the first rule of marketing is to understand your customers, then the first rule of media is to reach them in the places where they come together. Within today's regulatory framework, there are clear ways to harness web media and online clinicians are readily interested and keen to be engaged. Their use of the web may happen at times and places that suit them rather than via field sales, but in the hands of smart online media planners, the messages for a pharma brand will only be seen by those interested in the specific therapy. Lord Leverhulme's adage of "half my advertising money is wasted. The problem is that I don't know which half" has been answered with surprising clarity.

Track exposure
Clever marketers use the web to quantify the cost per impact and the results generated. In skilled hands, the web can be highly accountable and a best friend to marketers faced with budget cuts and having to choose between different tools. Working as a branding medium as much as a direct response channel, websites and web advertising are well documented in building awareness and changing brand perceptions.

But even the simplest banner can trigger the download of a data sheet, the results of clinical trials or registration for an offline event.

Explore podcasts
When brands need to tell their stories directly, the web provides a range of tools that reach far beyond the brand site. Online magazines, journals and communities guarantee high levels of relevant traffic. Brands can lever their own messages by using commercial spaces and partnerships with those sites created to deliver in-depth information about a given therapy. Podcasts and videocasts provide high-impact techniques for exactly targeting the right audiences with the most complex messages. They allow potential purchasers and influencers to hear first-hand about the benefits of new treatments. An audit of the relative costs of this route compared to more traditional channels shows why smart pharma brands have been eagerly exploring online media, often far below the radar of their rivals.

Reduce salesforce costs
The pharma industry still relies heavily on massive field salesforces. It is ironic that as doctors and purchasers become more pressed for time, the models of purchase and influence become more complicated. Field sales teams become more desperate to make those appointments, condensing the complexity of the therapy and the pitch into ever-simpler sound bites. It's a spiral of inefficiency and, as a model, long past its use-by date.

Understanding the solution is partly a numbers game, so accurate costs for each marketing channel are needed. These are not simply the media costs of advertising or the sponsorship costs of conferences, but the breadth of internal and external costs that collectively account for the total energy of a sales and marketing operation. This must be collated to find the real marketing mix and the options for change.

Map the role of each channel
The journey a pharma customer makes during each sale is radically different today from how it was in 2000, yet the marketing approach remains surprisingly unchanged. Each purchaser discovers information in different ways, but today the web, email, online journals and forums are sure to feature highly. The paradox is that these are typically under-represented in the portfolio of tools used by most pharma brands. Relating each channel to a definable touch point in the influencing process behind a sale shows how pharma marketing is working.

Analysing these touch points and relating them directly to sales will indicate which aspects of marketing to bolster and which to restrict. There is commonly too much focus on field sales and an under-representation for web media, search, email and the brand's own site.

Listen to the web
Simply listening to the conversations taking place online gives insight into the company's brands and the issues affecting them. At the very least, use of basic Google Alerts will provide such understanding.

Experienced digital marketers see the web as a giant market research tool and can quickly yield a network of places where conversations are taking place. They can even pinpoint the individuals leading the debate. While some of these are found in the expected places, such as the pages of the British Medical Journal or the official site of the NHS, some could be found via the more freeform discussion forums on the web, like or the private blogs of patient groups. To plan an effective communication strategy, every pharmaceutical brand needs to map these spaces and understand the network of voices.  

Conversation analysis
Use of richer research techniques is needed to track key issues, along with a system to alert teams around the organisation to relevant information. Models of citation analysis can be used to cut through the proliferation of data to find the essence of what is being said.

Web marketing can present a daunting array of unfamiliar choices for those new to the scene. From Facebook to search engine optimisation, YouTube to RSS feeds, there is no shortage of calls on the marketer's time. The ideas presented here are quick tactical fixes for marketing budgets under pressure. They are not intended as substitutes for an integrated digital channel strategy, but are ideas most firms can use and gain from immediately. By breaking down the complexity of digital marketing choices, I believe marketers can gain the confidence to research and tackle each in turn, taking their teams with them and boosting the insights of stakeholders too.

The Author
Danny Meadows-Klue is the founder of Digital Strategy Consulting
To comment on this article, email

11th May 2009


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