10 Classic Mistakes and how to avoid them

August 1, 2003
Bill Drummy

Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-08-01-2003,

Since the pharma industry uploaded its very first websites in 1994, marketers' perception of the web has moved from intriguing novelty, to must-have status symbol, to vital communications channel for both patients and physicians. Yet even as product managers devote more resources to their brand-name product websites, many still commit fundamental errors with alarming frequency.

Since the pharma industry uploaded its very first websites in 1994, marketers' perception of the web has moved from intriguing novelty, to must-have status symbol, to vital communications channel for both patients and physicians. Yet even as product managers devote more resources to their brand-name product websites, many still commit fundamental errors with alarming frequency.

This article identifies some of the most common mistakes pharma marketing managers make, along with potential remedies. It also highlights brands that are doing things right-often because managers have integrated their online tactics into a broad brand strategy.

Mistake #1: Treat the web as an afterthought. Although the internet is consumers' number one source for healthcare information-and one of the top three sources for doctors-pharma companies still treat web initiatives as a poor cousin to other communications channels. Companies' e-marketing spend has increased steadily during the last few years, but it represents just 10 percent or less of most marketing budgets. Insufficient resources may not be the worst problem afflicting web initiatives. In many cases, the online investments brand managers do make are poorly planned and executed.

Lack of experience often leads pharma marketers and their agencies to slap the imagery from their offline ad campaign onto a website in the name of "brand consistency," missing out on the distinctly different possibilities presented by the electronic environment.

One prominent example is Merck's pain reliever Vioxx (rofecoxib), one of the most heavily advertised drugs in the world. Advertising points patients to Vioxx.com, which features a still photo from the TV campaign as the home page's centerpiece. It has no patient stories, no physician presence, and its "Pain Diary" feature, a seemingly perfect candidate for consumer interaction, is in a PDF form that visitors must print out to use. In short, the website provides consumers with few opportunities for engagement and little reward for their efforts to find out more about Vioxx.

Remedy: Rather than treat a website as a clumsy afterthought to a print or TV campaign, pharma marketers must consider how internet activities can advance their overall brand strategies. Marketers must break old habits, such as relegating e-marketing initiatives to a disconnected interactive business silo. They must also teach their peers and partners about online techniques that drive patients to talk to their doctors about their product: traffic generation campaigns, eCRM loyalty and persistence programs, and interactive patient education.

Mistake #2: Don't promote the website. The day when people casually surfed the internet and stumbled across unpromoted websites is long gone. Yet many product managers still pay scant attention to traffic generation. Companies must create clear, compelling incentives in their offline media to lure consumers online, rather than just include website URLs in DTC ads, which does little to generate traffic.

Remedy: Marketers must use as many resources to promote a website as they do to build it. Brand teams should implement the following tactics:

Cross-media promotion. Off-line promotion should depict a product website's incentives, such as patient testimonials, illustrations from high-value patient education materials, and, when appropriate, coupons and contests.

"Pay for performance" key word purchases. Key words are more cost-effective than banner ads. An advertiser might purchase the keyword "diabetes" so that when a health seeker types that word into major search engines such as Yahoo! and Google, the results include a prominent "sponsored link" containing a brief message and link to the advertiser's website. The advertiser pays only when someone searches for specific words, delivering more targeted consumers and cutting down on waste in the online buy.

Search engine optimization. Companies should improve their listing among the unsponsored search engine results by "optimizing" the way their website appears to the search engine. Some searchers deliberately ignore all banners and sponsored links, so getting the site's ranking improved among the unsponsored links is critical. Search engine optimization is a fairly involved topic, so companies should do some research about it (searchenginewatch.com is a good place to start), or ask a professional.

Mistake #3. Assume doctors are ordinary people. Suppose a brand manager wants to build a consumer-targeted Rx site. Suppose someone asks the team to "throw in" some pages for doctors, in case they check out the site. What should the brand manager do? Assuming that person isn't their boss, laughing him or her out of the room is a reasonable option.

