Pharma’s Long Road to Digital Revolution

A few years ago, barely a month went by without an article or blog criticising the pharmaceutical industry’s reluctance to embrace digital marketing tools and strategies. Lately there’s been a slow shift towards a more digital-minded pharma industry, but there’s still a long way to go.

Research from Havas Lynx revealed recently that executives are tuning into multi-channel marketing for their 2014-2015 plans, an approach which integrates digital into more traditional forms of marketing. This suggests that digital is gradually becoming more embedded in their thinking.

The same research highlighted increased interest, from both pharma companies and employees, to get involved in mobile apps, healthcare networks, closed-loop marketing, and, to a lesser extent, e-details and social media activities.

Despite these good intentions, pharma is still miles from consumer businesses in terms of harnessing digital marketing methods. Crucially, half of the big pharmaceutical businesses still don’t have a mobile website.

Often the addition of a mobile site is sidelined in favour of a second or third product e-detail, revised only to capture more customer data. Whilst that’s useful, the decision to re-create e-details shouldn’t be based solely on data capture. These tools need to be designed to reach Healthcare Professionals (HCPs) as human beings. Any e-detail revision not borne out of the need to improve user engagement is not as worthwhile.

Similarly, many pharmaceutical companies jump too soon into educational apps as a way to dip their toes in digital. Whether they’re for HCPs or patients, they may not be the best use of resources. And even if the need is there, will the app be engaging enough to ensure it’s not dumped after the first use? A new Deloitte survey found that people are more likely to use WebMD or a Google search as a source of health information, over pharma.

Despite these cautionary tales, adopters of digital, or ‘mhealth’ are now capitalising on their efforts. From the relatively small expenditure, a single app can offer huge public relations and collaboration opportunities through the value it provides physicians and their patients. The likes of tablet trackers, disease calculators and other educational tools can advance competitive advantage by genuinely improving lives, as well as revealing insights on patient treatment routines. Sanofi continue to invest significant resources into its successful diabetes apps. Likewise, Merck has recently launched a $500M Merck Global Health Innovation venture fund to invest in digital health.

Investment doesn’t just have to be all about websites, apps and social media. For example, direct mail and GP leavepieces can now be cost-effectively fitted with ‘talking head’ videos or augmented reality clips, helping to create a more engaging vehicle for your product messages.

Adoption of digital was never going to be an overnight switch for pharma. The highly regulated nature of communication in this industry makes it a minefield for the uninitiated. But it’s a challenge worth undertaking, with the support of a good digital-focused healthcare agency. Digital marketing is often the only way to track today’s customer interactions, therefore, one of the few ways to get the necessary insights to drive your brand forward.

Martin New
Martin clearly likes a challenge. He's worked for two of the most regulated industries - three years as press officer in a financial services company and six as copywriter for a healthcare ad agency. Along the way, he's shown that the same fundamental rules apply when creating compelling communications, whatever the audience, industry or medium. He's now copywriter at Purple, writing for clients across a whole host of industry sectors.