Alternative Media: Opt-in to Opt-out

Legislation makes reaching key constituencies easier than you think.
Mar 01, 2005
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

Terry Nugent, Medical Marketing Service
The CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act of 2003 was supposed to level the playing field for pharma marketers. Industry hoped that the legislation, which allows affected parties to bring lawsuits against spammers, would clear the clutter from customers' inboxes so that they would be more receptive to pharma's e-mail messages.

But the spam problem continues to grow unabated. IDC, a technology research firm, estimates that spam comprises about 38 percent of all e-mails sent in 2004 in North America, up two percentage points from 2003. The problem, in some cases, has become so bad that marketers are taking issues into their own hands. Case in point is Pfizer, who teamed up with Microsoft to bring suit against two spammers hawking Viagra (sildenafil).

Terry Nugent, vice president of marketing for Medical Marketing Service, which manages lists of physicians for the industry, has watched these issues and others surrounding e-mail marketing unfold. Here, Nugent covers what marketers need to know in the current e-mail environment, the trend toward direct marketing in the post-Vioxx era, and the regulations surrounding the different media pharma uses to communicate to its customers.

PharmExec: What effect has CAN-SPAM had on the industry?

Nugent: I think CAN-SPAM affords pharma marketers a lot more freedom and ability to reach professionals through e-mail than they are currently taking advantage of.

In the run up to CAN-SPAM, the e-mail marketing community in general, and the pharma marketing community in particular, was anticipating an opt-in law. In other words, if companies wanted to e-mail physicians, they would have to first obtain their permission.

But the law actually emerged as an opt-out standard, which means companies can send e-mails until physicians tell them not to, and then they are obligated by law to honor that request. But, within the industry, the mentality persists that the only way to conduct e-mail campaigns in a proper fashion is on an opt-in basis.

Is that because physicians often opt-out from e-mail communications?

Actually, quite the opposite. In our e-mail service, very, very few physicians choose to opt out, probably under one percent.

So what's the problem with that thinking?

The problem is, if marketers hold themselves to a standard that is far above the law that says, "I need explicit permission from a physician that grants me, pharmaceutical company P, permission to send an e-mail to Dr. X regarding product Y," you are going to have a very high level of permission, but you will have a very low percentage of the marketplace covered.

Will the issues surrounding Vioxx (rofecoxib) cause companies to re-allocate promotion dollars into e-mail marketing?

It is probably a little too early to see any trends like that based on Vioxx, but direct marketing, and included in that, e-mail marketing, should get more attention.

After all, companies have to watch out that they're not creating plaintiffs as they advertise. One of the problems with DTC advertising for Vioxx was that Dorothy Hamill made it sound like this stuff was just the greatest thing since sliced bread. The fact that DTC, and in particular TV, can accelerate rollout velocity as it clearly has shown it can, really puts everything on fast forward. By the time you detect adverse outcomes, you already have a $2.5 billion drug.

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