Pfizer increased its spending on online professional promotion by more than 90% last year, according to a study, a sign the drugmaker is emphasizing alternatives to live sales reps for detailing certain products.

Among all drug companies, Pfizer accounted for the second-highest amount of e-marketing to healthcare providers: $27 million through the first 11 months of the year. That’s a 93% increase over the $14 million it spent during the first 11 months of 2008, according to a study from marketing-research firm SDI.

Leading the firm’s spending were Alzheimer’s drug Aricept ($3.6 million through November, vs. $316,000 during the first 11 months of 2008), pain drug Celebrex ($3.2 million vs. $803,000) and antibiotic Zyvox ($2.8 million vs. $642,000).

The stats reflect spending on e-detailing, online events and virtual detailing—measured collectively as part of SDI’s monthly ePromotions Audit—and suggest Pfizer is “putting some money against those products, at least in this channel,” said Melissa Leonhauser, SDI director of strategic marketing.

When it comes to which of Pfizer’s products draw the most media spend, Aricept, Celebrex and Zyvox aren’t the usual suspects. The company spends hundreds of millions marketing drugs like Lipitor and Lyrica to consumers, yet on these two drugs it dialed back ePromotion.

Lipitor was #4, with online promotion to docs falling 6% to $2.0 million through the first 11 months of 2009 (vs. $2.2 million during the prior year’s first 11 months), while #5 Lyrica saw a 48% drop in online spend to $2.8 million (vs. $3.8 million during the first 11 months of 2008).

As more healthcare facilities erect gates between physicians and pharma sales reps, industry is increasing use of web-based detailing. Through the first 11 months of 2009, overall drug industry spend increased 7% to $477 million, from $447 million during the prior year’s first 11 months.

It’s the ninth straight year in which spending for this channel has risen and reflects increased investment as well as an increase in the number of companies using it to access busy healthcare providers, SDI said.

Another possible attraction for marketers, according to Leonhauser: “In ePromotion you have extreme control over the message. You’re not putting it in a sales reps’ hands to discuss; it’s the exact message you want to come across.”

That’s important to a company like Pfizer. Last year it paid a record $2.3 billion to settle government charges that it improperly marketed certain products for off-label uses, among them Zyvox. Among the ways the government said Pfizer salespeople conducted off-label promotion were improper distribution of samples and handling of doctors’ medical questions.

Among other firms, Merck cut its ePromotion investment last year but continues to lead Big Pharma, per the report. For the first 11 months of 2009, the big drugmaker spent $62 million, down 21% from the January-to-November 2008 spending level of $78 million.

Top Merck products advertised through this channel: Singulair ($17.5 million vs. $25.6 million, down 32% YTD Nov.), Januvia ($10.8 million vs. $11.3 million, down 4%), and Vytorin ($9.4 million vs. $8.8 million, up 7%).