Communications planning in 2009 and beyond will include online, offline, mobile, out-of-home, point-of-sale, gaming consoles, and more—even your car's navigation system will be tied to Google! Perhaps most importantly, communications planning will begin to include social influence marketing.
The proliferation of social media as a tool for pharma marketers is no passing fad. Several pharma companies have experimented with branded Facebook pages, corporate blogs, or YouTube health channels. The more industry examples that pop up, the braver our pharma marketing clients will be. But the major challenge of experimenting with social influence marketing is not the regulatory issues most commonly cited such as adverse event reporting or off-label discussion.
Because social influence marketing (SIM) is a new and dynamic promotional approach, regulations simply have not kept up. Marketers and regulatory professionals at pharma companies are forced to apply regulations based on their own interpretations. To this day, when DTC is addressed in any DDMAC or PhRMA documentation, the channels discussed are limited to traditional broadcast (television and radio) and print. It is as if online media, branded Web sites, search, mobile, gaming, and out-of-home media don’t even exist.
Pros and Cons of SIM
Pharma marketers are navigating uncharted territory, when it comes to SIM. We consider social influence marketing an entirely new dimension of marketing, clearly differentiated from brand marketing or direct marketing. And this is very disruptive to pharma, because of the immense risk aversion that is part of the industry’s nature.
Aside from the general risk aversion, other pharma values are in conflict with the values of social influence marketing, making it difficult for the industry to feel entirely comfortable with SIM as a primary marketing channel. But prior to the advent of DTC (which we have to remember was not that long ago), pharma always deemed the “learned intermediary” a critical cog in the communication wheel. With SIM, the information consumers receive does not necessarily come from an authoritative source; rather, information is judged based on social networks.
The healthcare industry values regulated privacy and security, control of data, and the protection of intellectual property. With social influence marketing, anyone can create an account, information is contributed by and distributed to all, and open sources are deemed most noble, following existing standards but with as few restrictions as possible. Finally, another area of conflicting values is time to deployment.
In the SIM arena, deployment of information happens quickly. In the pharma arena, there are typically very long lead times in deploying information to consumers. All this adds up to figuring out our own limitations, and finding out how to leverage SIM without opening our companies up to liabilities we didn’t know existed.
In the absence of government or trade-generated regulations, every pharma company should establish corporate governance around what are acceptable and not acceptable guidelines for participating in social influence marketing, at the very least avoiding inconsistencies from brand to brand, even if we can’t avoid inconsistencies from company to company.
Much has been said about the “death” of traditional media—the declining effectiveness of television, the troubling economic status of newspapers, and the increasing shift of advertising dollars towards digital. In reality, these phenomena are not reflections of old media channels dying while new ones rise. Rather, they are symptoms that signal tectonic shifts in the role media plays in the lives of consumers, brands, and the communications ecosystem.
For years, digital agencies have found success by being digital experts, which differentiated them from their offline-only counterparts. Clients hired them to be “digital” agencies of record, while sticking with the traditional shops to be the brand stewards. Budgets were divided, and media and other promotion were separately planned (based on whether the tactics were online or offline.) To be successful, however, digital agencies should build brand experiences. To do this, they must be experts at how their customers—whether they are healthcare professionals, patients, caregivers, or other key stakeholders—consume media. In fact, they must be cross-channel experts.
With the dominance of social media, the distinction between “media” and “consumer generated media” will cease to exist. In this new paradigm, consumers will have an equal or greater role than brands and producers in the composition and content of media. This may still be a few years off for pharma, but the rise of citizen journalism and its incorporation into mainstream television, print, and online news media gives indication that consumers are wielding increasing levels of influence over what becomes mainstream content. Consumers have moved beyond merely sampling Web 2.0 technologies and services; they are now adopting these services at a breakneck pace, and readily experimenting with more sophisticated offerings. In doing so, they are challenging advertisers and marketers to meet their needs in new, fragmented, and largely untested channels.
The clients of the future will need to rethink the ways they reach consumers in this environment. In the future, agencies will need to draw on the breadth and depth of their overall marketing and technology capabilities to help clients develop strategies, harness digital and non-digital channels, and create brand advocates.
Creating the Connection
Success today depends on making the most powerful connections to change consumer behavior. “Connections” can be anything and everything between a brand and its consumers. Today, clients want the opportunity to have their media budgets allocated across channels so that return is optimized. It is a challenge to do this with one agency planning the offline media and another planning the online media. “Connections planning” allows each agency to recommend the “when and where” of the communications process. Put another way, connections planning combines the art of strategic thinking with the fiscal rigor of channel mix allocation and the science of analytics.
Connections planning helps the agency think methodically about key questions such as who are we (or should we be) talking to, what are some insights into these people’s lives, and what are their interactions with the brand and category? Identifying the most important places to communicate with your audience, and then prioritizing, sequencing, and linking marketing activities should be baked into the communications planning process.
The new dynamics of the digital media landscape are working against the “put it up, take it down” approach to advertising programs. The media environment of tomorrow will be dramatically different. As consumers become more connected digitally with their brands of choice, they are developing an expectation that brands will “know them” and maintain a high level of consistency and relevancy through their various communications.
As the growth of social influence marketing continues, health consumers continue accessing the Web to become more educated healthcare patients. Social networks provide a great opportunity to receive information and support from fellow consumers and healthcare professionals. Expect to see an increasing number of consumers using the multiple touch points to interact with one another and their brands. Their brand experiences, both online and offline, will help build or break trust in brands and companies.