Medical expertise in the pharma industry? Check. Demonstrated digital know-how amongst the industry’s main players? Not quite yet. 

That was the windup of a study, released last month, that examined the overall sophistication levels of 30 pharma company product websites, with a focus on four parameters: experience, technology, search engine optimization (SEO), and analytics. 
The websites fell short across all measured areas. While pharma has definitely picked up on the sense of urgency surrounding the need to keep up with the evolving technological world, this study serves as a reminder that the industry’s digital capabilities are not up to snuff, not to mention significantly behind the digital natives with whom they’re increasingly being compared.
Pharma has “a long way to go when compared to the Amazons and Googles [of the digital world],” said Gaurav Kapoor, EVP at Indegene, which ran the study assessing the value the sites provide in the form of customer experience and engagement. 
Moreover, some of the sites’ shortcomings, such as in mitigating hacking and protecting user data against phishing, could hamper the industry as it seeks to make better use of real-world data in line with the move to value-based care.
Indegene began with a comprehensive review of pharma websites to arrive at the top 30. Rising up were product sites from such companies as AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Novartis, Bristol Myers-Squibb, Sanofi, and GlaxoSmithKline. Sites were then ranked on a 0-1 scale based on the four major categories. The analysts further assessed top sites across endocrinology, neurology, and oncology—three therapeutic areas drawing a large amount of investment these days. 
None of the top five overall sites—no.-1, along with and from Novartis; and Sanofi’s and—ranked above a .72 in the scoring. (Novartis, by the way, enjoys the distinction of having not only the highest-ranked site, but the lowest, as well, at .52.)
The methodology was intended to assess the websites from the standpoint of their ability to set up a multichannel infrastructure, which itself depends on having quality content, analytics, and exhibiting a “highly aesthetic design philosophy,” on both desktop and mobile.
What do they do well? Researchers rated customer experience as perhaps the most important criteria of the four. And this parameter resulted in the highest overall total. Again, don’t get too excited: sites averaged a mere .74 in the experience area. 
High-scorers in this particular segment, including Pfizer’s and AZ’s, ensured that site elements were well-structured and clearly marked. Furthermore, researchers said, the meta tags were used well throughout the websites to aid search engines in finding and indexing them.
It’s mostly downhill from there, and that’s troubling. The three remaining parameters (technology, SEO, and analytics tactics) play a key role in consumer experience, as well, since they deal with the details that comprise the user’s experience on the website. Thus, CX rests on a tower of cards, apparently, as the overall ratings of these three parameters fell far below par. 
The technology category of the study involved ensuring the sites met current tech standards, like use of semantic HTML, compliance with W3C (an international standards group), and service broker registration. Also examined as part of this criteria was https implementation, a security feature which prevents intruders from gaining access to website data. 
Most of the sites didn’t make use of basic functions to mitigate phishing and hacking attempts, researchers found. Pfizer’s and Novartis’ earned the highest scores, at .64 and .63, respectively. 
Performance also left much to be desired, translating into poor page-loading speeds and lackluster browsing experience. While these weaknesses may be forgiven by a website visitor today, many of the pharma sites would not have the performance needed to support any significant increase in traffic and would risk a breakdown, Kapoor explained.
Next, the analysts gauged the websites’ SEO compliance, and as part of this looked at each one’s social shares. Most lacked dedicated Facebook and Twitter pages, something which negatively impacted scores. Novartis took first and second place in this category, with as the top-scorer (.77) and tying for runner-up (.75) with Pfizer’s 
The final criterion, analytics, broke down into three subdimensions: what to measure (data stewardship), how to measure (data enablement), and whether sites are equipped to understand behavior and other insights from data. Websites with the highest digital maturity were found to be capable of interpreting and acting on data collected in order to personalize a user’s journey. 
Here again, ranked first at .85, with the following four (AZ’s, Pfizer’s, Novartis’, and GSK’s all ranking at .75. 
Separately, analysts sliced the data by looking at the top-scoring product websites across three therapeutic areas. Sites in the endocrinology area scored in the middle of the pack, by and large, with brands’ site scores failing to hold up across the four criteria. Unsurprisingly, none appear in the overall top or bottom five of the study.
Neurology sites were plagued by some of the same issues as those in endocrinology, in that high scorers didn’t maintain their high rankings across criteria, lowering their overall score.  A good example was, which bested other sites for technology and analytics, but tanked on the experience metric.
The oncology category did contain some outliers. and scored consistently well across all four parameters. Not coincidentally, those two sites made the top five overall. Oncology sites differentiated themselves in terms of their ability to extend a relationship with patients through prompting them to, for instance, register for a doctor discussion guide or savings card and lengthen interaction beyond the first visit.
As the researchers concluded, “there are many opportunities for pharma companies to scale up their websites.” Marketing is finally evolving into true engagement, but progress continues to be hampered by the aforementioned digital issues. The average score of all of the companies across parameters was .52 out of 1, with technology coming in between .6 and .7 and performance ranking between .5 and .6. 
On the bright side, over the past 12 to 18 months, said Kapoor, the industry has demonstrated a sense of urgency “to actually move towards multi-channel [engagement] on the modernizing path.” 
Can manufacturers reach the digital maturity necessary to become more Amazon-like in satisfying patient expectations? They’re on the right track but must first show they’re capable of large-scale, digital customer engagement. Said Kapoor, “Industry needs to get to a .8 to .9.”