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Reaching skittish consumers through objective, storydriven information is digital marketing's hottest digit. But applying this consumer phenomenon in Big Pharma presents some unique challenges, writes Peter Houston.
Imagine you're at a local shopping center on a Saturday afternoon. I know it's not how you'd choose to spend any of your weekend, but you need something.
You go into the first shop that sells what you're looking for and are immediately accosted by a salesman. This guy is in your face—he's assumed you need what he's selling and he's selling it hard. He assails you with his whole features and benefits pitch and, when you look less than interested, he goes heavy on the price. He sounds desperate, you leave.
When you walk in to the next store, the shop assistant offers a cheery welcome but lets you browse uninterrupted—a pleasant contrast to next door. You think you've found what you want, but you have a question. You catch the assistant's eye and ask if the thing you want is suitable for left-handed people. "Funny story about that… " she says and tells you the tale of a customer who bought two of the items in question for his left-handed twin brothers. She's informative and entertaining. Guess what? You've got your wallet out.
Welcome to content marketing
The biggest buzz in marketing today is a reaction to what some see as the failings of traditional advertising. With something approaching a monopoly on customer attention, traditional media channels once had a tight control on the distribution of information and associated marketing messages. Now, people have options.
Technology, from desktop computers to smartphones, has given everyone direct access to the information they need across a huge and varied range of sources. This gives consumers the means to avoid the hard sell. "Consumers are in complete control today," says Joe Pulizzi, author of "Epic Content Marketing" and founder of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI).
"Healthcare companies can position themselves as go-to informational sources by answering their customers' pain points," says Pulizzi. But the best known content marketer on the planet says the only way to break through and get attention online is to stop the sales pitches and tell interesting stories that customers will actually engage with.
Digital media means there are more ways to get your message in front of more people than ever before—the web, e-mail, social media, games; they all deliver mind-boggling reach. According to global Internet analytics firm Comscore, there are 13.7 billion searches conducted on Google every month. With 60 percent of US consumers saying they looked for health information online in the last year, that's a lot of potential patients.
The problem is, that reach is available to everyone else, from the "Pharma 50" to your local plumber.
In 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt claimed that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003. YouTube uploads, Facebook status updates, Tweets, Pins, and Instagram photographs. We're all publishers now.
But we're not all publishers, we're authors. Publishers have a baked-in quality control filter and would never allow most of the so-called content that is out there on the Internet out of the slush pile. And it's the white noise of the virtual slush pile that's fueling the flames of content marketing and its focus on creating and distributing relevant and valuable content—content that cuts through the clutter.
One of the biggest drivers of the web-world's newly discovered penchant for quality is Google. The big-beast of online search got sick and tired of people gaming its search algorithms with sub-standard content and changed the rules.
Google introduced its Penguin algorithm in 2012 to combat dubious SEO tactics that delivered marginal search results, more to do with keyword stuffing than real relevancy. Originally called the "webspam algorithm," Penguin is designed to reward websites that offer genuinely valuable content. Google hopes it will improve its users' search experience by demoting websites that won the rankings game but left searchers wondering what the page referred had to do with the search terms they had typed in.
Pharma should have a head start in this new, improved search environment; healthcare is an industry where high quality, expert-led, evidence-based information has always mattered.
"Patients are going online to seek information about their condition and treatments they are considering or currently taking," says Chris Nelson, Senior Director, Strategic Services at digital marketing agency Intouch Solutions. "The topics can vary across disease states and products, but the foundation of timely, relevant information persists across all of healthcare."
That doesn't mean, however, that the pharma industry has content marketing down.
Late last year, CMI held its Content Marketing World Health Summit. In his keynote address, Pulizzi released new research on how healthcare companies are using content marketing. His big takeaway for the 200 healthcare professionals in attendance was that marketers in the industry were two years behind their counterparts in other sectors.
"I see brand marketers struggling to create valuable content every day," says Nelson. "At the same time, I see them struggling to engage their audiences by taking the broad stroke method to media buying." In June, on his Intouch blog, Nelson challenged the pharma industry to up its content marketing efforts: Take 10 percent of your media spend and reallocate it towards content strategy development and content marketing efforts.
"By issuing this challenge, I felt like it would help get attention to the topic and invoke a real change in their fundamental approach going forward," he said.
Nelson didn't pluck the 10 percent number out of the air. He wanted the budget allocation to be big enough to make an impact, but not to seem an impossibility to marketing managers that need to justify the spend. "I thought long and hard about the amount of budget to shift. I felt like 10 percent was the right target as it gives the challenge enough weight to get proper attention by brand marketers, but does not require a massive shift in the way they are spending budgets today."
"Unfortunately, most of our client's budgets have already been allocated for 2013," smiles Nelson. "This is shaping up to be a 2014 challenge."
Time will tell if brand managers switch a tenth of their budgets to content marketing, but taking the content marketing challenge isn't just about budget allocations.
"It's a company mindset that must be core to the mission of the organization—to truly solve the pain points of customers, not just through the product, but through information," says Pulizzi.
