Pharma brands quickened their shift toward online consumer media last year but continued to invest more on web-based professional outreach, new data show.

The breakdown is noteworthy, showing that the industry’s online investment, so far, is more heavily tilted toward reaching physicians than patients. Still uncertain is whether, and to what extent, pharma is growing its web presence at the expense of print, because budgets tend to fluctuate at the individual brand level.

“It’s hard to know whether the overall budget is increasing or decreasing, but it’s quite clear that [spend] is a lot more diversified in that it’s moving more away from print—not deleting print but diversifying—to include more digital and more emerging technologies,” said Fred Foard, EVP, strategic insights, at media planning firm CMI, whose sister company, Compas, is the largest media buyer of prescription drug advertising for professional healthcare audiences.

In absolute dollars, spending on web-based DTC promotion—banner ads and other sponsorships, but not search—more than doubled, with a 138% rise to $315 million, from $132 million in 2008, according to Kantar Health data cited by SDI. The figure has more than tripled since 2007, up 259%. Internet media outlay as a percentage of total DTC spend also saw a more than twofold rise, now accounting for 6.6%, up from 2.9% the previous year.

“[Online DTC media] is still a small percentage, but it’s growing the fastest,” in comparison to physician-facing online media, said Kelly Sborlini, VP of market research audits at SDI.

SDI says its ePromotion Audit, which tracks eDetails, online meetings and other web-based promotional activities for physicians, showed an increase of nearly 7% in industry spending on ePromotion, from $491 million in 2008 to $523 million in 2009. In terms of overall share, ePromotion commands 2.5% of total promotion (details, events, DTC, journals and ePromotion), vs. 2.4% in 2008.

The storyline regarding print media, of course, is less rosy. In 2009 industry’s year-over-year spend posted significant decreases on each of the consumer and physician sides. Medical-surgical journal ad spend, hemorrhaging the last few years, continued its decline in 2009. At $287 million, spending on such ads dipped 19%, from $354 million in 2008, following a 25% skid, from $474 million, the year before. DTC magazine expenditures fell 7% from 2008 and 26% from 2007.

Are brands cannibalizing resources from traditional channels to feed their internet ventures? “We can’t make a direct correlation that dollars spent on journals are going to ePromotion or internet advertising, because we don’t track it at the branded decision-maker level,” Sborlini said.

Asked to speculate whether he sees a one-to-one shift taking place, CMI’s Foard said, “I can’t answer that, because as I look across the brands we deal with, it has more to do with what’s going on with the brand than the media mix. Some brands may be increasing or decreasing spend. It has to do with what they’re trying to accomplish within their lifecycle.”

As to why doctor-facing ePromotion seems to be outdrawing the consumer-oriented kind, Foard said he has seen clients pulling back on consumer spend and pouring more dollars into professional advertising.

“I could speculate that [clients] have found the consumer strategy didn’t provide as much return on investment as they had hoped for; [and] in the meantime, they’ve lost share to competitors who continue to promote to the professional side,” he said. “Or maybe it’s just the realization that you can create demand on the consumer side, but if you fail to create adoption on the professional side, it’s all for naught.”