The challenge of “breaking through the clutter” and “rising above the noise level” has never been more real or literal than today, when anyone with Internet access can consume and publish vast volumes of information on virtually any topic.
In the medical arena, people can explore the symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and management of every disease and health condition ever experienced. They can also solicit information about personal experiences with an illness, rate products, and get endless opinions from a global audience. Moreover, they can create original, uncensored content and share it with millions of others across the world.
Some marketers may be critical of the broad mix of information now available, arguing that it's less reliable and credible than information originating with expert sources. They'll also recall that it was easier to “control the message” when communication flowed only one way and from a limited number of sources. The inescapable truth, however, is that the days of one-sided, expert-to-layman communication are gone forever, forcing marketers to seriously reconsider the challenges of getting heard and influencing behavior amid unprecedented competition.
For pharma companies, the greatest opportunity posed by the boom of new media is the chance it offers to monitor and participate in the most significant two-way conversations ever held and to use them for gathering information as well as disseminating it.
For decades, pharmaceutical marketers communicated to the outside world chiefly through advertising and public relations. While both can be highly effective, they are limited by the numbers of target audience members they reach (of x-number of readers who may see an ad or article, how many have an interest in the subject?) and by the degree of two-way exchange that takes place. Alternative media, by reaching self-selected groups of people who are already sharing information on particular topics, offers marketers a way of more closely targeting their audiences and learning precisely what interests and concerns them.
For most drug companies, regulatory concerns are the major obstacle to becoming active in alternative media. How do you bear responsibility for a dialogue when you're just one voice in the conversation and unable to predict what the other voices will say? And what do you do if you learn of adverse events with one of your brands, but the report comes from an anonymous posting and can't be readily verified?
The FDA may not have clear answers to such questions, but has been receptive to the use of new media by pharmaceutical companies provided communications comply with all current regulatory guidelines. Moreover, there are signs that the agency appreciates the value of new media and is making its own efforts to leverage the communications opportunities it presents—the FDA now uses alerts, podcasts and feeds to provide safety- and product-related news directly to the public.
Because disease management and public safety are goals shared by government and industry, it seems likely the FDA will continue to be open to the responsible use of new media, especially if it results in a better-informed public, earlier reporting of adverse events and quicker, more effective product recalls. Understanding both the challenges and potential benefits of alternative media, the agency is monitoring how pharma companies regulate its forays into the new territory rather than rushing to impose restrictions in an area that is still rapidly evolving.
Approaches To Using New Media
So how do pharmaceutical marketers in a risk-averse industry leverage the opportunities presented by alternative media? Following are key areas to consider.
Information Gathering—At bare minimum, pharma marketers should monitor pertinent Web sites, blogs, podcasts and other media to track emerging issues, trends and influencers. Knowing what's being said about particular disease states, categories, drugs and competitors helps marketers formulate and refine strategy and craft specific messages and materials. Having a finger on the pulse of current thinking helps identify unmet patient needs and detect possible crises far earlier.
Education—Marketers should fully exploit the power of Web sites to deliver educational information. Every product actively marketed should have a strong presence (a dedicated site and/or dedicated pages within a corporate site); have reciprocal links to the Web sites of pertinent advocacy groups and special-interest organizations; be easily accessible through specific keywords on major search engines (including Technorati, a search engine for blogs); and be widely publicized through various mediums. RSS feeds are another means of syndicating Web site content and product updates to various health portals.
Pharmaceutical marketers should also consider the advantages of offering unbranded disease-state information, which also helps build awareness of treatment options. Such content is often integrated with branded activities and third-party activities to communicate consistent messages to everyone who influences, recommends, prescribes, approves, purchases or uses a particular healthcare product. Unbranded content is useful in preparing for product launches and lends itself especially well to podcasts, which can be widely syndicated through channels such as Google Video, Yahoo! and iTunes. Online communities around specific disease states are also developing within large social networking sites such as MySpace.com.
Drug companies may eventually be comfortable hosting or sponsoring dedicated blogs. If used to discuss appropriate product use and answer questions from the public, a blog could function much like the toll-free information lines. There are greater risks in an interactive environment, requiring companies to develop detailed policies on the steps they will take to operate in compliance with established legal, medical, regulatory and ethical guidelines. But companies that provide the public with clear, helpful, accurate information boost the reputations of their products and companies as well as contributing positively to the health dialogues taking place in alternative media.
Before marketers can effectively leverage the opportunities presented by new media, their companies have to make a long-term commitment to understanding and embracing it. They must develop internal policies and communications plans and ensure that they are understood by everyone within the company. Additionally, they must make the commitment to keep all alternative media vehicles accurate and current over the long term. The commitment must be made to ensure that company and brand positioning are consistent throughout all communications channels.
The emergence and growth of alternative media provides new opportunities for pharmaceutical companies to help patients become more informed, make better decisions and have better outcomes. How marketers handle these opportunities will have an impact on their companies' sales and reputations as well as affecting how quickly and successfully the goal of improved disease management is realized.
Fabio Gratton is chief innovation officer at Ignite Health, Irvine, CA
SIDEBAR 1: Key tools in new media
Blog – Common shorthand for “weblog,” a type of Web site that chronicles entries in diary form and displays them in reverse chronological order. Blogs often provide commentary and news on specific topics, such as a particular disease or drug. Most blogs are primarily textual, but often include photos and provide links to other blogs, web pages and related media. Since 2003, blogs have gained increasing notice and credibility for their role in breaking and shaping major news stories. Their use by national news media, politicians and a variety of experts has cemented the role of blogs as a source of in-depth analysis and influential opinion.
Podcast – Distribution of audio and other multimedia files over the Internet for playback on personal com-puters and/or mobile devices. Most podcasts are serial, i.e., each release features one new “episode” in a continuing series. Can be widely syndicated through services such as iTunes.
RSS Feed – Really Simple Syndication (or Rich Site Summary) provides web content or summaries of web content together with links to the full versions of the content. In addition to facilitating syndication, RSS feeds allow users to have news constantly fed to them through an aggregator, which regularly checks a list of feeds and displays any updates it finds. This makes RSS feeds a valuable resource for journalists.
Technorati™ – An Internet search engine that searches blogs by keyword and links. As of this August, Technorati indexes more than 50.6 million blogs. PubSub, IceRocket, Blogdigger and Feedster also provide blog-searching services, along with Google and Yahoo!.