On the Web: If You're Not Everywhere, You're Nowhere

Pharma marketers must create an online universe for brand messages if they want consumers to find and trust their product and disease information.
Dec 01, 2003

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.

Product websites, in context
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.)

"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."

Avenues of Influence
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.

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 following steps:

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 parties.

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.

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