Pharma still searching online

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The other day I was flipping through some old copies of the sadly defunct Revolution magazine (for digital marketers) and an editorial from February 2001 caught my eye. The article rather bizarrely likened evolving interactive technologies to singing pigs.

“If you have a pig that can sing, then it doesn't matter if it doesn't know the words to the song or that it can't hold a tune properly. People will come to see it because it's a singing pig,” said the column. “But when all pigs are able to sing, the situation changes and it really will start to matter how good your pig is at singing.”

This made me wonder, with industries such as travel, autos and finance employing ensembles of pigs performing multi-part marketing anthems, where does our industry figure on this metaphoric scale? Do we even register an oink? To put it another way, what's it going to take for pharma to shake off its online inhibitions and invest a meaningful share of promo dollars into interactive initiatives?

That was the question to which myself and most of the 300 or so marketing and media executives who crammed into Philadelphia's Ritz Carlton last month for the 7th annual ePharma Summit awaited answers. Well, that and “How do we do it?” (those delegates with money to spend) and “When is it going to happen?” (those with money to make).

What we got from the experts on the podium were compelling arguments for embracing the interactive space, punctuated by the figures from the latest studies—namely, that the amount of Americans with online access is almost everybody, the number of consumers and doctors searching online for healthcare information is lots, the number of sites they visit is lots and the amount of money pharma spends online is not much at all.

Many experts, such as Rex Briggs, founder and CEO, Marketing Evolution and author of What Sticks, were at odds to explain pharma's sluggishness, refusing to believe a lack of data is to blame.

“Research is not the solution. Dammit, we did the research 12 years ago…What's taking you so long?” roared Briggs. “No patient ever got better from a thermometer—it's what you do with that data.”

Headlining the show, at least in a keynote luncheon capacity, was Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution Health and co-founder of AOL. If anyone knew the answer to this puzzle, surely Case did. If the online media magnate couldn't make it happen, then no one could. Maybe so, but he wasn't giving too much away, hardly surprising given his current mission to build the largest online healthcare network.

Like many before him, Case outlined the key challenges, but used an example of Amazon.com in the early days of e-commerce as evidence of how quickly online behavior can change and the hurdles that can be overcome.

“If I'd stood up back then and suggested that consumers would enter their credit card number [into Amazon.com], that the number would be stored for future purchases, and that the site would recommend what they should buy next time,” he said, “I'd have been run out of the room.”

Case's message was simple: keep plugging away, have fun while you're doing it and eventually it will happen. Not necessarily the answer we were looking for, but sound advice for both e-marketers and aspiring porcine vocalists.

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