Pharma companies and their brand managers recognize the value of having online channels to consumers. But do consumers get
the messages that companies send through their websites? Unless product teams adapt their internet communication strategies
to the way people search for health information, the answer may be: "Not as frequently as you might think."
Online health information seekers don't look for a single website. They investigate many. Therefore, pharma brands need to
create an online universe that includes syndicated and sponsored content, alliances with advocacy sites, and partnerships
with other influential third-party venues, as well as their own websites, to serve consumers seeking product and disease information.
Through "strategic ubiquity," marketing managers can influence the accuracy and completeness of information about their therapies
and targeted diseases. They can also give consumers who browse through disease management sites the most accurate, consistent
information about the brand-and a clear path back to the product website.
This article explains online consumer behavior and how marketers can develop web strategies to broaden a brand's influence.
That doesn't mean companies can control all of the messages about their products and targeted diseases. Advocacy groups, patient
organizations, specialty societies, activist organizations, medical journals, government agencies, and competitors all will
continue to have their say. But pharma marketers can influence-often to a surprising degree-the online venues where consumers
encounter product information. (See "Avenues of Influence, page 108.)
Product websites, in context
"If pharma ignores the context in which the information is presented to users," says Elizabeth Boehm of Forrester Research's
healthcare practice, "it loses credibility and some control over how its products are perceived in the broader context."
Strategy Starts at "Search"
Brand teams should keep in mind that consumers search for disease information online differently than they do for general
information. Most consumers buy gifts, check movie times, or research recipes through portals such as Yahoo, MSN, or AOL.
One, or perhaps two, of those sites serve as their preferred entry point to the web and as a guide to general information.
But when it comes to disease information, consumers cast a wide net. Nearly two out of three people use a search engine, such
as Google, as their primary entry point and site locater, according to Vital Signs, an ongoing cooperative study by Boston
Consulting Group and Harris Interactive.
Health information seekers don't use search engines to locate the best website; instead, they use them to locate multiple
sites and consonant information-the information most frequently repeated across sites. They use that approach to ensure that
what they read is accurate and complete.
"It's clear that consumers who look for health information do so in a number of different places to figure out the common
thread," says Boehm. "What do they consistently see? That's the piece of which they can be fairly certain."
Consumers trust and visit third-party websites far more than pharma company sites. A 2003 APCO online study found that only
16 percent of respondents cited "businesses" among their "trusted sources of information about health," and a 2003 survey
from comScore Networks found that consumers visit third-party sites rather than brand or sponsored sites by a margin of nearly
four to one. (See "Product Websites, in Context," page 106.) Consumers do visit company websites-but only as one source of
information among others.
Avenues of Influence
Brand teams must understand that different points of view can drown out or dilute the strength of brand messages in the online
environment. Indeed, without efforts to achieve a wider presence, pharma brand websites are likely to get lost in the shuffle.
Steps to Ubiquity
Brand teams can take several steps to increase the likelihood that consumers will obtain accurate and compelling information
about their brands and the diseases they target. To do so, marketers can use tools that
- establish unbranded company-controlled sites
- provide content to third-party sites that accept sponsorships
- syndicate free content to interested parties
- serve as a PR and information source for online news media and other creators of content.
The scope of the strategy depends on many factors. Executives can start by examining the nature of the disease state and the
patient demographics. Are sufferers symptomatic or asymptomatic? Is the condition acute or chronic, stigmatized or non-stigmatized?
Those and similar factors will help product managers gauge the breadth and depth of available online information and decide
if partnerships may be appropriate.
To establish an optimal presence in the universe of targeted disease and treatment information, companies should take the
Make product websites easy to find. Brands that host clear, relevant, and easy-to-remember domain names-as in "brand.com"-make
it easier for search engines and consumers to locate the site. That is crucial, given that two-thirds of health seekers begin
with a search engine. Companies should also acquire and protect all domain names relevant to their products. In doing so,
they maximize flexibility in deploying future unbranded sites and protect against "domain hijacking" by potentially hostile
Brand teams should also conduct search engine optimization (SEO) so their branded and unbranded sites will rank high when
patients conduct keyword searches. SEO involves an intimate understanding of the end-user and encompasses site strategy, site
design for optimal search placement, keyword purchases, and systematic site registration. Ideally, the product site should
appear among the top ten results listed for disease-related key words and at the top of searches for the product name itself.