Choosing the Right Communication Channels

December 1, 2001

Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-12-01-2001,

Nimble healthcare companies have embraced the internet while others have been disrupted by it. The ability to use the internet as part of a larger strategy in conjunction with offline campaigns is a step toward success. This article offers several tactics for integrating the web into the marketing mix.

Nimble healthcare companies have embraced the internet while others have been disrupted by it. The ability to use the internet as part of a larger strategy in conjunction with offline campaigns is a step toward success. This article offers several tactics for integrating the web into the marketing mix.

The healthcare industry has adopted various e-commerce models including:

  • health information sites (drkoop.com)

  • clinical trial recruiting and reporting (centerwatch.com)

  • health evaluation sites (health grades.com)

  • consumer medical supplies (mooremedical.com)

  • online pharmacies (drugstore.com)

  • online training (clevelandclinicmeded.com)

  • e-health insurance (ehealthinsurance.com)

  • medical services (webmd.com)

  • hospital supply exchanges (ghx.com)

  • provider and insurer connectivity (ehealthinsurance.com)

  • consumer and physician connectivity (thedailyapple.com).

No one knows if those websites will exist tomorrow, but clearly the internet has added

an important dimension to customer relationships by providing a new vehicle for biomedical companies to deliver their messages. That new channel has value to everyone involved in business communications. The New York research firm Jupiter Communications reports that 90 percent of pharma companies plan to increase their spending online and 20 percent say they will double their investment.

Those companies face the

challenges of strategic integration and tactical implementation. Strategically, they must deliver a common and consistent message that complements their marketing plan. Tactically, they must choose the appropriate communication path from a crowded field of digital channels.

Internet Channels

Biomedical companies can use four primary channels to deliver their product message:

  • their own website

  • online patient support networks

  • medical societies' websites

  • other third party hosts.

The most common approach is to provide product information through the company's website. There are two methods available, both of which may be used for physician and patient targeting. The first focuses on branded sites such lipitor.com and purplepill. com. The other emphasizes disease-specific information, as in lillydiabetes.com. When the goal is to build brand equity, product focus is appropriate.

The second approach educates patients about the product's merits in the context of the disease state. Frequently, companies use a combination of both methods, as exemplified by the sites Pfizer.com and Merck.com.

A second major internet channel delivers messages through disease-specific patient groups and foundations such as mydiabetes.com and dystonia-foundation.org. The host's perceived neutrality lends credibility to the site's information. Although biomedical companies have limited influence over the material posted on those websites, the hosts will work with industry experts to ensure that important medical material is used. Pharma companies can work with those sites to encourage proper diagnosis, ensure product compliance, deliver recent clinical updates, and reinforce brand awareness.

A third method for disseminating online information is through medical societies, colleges, and associations such as the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP.org), the Fellow American College of Surgeons (FACS.org), and the American College of Radiology (ACR.org). Those outlets are frequently used by physicians seeking online information regarding diagnostic guidelines and common treatment standards. An effective variation to the medical society approach is the use of continuing education to provide new information to physician groups through sites like WorldMedicalLeaders.com.

In addition, a range of third-party hosts, both profit and nonprofit, can be accessed to the company's benefit. General health information websites such as intelihealth.com, eMedicine.com, and DrKoop.com help com-municate patient information. Physician-specific health sites like MyDrugRep.com support direct-to-physician promotion.

Considerations

A medical device executive recently commented on lessons learned from nine months spent implementing an internet strategy. She said, "The two most important audiences are physicians and the sales force." That comment demonstrates the strategic importance of knowing how customers use the web. Physicians have been slow to adopt online tools for use in their practice or research. Therefore, companies must give MDs a strong incentive to log on and receive targeted information. They must also show their internal customers-sales reps-the value of implementing an online strategy before reps will direct their customers to the web. In short, biomedical executives cannot take a "build it and they will come" attitude toward developing a web-based promotional strategy.

Another executive cautions that the sheer number of internet avenues to consumers and physicians causes message distortion.

To choose the most effective course, marketers would be wise to involve customers in the development of their internet strategy. To best leverage the power of the internet, it's also important to know the level of patient involvement in the decision making process. For example, many patients with chronic conditions such as cancer or Crohn's disease make their own treatment decisions, as opposed to those with an acute illness, such as myocardial infarction, in which the physician "calls the shots." A greater degree of patient involvement in deciding the course of treatment warrants heavier investments in patient-oriented communication channels.

As with all facets of the marketing strategy, it's critical to ensure that the web-based message is consistent with, and complementary to, the overall marketing message. If product safety is the primary message in the campaign's printed material, developing an online message that emphasizes the product's metabolic speed will confuse patients unless there is a safety tie-in.

The guiding principle for choosing among different promotional vehicles must be profit-ability as measured against return on investment. To assess the potential value of a web-enabled promotional strategy, marketers should undertake a financial analysis. The internet facilitates easy data capture for measuring cost per exposure and can be used to track other metrics such as minutes spent per page and point of origin.

Companies must also address two practical issues-privacy and copyrights. Many activists are concerned about how internet health sites will use data collected from consumers. Attempting to communicate with patients or physicians who don't want the contact is taking an unnecessary risk. Reach out to those audiences when their interest is piqued. Companies must find a way to deal with copyright issues at the outset. For example, some medical publications want to charge a per-copy fee for clinical reprints sent through the internet. Addressing those issues early in the planning of an online marketing strategy saves time and money.

In an era of internet ubiquity, patients and physicians expect easy access to product information. With thousands of health-related web channels available, companies must be disciplined about evaluating the various outlets. Just as in the print world, the source of information directly affects the credibility of online content.

The biggest challenge is to integrate the chosen web approach with the company's overall communication strategy. The goal must be to implement a focused internet program that is not the core, but a complement to the other facets of the marketing campaign.