Doctors want data-not brand imagery-and they are suspicious of anything that smacks of promotion. Doctors also want companies to acknowledge their position and prestige. Further, because there are severe restrictions on the nature of website content if companies commingle any physician information with consumer content, they are better left as two distinct entities.

Most sites do offer separate sections for healthcare professionals, but they leave their data exposed to consumers and they often use the same design to present it. That makes the physician portion of the website look like a lightly considered postscript.

Remedy: Companies should separate their professional and consumer web communications into discrete channels. Although the professional site may contain a prominent link or "barker" to the consumer content-for doctors who want to see what their patients are looking at-the content itself must be designed and structured very differently.

The imagery on a professional site should be serious: text, slides, webcasts featuring prominent physicians, little brand imagery, and no "life-style" photography. Ideally, physicians should also be given access to a completely separate, data intensive "thought leader" website, which they can access with a user name and password.

Mistake #4. Build the site without a blueprint. No company would construct a new building without seeing all the plans. Why, then, does the pharma industry build so many websites without a technical specification document?

Because websites are so often an afterthought, marketers frequently rush to get them up in time for a product launch or a big sales meeting. They think they can save time by skipping the architectural phase and moving right into production. The result is a poorly designed site that eventually will have to be gutted and re-built-which costs more than if it had been built right the first time.

Remedy: Product managers or agencies must have the discipline to say no when colleagues ask them to build product websites without undergoing a thorough technical specifications process. And developers must have the flexibility to execute launches in a series of well managed, smaller phases. That way, the developer and the client can learn from the users' experiences and not waste time and money on features and functionality that users don't want. Companies should construct the core "building" first, then live in it for a while before deciding whether to add a sun room or turn half the garage into a workshop. But in all cases, companies should never build anything without a blueprint.

Mistake #5: Underestimate the difficulty of getting content approved. Typically, the biggest bottleneck in online launches is writing content and getting FDA's Drug Division of Marketing, Advertising, and Communications (DDMAC) to approve it. Several obstacles slow down the process: assembling content from various sources, turning it into web-friendly prose, and getting all that information through the laborious marketing and DDMAC approval process. (See "A Fine Line," Pharmaceutical Executive, October 2002.) All told, even a small amount of content can take months to work its way through the copy approval mill.

Remedy: Marketers can make copy approval more efficient if they follow a few rules. First, executives should ensure that writers have appropriate consumer healthcare and internet experience. It also helps to hire writers who know the legal ins and outs of a particular company's review department.

Finally, companies can hold group review sessions with attorneys and regulatory people all in the same room to reduce the traditional medical/legal round-robins, where small disagreements are often amplified rather than resolved. Adding the human element tends to focus everyone on the big issues and cuts down on nitpicking and grandstanding.

Mistake #6: Treat everybody in the world like an American. People outside the United States often accuse Americans of being insensitive to other cultures. Although that charge isn't always justified, cultural insensitivity is a problem on the world wide web because, although much of pharma's web content may be developed in the United States, it is consumed everywhere.

Marketers must remember that consumers from all over the world visit those branded websites, even when they are clearly marked "For US Residents Only." International surfers generally use the same search engines Americans do, and many non-US consumers, particularly those who live in countries that prohibit DTC advertising, turn to American product websites. Executives must design their websites so they are accessible and understandable to everyone.

Remedy: US managers should consult with international colleagues during the development process, providing them with the opportunity for real input-and not mere political lip service-about the creative design and messaging. And if the company is truly committed to global brand launches, it should also commit to usability testing with key global audiences.

Mistake #7: Don't think about measurement until after launch. Despite the statistical savvy inherent in a computer-based medium, marketers often fail to establish the metrics with which to measure the success of their online initiatives. It is ironic that pharma companies claim that they have a harder time "proving" the efficacy of a web initiative compared with inherently less measurable media, such as television and print. Indeed, it is only a matter of time before marketers and their agencies acquire enough experience to make their electronic initiatives the most precisely measured component of their marketing mix.

