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Up close and personal

Pharma marketers must regard the patient as a key target audience

A lady looking through a shape made with her handsThe pharma market is experiencing a great deal of change. Everyone agrees that the traditional rep model doesn't have a future and doctors are becoming increasingly disillusioned by their diminishing ability to make prescribing decisions.

Recently, there has been much discussion about the move from pay per script towards a payment by results model. For example, consider the reimbursement of Velcade, which depends on how effective it is at shrinking the patient's tumour and Lucentis, which is paid for by the manufacturer after 14 injections. 

All these changes mean that marketers must work even harder, and smarter, to maximise smaller opportunities. With "traditional" marketing approaches being less effective in the new landscape, new ways of communicating on behalf of our brands need to be embraced.

Patient influence
As current marketing approaches become less effective, the influence of the patient continues to grow. Patients now have much more access to health information than ever before and this change in behaviour is driven by the ever-increasing broadband penetration into homes. The percentage of internet users on broadband in the UK rose to 95.1 per cent in December 2008, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This percentage is now so high that the ONS no longer bothers to measure it.

So, how effectively are we engaging consumers in this new digital landscape? And how well are we using the communication tools of today's patient?

There is some encouraging news. Today, many major pharmaceutical companies are, to a degree, making tentative steps in the digital social media landscape. Indeed, many pharma companies have a presence on Twitter. (See the pharma blog for an up-to-date list of pharma Twitter accounts.) But the point of social media is to communicate with others – and it is a shame that Twitter is mainly being used to push communications rather than engage in conversation.

So what's stopping us getting more involved? The answer is more complex than you may think. (See the PM articles Stage Fright  and Small Steps.) Yes, interpretation of the regulatory environment is strangling many attempts to engage consumers and new channels, as is noted in the article Setting Parameters.

Advertising direct to consumers is, of course, illegal across the EU so, with the consequence of a criminal record, it isn't really surprising that pharma is a bit cautious and that the fear of dealing with a barrage of adverse events makes us shy away from encouraging patient interactions.

Complex scenario
However, there are other, less obvious, reasons why engagement in patient initiatives is less common than it should be. Most pharma marketers still think about their marketing mix in four main areas: advertising, PR, medical education and market access.

The problem is that marketers are thinking about which channels they can use to promote their brand, rather than thinking about how they can engage their customer groups. Some organisations are becoming more customer-focused, but they rarely consider the patient as an important customer.

Another reason for slow adoption is that marketers are used to working with specialist healthcare agencies and specialist healthcare agencies are used to recommending and executing traditional healthcare marketing solutions. So perhaps it isn't that surprising that clients are not finding innovative approaches from their healthcare-focused agency partners.

When a patient strategy is drawn up and executed, there can be another problem; often marketing departments don't have the appropriate experience to embark on patient communication initiatives, especially using digital communication channels. This inexperience is further compounded when the pharma company calls on the healthcare advertising agency for help. So, it is not surprising that many patient initiatives fail to meet expectations. This poor experience often reinforces a perception that patient and consumer initiatives do not work. Specialist healthcare agencies are excellent at developing great physician-focused work. However, what healthcare agencies do well is no longer what pharmaceutical companies need to operate in the new patient-focused digital world.

New partners
So what is the best way for pharma marketers to innovate truly through patient engagement?

Consider looking at areas away from your traditional and trusted agency partners. You have probably built a good relationship doing great work together in the past, but it would be wrong to assume that the same trusted partner is going to deliver new solutions. After all, they have been rewarded for doing the same thing day in, day out for the last few years.

Be challenging of agencies claiming digital know-how. Be suspicious of an agency with a 'head of digital' or a digital department. These suggest that digital is a bolt-on to their capability, so don't expect cutting-edge digital communications planning.

Understand how patients interact with your brand. There are numerous digital tools that monitor what people are saying about your brand, many of which are free. With a number of clients, we are using digital listening tools to understand the behaviours of all "customer" groups, from KOLs to patients, finding out who is saying what and to whom. Armed with this information, it is possible to employ a number of approaches to position your brand most effectively, even when regulations do not permit you actually to mention your brand.

Consumer inspiration
Now is the time to embrace patients and the channels they use to communicate. Look at the consumer world to see what is going on. For example, if you've got a Facebook account (which you should have) go to and see how engaging a digital ad can be using Facebook's connect personalisation.

Test in-market in a live environment, rather than relying on research. Pharma has a deep and long relationship with research. It is often cited as the reason that creativity is so lacking in pharma advertising. We often spend too long in research, thinking it will tell us how effective an approach can be. We use research as a safety net to catch us if our advertising is not as successful as we hope. Using digital channels, it is remarkably easy to develop low-cost pilots that give real-time results.

Understand the importance of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) in the digital marketing mix. Nearly all internet experiences start with a search engine, which is usually Google. Try searching your own brand and see what appears; you could be in for a nasty surprise. As Chris Anderson, editor of Wired says: "Your brand is what Google says your brand is, not what you say your brand is."

This is an exciting time to be involved in the digital communications business. Never before has the way we communicate changed so quickly. The statistics are numerous and can be intimidating. For example, 100 million YouTube videos are downloaded every day. In 1995, there were 48 million internet users. In 2009, there are 1.5 billion with 6.4 million getting online every month. A full 90 per cent of online adults in Europe rely on the internet to help manage their health and wellness.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the task. Rather than ask yourself what you should do, ask yourself what you should do next. Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Now is the time to try something different.

The Author
John Perkins is managing partner at RAPP
To comment on this article, email

19th November 2009


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