Does Online Pharma Marketing Need a Booster Shot?

Online advertising by the pharmaceutical and the health care industry will reach US$2.2 billion by 2011, but the sector’s approach to the Web leaves something to be desired, according to a market research report released last week.

“The pharmaceutical industry is in a state of flux or siege, depending on your point of view,” maintains the report from eMarketer, of New York City.

“Some of the trouble is self-induced, and some is caused by market and regulatory forces, a change in congressional leadership and just plain bad luck,” it says.

“Industry insiders — including doctors, academic researchers, former health policy makers and executives from hospitals and managed care organizations — are concerned about the growing influence of marketing,” it observes.

Nevertheless, the industry continues to stick with what it knows best — brand awareness messages in TV and print, the report asserts. When the industry does use the Internet, it does so in predictable ways.

Old Hat Tactics

“The ubiquitous tagline ‘Ask your doctor’ is now accompanied by ‘Visit our Web site,'” the report notes. “But when consumers arrive at the advertised site — and they do, in droves — they often encounter pages of text or online video of the drug’s TV commercial that is slow to load and play, even with a broadband connection.”

The industry remains mired in outdated attitudes toward the Web, maintained the author of the report, eMarketer senior analyst Lisa Phillips.

“The tactics they’re using are pretty old hat,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

One pharma site, she noted, used video to educate consumers about one of its products.

“It was loggy and it didn’t play,” she said. “It wasn’t even as sophisticated as YouTube.”

Trust in Low Supply

The aims of some pharma Netposts seem opaque, especially when they’re collecting information from consumers, asserts the eMarketer report.

“[P]rivacy policies should be written clearly, and links to them should be provided on every page on a site,” the report recommends.

“If they ask visitors for personal information, pharma companies have to tell visitors how they will use it,” it continues.

“Transparency equals trust,” it adds, “something the pharmaceutical industry has in low supply.”

Better Interaction Needed

The report explains that consumers are using the Net to formulate their attitudes toward product brands.

“A pharma site that offers good navigation to staid images and static text pages does not inspire brand loyalty but simply momentary gratification, assuming the information is what the visitor is looking for,” the report maintains.

It recommends that pharma sites be more interactive.

“Online messages must be interactive because consumers are looking for a dialogue, especially when their health is involved,” it notes. “Something as simple as offering mobile or Internet alerts to prompt patients to take their medicine are opt-in tactics that benefit patients and boost compliance.”

Focus on Pill Pushers

It’s not surprising that pharmaceutical companies are having trouble interacting with consumers, since its primary marketing spend has been directed at pill pushers, not pill takers.

“Marketing to the medical profession still receives greater spending, although that is steadily eroding,” the report observes.

It’s very difficult changing the promotional mix in a pharmaceutical company, said Michael du Toit, vice president for marketing for Digitas Health in Philadelphia, Pa.

“They’re slightly slower than packaged goods industries because the pressures there are not as great,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “They’re not as dependent on consumer opinion.”

Or so they thought before the Internet became so popular.

Cashing In on Net Trust

“What they’ve figured out,” du Toit continued, “is that most patients, when they feel sick, search the Internet.”

When they search the Net, they have a myriad of questions, he explained. The Internet, with its ability to provide a depth of information, can provide them with answers to those questions.

“That’s why it’s catching on with pharmaceutical companies and they’re moving more and more of their marketing budgets into that channel,” he said.

Although consumers are bombarded daily with drug information — largely through spammers — they’ve grown to trust the Internet as a source of information, he asserted.

Popular medical sites on the Web are carefully crafted, he said, and provide many viewpoints on a topic.

The pharmaceutical companies want to participate in that process of discovery on the Net, he contended.

“They want to be an option on the Internet,” he argued, “because it offers them an opportunity to be part of a more credible and balanced view.”

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