For the People, By the People

May 01, 2008

Lynn O'Connor Vos
The traditional model of pharmaceutical marketing is dying. In its place is a new paradigm, spurred by the rapid growth of the digital world and built around consumers whose influence is growing with every click. These five top trends take a closer look at the paradigm shift, and provide a prescription for Big Pharma to better understand—and master—this new digital reality.

Consumerization of Healthcare

The mass consumerization of healthcare is the biggest trend affecting pharmaceutical marketers today. In his book, Microtrends, Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn calls today's consumers "do-it-yourself doctors." The Web makes it easy for them: they can research their own symptoms, diagnose their own illnesses, and administer their own cures. In a way, some patients have almost begun to treat doctors like ATM machines, showing up for appointments with full-color descriptions of their conditions, found online, and asking for prescriptions they already know they need.

According to, 30 million Americans consider the Internet their first source for health information. This has an enormous impact on patients' relationships with healthcare providers, emboldening them to feel and act like equal partners to the experts.

As a result of these factors, patients today—not the organizations that serve or market to them, not even their doctors—are in control of their health. They decide who their trusted source of information will be.

It All Starts with Search

Consumers' new health mantra? "Search and ye shall find!" The Internet is patients' overwhelming choice for researching ailments and drug information. Web site shows that one-third of the US population—100 million people—research health issues online each year.

Today, the majority of healthcare seekers go to search engines first, even before visiting their doctors—and most go back to the Internet after their appointment to learn more. These numbers reveal one immutable fact: Dr. Google and Nurse Yahoo are now essential components of the nation's healthcare system.

The bad news for Big Pharma is that people aren't looking to them for health information. One reason is that consumers never seek industry Web sites. According to, only 4 percent of consumers turn to pharma Web sites first when researching health issues. Many pharma sites were set up years ago, and are not optimized for searches. Most need face-lifts, if not major overhauls. Other times, consumers shy away from industry sites because marketers haven't gained the trust of online communities' patients.

By using a combination of organic and paid search engine optimization tools, and by making it desirable for consumers to talk online, companies can ensure that patients, doctors, and others make it to their online destination. It's critical that pharma companies stop carrying on a monologue and start a dialogue with customers.

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