Alternative Media: Websites that Click - Pharmaceutical Executive


Alternative Media: Websites that Click
Who does your site speak to anyway?

Pharmaceutical Executive

Many companies get caught up in discussions with their agencies about rich media, paid search, and scalable databases. Yet most pharma companies still haven't mastered one important fundamental—developing a site that speaks to their audience and gives users the information they seek.

This article discusses some basic tactics that will help companies develop more relevant sites. It examines the issues of fair balance, content, information architecture, usability, and design. These elements, when executed properly, draw consumers into a site and keep them there.

Sandra Holtzman
Balancing Act The most successful websites will benefit both end users and sponsoring companies. Yet most of industry's websites are tipped in favor of the company. It's easy to see why that happens: website project leaders are more often concerned with what management wants than what end users need. That often results in websites in which the company talks only to itself—losing valuable audience members in the process.

AIG hosts a website ( that is fairly typical for companies that offer many products and services. It has a lot of good, useful information, but its presentation makes visitors view and work through many pages that don't pertain to them. There are five key menus—Individual Consumer, Business, Insurance Professional, Financial Professional, and AIG Corporate. Yet the company highlights many more choices—such as two tabs for "Corporate Information" and a link to its TV commercial—making the page extremely noisy.

Point of Differentiation
Compare this with General Electric's website ( which uses three key drop down menus on the left to guide visitors through an enormous amount of information. (That's no easy task, given that GE represents a large group of corporations under its umbrella and contains easily more than 100,000 pages on its site). The process of finding information is easy, however, because the website is cleanly and clearly designed, and it is defined by end users and their needs.

AIG's website is unnecessarily dense and confusing, while GE's is full of white space and simple to navigate. In practice, most pharma websites fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Know Your Audience To build an effective website, companies first need to listen to the people who will be using the site. So do some research—and try doing it in a different way.

Many companies traditionally conduct focus groups to gain information about what will work and what won't in the market. However, those focus groups are limiting the success of websites from the get-go because they offer participants a choice of ideas crafted by the company.

A new approach, called Open Mind research, puts end users, the company, and the agency together to brainstorm and reach a consensus about websites, branding, and messaging. The format lets end users tell companies how they want to be "told and sold," and gives companies an opportunity to gain insight about what's important to consumers. Specifically, audiences reveal:

  • Why they come to your website
  • Why they stay on the website
  • Why they return to your website
  • Why they recommend your website to others.

Stiefel Laboratories used the Open Mind approach when designing a DTC website for Duac Topical Gel (clindamycin and benzoyl peroxide). In the research session, company marketers uncovered new insights about their target market of teens, such as the fact that boys with acne are more concerned about their appearance than girls and that girls are not squeamish about squeezing zits. The teen-agers said they were tired of websites that were too serious and boring about the subject of acne. Then they grabbed some paper and started sketching what would be a flash opening to a website that showed a bloody, pus-oozing popped pimple. Both boys and girls agreed it was gross but also really cool.

The agency and the client listened, and the result was a homepage that displays facial zits that pop when mouse-clicked. As viewers move through the site and learn more about acne care and issues, the pimples on the faces start to clear up. It's a tamer version of what the teens in the Open Mind session described, but it is still edgy enough to appeal to them. This kind of market research exemplifies what makes one site and brand more distinctive and memorable than others. (See "Point of Differentiation.")

Information Architecture Information Architecture (IA) is responsible for helping end users find the information that they want in the quickest way possible. It has become an important and sophisticated part of website development, particularly for large sites.

Many pharma marketers have a problem with IA because they try to translate legal/regulatory-approved print information into an interactive medium. The result is often called "brochureware," in which the website mimics a printed brochure. Companies also tend to present sites in a linear fashion, with A followed by B followed by C. This misses the point and opportunity of the internet, which allows end users to jump from section to section based on their own information needs.

But don't take our word for it. One of the best ways to assess your website is to surf the internet looking for sites that appeal to you. Pay attention to what works and what doesn't. As the end user, are you getting what you want from the site? Are you getting it fast? Now ask yourself the same questions about your site. Is your audience getting what they want? Have you asked them? If the answer is yes, then your site is clicking with your audience.

Sandra Holtzman is president of Holtzman Communications. She can be reached at


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