Overview: VOD, Wii & Thee

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Pharmas are finally dipping their toes into Web 2.0, with a smattering of blogs, Facebook pages, YouTube channels and online viral campaigns, even as many still struggle to master Web 1.0. However, the immense economic and regulatory pressures coming to bear on the industry are prompting companies to get serious about integrating digital media more fully into the mix. 

“This is a year where, especially in anticipation of the Obama administration, alternative media strategies are getting a fair look,” says Jack Barrette, CEO of WEGO Health. “TV is economically as questionable as always, and now it's a political liability to be overly visible on TV. I think you're going to see a measurable pop in online spending as a share of media buys.”

Welcome to the “Age of the Consumer Opinion Leader,” says Craig DeLarge, associate director of emarketing and relationship marketing for Novo Nordisk. “People are recognizing the wisdom of the crowd as being, in some disease states, as authoritative or more authoritative than healthcare professionals.” 

“That means,” he continues, “we as healthcare marketers have to think differently about everything—who our customers are, how they interact with different media and what kind of media are going to get them to take the actions that will help them improve their health.”

That's just as true on the professional side, where companies are slashing their numbers of sales reps that doctors are too busy to see, anyway. 

“Especially for primary care physicians, practices are getting much busier, and they have to squeeze more into the work day, so reps are often getting cut out,” says Meredith Abreau Ressi, VP research at Manhattan Research. 

“We've seen a shift in how physicians get information,” Ressi explains. “Instead of reading print journals, they're switching to online. They're spending eight hours a week—a full workday—looking online for professional information, and they're going online between patient consultations to look up information.”

Sixty percent of US physicians currently use or are interested in using online physician communities like Sermo or WebMD's Medscape Physician Connect, according to Manhattan Research, which found that those using physician-only communities write an average of 24 more prescriptions a week. About 45,000 US physicians met online with a sales rep over the past year, and 300,000 more show interest in interacting with reps online. The majority of those who have reported high satisfaction with the experience. 

“Many companies are taking what they've learned about media and database marketing with consumers and are successfully applying these lessons to their HCP marketing approach,” says Joe Shields, product director for Enbrel at Wyeth. “This includes more nuanced attitudinal segmentation, refined online targeting and relationship marketing beyond personal selling.” 

More than 145 million US adults used the Internet to research health info in 2007, according to Manhattan Research, and the number looking for drug information online grew 16% to 95 million. Altogether, more US adults used the Internet than doctors to obtain health and medical information. Over 60 million US adults use health blogs, online support groups, prescription drug rating sites and other health-related social media applications. 

Social anxiety
“Social media is a really big deal,” says Lisa Flaiz, VP group director and head of the national pharma practice at digital agency Razorfish. “It's a third dimension of marketing. It's not direct marketing, it's one to many. It's not brand marketing—the message is coming not from the brand but from consumers. Your destination site is no longer the only place where your brand is being built.”

But the medium presents unique challenges to the drug industry, with cultural barriers as well as regulatory. “Nothing happens fast in pharma,” notes Flaiz. 

“It takes a long time to get things out the door, and that is in direct conflict with the values of social media, as is the idea that information is not coming from a learned intermediary. Now anybody can say anything. We all have a bullhorn and pharmas have got to get used to these conversations happening around them.” 

Moreover, Flaiz notes that while a few companies, such as Merck and Johnson & Johnson, have long offered consumer health information, much of the content that pharma has about its products and the diseases they treat was designed for a physician audience, requiring heavy investment in materials accessible to consumers as a price of entry. 

“It reminds me of eight years ago, when the e-channel was becoming more prominent and people were saying ‘We need the brand to have a presence at the brand.com level' and not many companies had the expertise,” says Fabio Gratton, chief innovation officer at Ignite Health. “This is a similar challenge, but much more complex, because the technology is evolving at the speed of light.”

Up next: the emergence of mobile marketing, gaming and what Novo Nordisk's DeLarge calls “a-literate” forms of information gathering facilitated by the proliferation of available broadband. “Video has resulted in a greater use of storytelling with patient or disease narratives,” says Delarge. “The emergence of virtual worlds is not all the way there yet, but it has immediate applications in the sales training area. For certain disease states where sufferers and advocates have a broad presence in virtual worlds, we can reach them there, as well. For medical students, particularly in dentistry and surgery, virtual worlds are increasingly part of their training.”

Even the most technology-forward companies have a long ways to go, but at least pharmas have now plucked e-marketing from its silo, given it a seat at the table and a slice of the pie. Now it has to perform. “Sooner or later, even innovative tactics represent an investment of company resources, and must be called to account,” says Wyeth's Shields. 

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