Nelson says Pharma marketers have always done some level of content marketing, traditionally focused on delivering content to consumers through branded and unbranded campaigns. But these messages are too generic and high level. "There isn't a large content library available to direct people towards other relevant content. This, unintentionally, leaves their audiences hanging with more questions than answers. Gone are the times of the one- size-fits-all marketing approach – that is the key difference that most pharma marketers are missing today."
Pulizzi believes pharma can leverage its long-held expertise and experience in KOL programs and continuing medical education, but needs to go further. The big change is to develop processes that are both authentic and real-time, two things that Pulizzi acknowledges are challenging for Pharma. "It means coordinating the stories in the organization with PR, e-mail, social, and marketing. It means focusing more on the reader outcomes first, and on sales goals second," he says.
Nelson agrees—merging patient needs with brand objectives quickly becomes a win-win scenario. "This type of information can be invaluable to the individual looking for it, likely in a time of greatest need putting Pharma marketers in a unique position, as a valuable and trusted information resource."
Even if pharma has the content, it is struggling to take advantage of the other big benefit that content marketing offers: Social distribution.
Sharing—online distribution by the community that values the content—is a core principle of content marketing. The ideal is to create a regular stream of relevant, timely, and trusted content that customers can find when they need it and then have them pass it on to others in need of similar information.
"As a well-oiled content machine that knows how to build relationships, pharma should thrive in this new era," writes Candice O'Sullivan, of Australia's Wellmark agency. "Here is an industry well used to the rigors of consistently producing high-quality content—the number one challenge for most content marketers—but finds it virtually impossible to 'share.'" She describes the industry as being, "too preoccupied by the risks involved to be able to make the most of this opportunity."
Preoccupied or not, pharma is certainly wary of falling foul of regulations and often puts risk avoidance ahead of innovation in the social sphere.
Mark Evans, Digital Strategy Director at the Langland agency in the United Kingdom, says he often sees companies who feel it is safer to do nothing than risk putting information online. "But all we are doing is leaving patients and HCPs to rely on non-authoritative sources to make serious decisions about our products. When a patient searches for your brand and all they read is unofficial blog posts and unbalanced reviews it is a disaster for pharma companies, HCPs, and patients alike."
Langland recently delivered the "I did this with Idis" campaign for international managed access program provider Idis. The campaign objective is what you would expect—to explain how Idis works with pharma to help create access to medicines outside of the clinical trials or commercial setting that otherwise would be unavailable to patients' with unmet medical needs. The approach is a little more unusual.
The centerpiece is a custom website—http://ididthis.idispharma.com/—focusing almost exclusively on six short videos that tell the stories of patients, physicians, a pharmacist, and an Idis executive who have accessed, or helped patients to access, drugs through the company's programs.
"The campaign centers on a series of documentary films and explores the personal struggles of people facing a difficulty when accessing the medicines they need," says Evans. "The really brave thing Idis did was to respect the documentary filmmaking process and to allow real patients and HCPs to give their unbranded, unscripted insight into the process, which led to content that is more authentic than anything I have seen from a Pharma company in recent years."
Evans says the nature of the content, high quality digital storytelling, has allowed Langland to greatly expand the reach of the campaign. "We've been able to make use of a lot of digital media channels not usually employed in this sector, including targeted LinkedIn advertising, Google Adwords, YouTube, and sponsored Twitter activity."
He acknowledges that pharma companies have always had access to a wealth of quality content and expertise. "But I guess there is often still an old 'brand guardian' mentality of keeping this great content either in a branded website or locked away completely. This is quite naturally driven by the feeling of control that is given by an 'owned' website, but I think there are more opportunities for pushing great content out to relevant publications and blogs to get greater value out of our marketing spend."
Value may be the final stumbling block to pharma businesses accepting the content marketing challenge—it's not always easy to measure ROI.
"This is something that we as agencies need to be helping our clients with, namely that it can be difficult to quantify the impact and ROI of producing branded content not directly linked to a product," says Evans. "Without this information, pharma marketing executives are rightly nervous in going up against medical to plead their case for taking on some of the potential risks."
Nelson puts another slant on the ROI issue. "The challenge for most pharma marketers is setting and measuring appropriate goals for performance of their current marketing campaigns. Without the ability to see the low impact current marketing efforts are having, they're much less likely to try something different or take action to effect change."
Nelson's advice to any pharma marketer looking to take on content marketing is first and foremost to admit there is an opportunity to improve and be willing to change.
Long term, the fragmentation of traditional channels and the disruption of old-style display advertising models may force brand managers' hands. "It's getting harder and harder to interrupt customers," says Pulizzi. "That means we have to focus on what they care about, not by sending out more information about our products and features. Whether the goals are demand generation, customer loyalty, or creating brand evangelists, healthcare companies can win by selling less and publishing more."
Pharma's content-marketing opportunity is to make sure that when a doctor or a patient goes searching for information—which we know they are doing more and more—the right content is there waiting for them, telling them what they want to know without any hard sell. Heading back to that Saturday afternoon shopping trip, it's the difference between sales and service and when the customer has a choice, service is everything.
Peter Houston is former Content Director for the Advanstar Pharma Sciences Group and edits his own digital media blog, FlippingPages. He can be reached at [email protected]