Remedy: Marketers must establish tangible goals that can be measured at each stage of development. Some basic statistics include unique and repeat visitors, average length of site visit, and registered users.

Product managers should also consider more advanced measurement, provided by services that determine the demographics of site visitors and map traffic growth back to off-line DTC initiatives, including print and television ads.

Mistake #8: Ignore the importance of disease-specific websites. When launching a major global brand, marketers often expect a single, brand-name website to deliver all the messages and speak to all the audiences they want to reach. Although it's true that many patients around the world turn to American websites for product information, companies can't promote a name-brand website outside the United States. And unpromoted websites aren't worth building.

Remedy: Companies can build disease-specific websites, which they can promote around the world. Although those websites can't discuss specific brands, they can explain the importance of a particular type of therapy and begin building interest that may lead to product inquiries.

Mistake #9: Fail to coordinate online and offline initiatives. Web development is fundamentally different from traditional agency activities, but it can't be lumped in or "siloed" out from other communication approaches. Pharma companies need specific expertise to execute an effective web strategy, but they must fully integrate it into the brand strategy. Ultimately, the responsibility for the web initiative's success falls on brand managers' shoulders. But if the brand budget is big enough, companies should dedicate an integrated marketing manager to ensure that the web strategy is in sync with the overall brand strategy and that the traditional and interactive agencies communicate effectively with one another.

Web developers, ad agencies, PR firms, medical education companies, and packaging designers all play a big role in a product launch. But if companies don't have a disciplined approach to integrating those activities, they'll have an expensive, ineffective mess to clean up.

Remedy: The most powerful cure for poor coordination is also one of the simplest: a series of strategic integration sessions with all the brand's players. The brand manager should begin by presenting the entire strategy, followed by presentations of subcomponents from each of the core groups. That may sound like a lot of PowerPoint slides to sit through, but in the long run, the return on investment is worth it.

For instance, if the web developer knows that the PR firm is planning a major outreach campaign in conjunction with a major non-profit's fundraiser, that presents a perfect opportunity to offer a powerful online component such as a pharma-sponsored webcast of the event. All too often the web developer finds out about such plans too late, and the chance to generate significant name exposure and good will is lost. But brand managers should be cautious: Some agencies are extremely jealous of their "turf" and don't want to share ideas with anyone but the client. When that happens, brand managers should insist that everyone work together.

Mistake #10: Cut "interactive" out of the internet. Marketers who don't harness the interactive power of the internet are missing major opportunities. As web technology improves, they can make the online experience much richer and more engaging than typical flat HTML pages. Companies have the chance to differentiate new websites from their competitors' older sites and take advantage of more effective interactive techniques such as flash animations, videos, and webcasts.

Remedy: Today, 52 percent of US web users have broadband access, so rich media features are now a practical way to distinguish a product site from its competitors, especially if marketers are targeting a high income group. (Patients' income is a good indicator of whether they have broadband.) Depending on the audience demographics, product managers should consider such powerful tools as flash-based patient education modules, mechanism-of-action videos, and webcasts.

Executives should also include simple, low-bandwidth interactive tools like surveys, quizzes, and polls. Traffic reports consistently show that even basic interactive features receive more traffic than pages with static content. And it's not hard to understand why-visitors enjoy getting a response from a website because it makes them feel that the site is "listening" to them.

The unifying theme to all those mistakes is that pharma marketers still aren't as comfortable with the internet as they are with traditional media, which means they leave the consumers' medium of choice dramatically underexploited. It may be a while yet before most pharma companies expand their comfort zones to include the strategic use of the online channel. In the meantime, savvier marketers can turn their competitors' discomfort into a competitive advantage.