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Closing Pharma’s Digital Divide


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-05-01-2018
Volume 38
Issue 5

Overcoming the challenges of digital brand management will involve choices in spending and channels.

Overcoming the hurdles of digital brand management will involve choices in spending and channels


By 2020, the US healthcare and pharma industries will spend upwards of $3 billion on digital advertising annually, according to projections by digital market researchers eMarketer. Their forecast represents a compound annual growth rate of more than 13% in pharma’s digital marketing spend since 2014. Steadily increasing spending doesn’t mean that digital marketing is getting any easier, however.

Even the most tech-connected pharma brand managers can still find it a challenge to navigate the complexities of regulation, patient privacy, and cross-channel promotions in the digital marketing space. And this year more than any other has provided proof positive that digital media’s upward trajectory is as vulnerable to real-world pressures as any marketing medium.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional mea culpa to the many failings of scandal-hit Facebook is only the best-reported reminder that it’s not all smooth running on the information superhighway.

New media darlings Buzzfeed and Vice Media both missed their 2017 revenue targets and laid people off. Mashable went from a $250 million valuation to a $50 million fire sale in less than six months. YouTube has had to bring back humans to manage content on its Kids video channel to protect children from obscene content that the algorithm thought was okay.

Never as heavily invested in digital as other industries, pharma marketers can perhaps breathe a little sigh of relief that they’re not all-in on digital. Enjoy the moment, then get back to figuring out how to make digital work for pharma brands.

Still need to catch up

If there wasn’t before, there’s clear evidence now that digital media and marketing is not perfect. But perfect or not, it continues to deliver unprecedented reach, growing engagement, and real potential for building long-term brand awareness.

eMarketer’s projections show that healthcare and pharma spend the least on digital advertising among the 10 industries measured. Retail is the biggest and will outspend healthcare and pharma by $20 billion in 2020 if eMarketer’s projections hold up.

Research by eConsultancy, in association with Adobe, similarly sees a sector playing catch-up on the digital transformation journey. But their “2017 Digital Trends in Healthcare and Pharma” report goes on to describe prospects for “exponential change,” as consumers show increasing interest and participation in their own healthcare. The report says drug companies will be forced to overcome the challenges posed by complex regulation and siloed organizational structures.

While eConsultancy’s research shows just 6% of companies ready to describe themselves as “digital first,” compared with 11% in other sectors, healthcare and pharma companies are increasingly aware of the opportunities. They are also getting ready to spend more: 71% said they were planning to increase their digital marketing spend last year compared to 60% in other industries.

Pharma futurists see a sector transformed by technology where pills alone are not enough. The US head of

Takeda Digital Accelerator, Daniel J. Gandor, told eConsultancy, “It’s pills with companion apps, and coaching, diagnostics, and personalized medicine all wrapped into one.”

Research from global consulting firm Accenture estimates that digital health funding in the US will grow to $6.5 billion by 2017, with investment sustained by funding for digital health startups.

But French consulting rival CapGemini describes the pharma industry as a “digital beginner” in its “Digital Advantage” report. The reality is, the vast majority of pharma marketers will need to prioritize practical decisions about how to invest their digital budgets today rather than re-imagining the digital healthcare ecosystem for tomorrow.

Multichannel campaign management

A strengthening focus on the customer means that pharma marketers are increasingly having to work across multiple touchpoints. In eConsultancy’s 2017 digital trends report, multichannel campaign management was rated several points higher by pharma marketers than those in other industries-21% versus 16%.

Cross-device targeting driven by data analytics and programmatic advertising is not yet pharma’s strong point. 

Programmatic advertising-automated media buying that relies on algorithmic bidding-has grown exponentially over the last few years. Forecasts show programmatic buying in the US accounting for more than four of every five ad dollars spent by next year. 

Growth has come from the targeting possibilities programmatic ad buys allow marketers to specify, from geographies to detailed audience segments. Done right, it’s a dream come true for marketers in a highly regulated market like the life sciences. The problem is, it’s not easy for non-technical people to understand rapidly developing technology options or properly control ad placement. This explains estimates showing programmatic advertising accounts for less than 5% of digital ad spend in pharma.

Conversely, longer experience and direct control mean social media was noted as a budget priority for 63% of pharma respondents to eConsultancy’s digital trends survey. That compares with an average across other industries of 55%.

Social media maturity

Health communications agency Ogilvy Healthworld recently partnered with social data firm Pulsar to produce its fourth-annual “Social Check-up.” The report’s conclusion was that pharma’s use of social media has “matured” and companies are getting “more and more mileage” out of their efforts on social platforms. 

Findings are based on analysis of 11-month’s activity on global corporate social channels for 20 leading pharma companies. The data shows that the average number of weekly posts across most of the social channels monitored-Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram-has decreased. The one exception is YouTube, which was up but on very limited activity.

This drop in post frequency is in direct contrast with significant increases in both community size and engagement across platforms at half of the top 20 companies. Top brand Novo Nordisk grew its engagement by 13%; Novartis by 77%; Johnson & Johnson by 111%; and Merck & Co./MSD by 122%. None of these brands posted the greatest amount of content.

The social team at Ogilvy Healthworld came to the conclusion that high-value content, possibly with paid amplification, was key to driving engagement.The definition of high-value content is varied, stretching from the drone footage of Bayer and Eli Lilly’s headquarters posted on their respective Instagram accounts, to associations with celebrity influencers.

Celebrities and pharma are not always an easy fit, but Ogilvy Healthworld highlights the spikes in engagement that came from partnerships with Novo Nordisk and Pakistani cricketer Wasim Akram for #ChangingDiabetes and Oprah Winfrey supporting J&J’s HIV vaccine announcement.



Highlight the human

According to the Social Check-up report, the underlying message for increasing engagement, at least in terms of content posted, is to highlight the human side of the pharma business. It recommends spotlighting broad initiatives like Novo Nordisk’s all diabetes pro-cycling team and unbranded ads around awareness days like Earth Day, World Aids Day, and World Cancer Day.

The report paints the social media space as increasingly “pay to play,” with companies looking to paid social promotions as a way to target the right people at the right time. Paid amplification is also compensating for a decline in organic reach, the cash keeping content visible in a crowded space.

As well as posting less and paying more, pharma marketers are also working to leverage the peculiar strengths of a mix of social channels by tailoring content specifically for each channel.

Ogilvy’s 2016 Social Check-up showed that the most engaging content for pharma followers was highly visual and, this year, many of the top pharma companies are looking to Instagram as a key channel. The biggest platform for digital marketing, however, is still Facebook.

Facebook’s public woes and the hand-wringing over brand-bashing algorithm changes shouldn’t fool anyone into believing Facebook is no longer a relevant part of the digital marketing mix. With greater reach that all other channels, 2018’s Social Check-up put the average number of engagements per Facebook post at 524, far greater than 190 for Instagram, 61 for Twitter, and just three for YouTube.

There is still a lot of confusion over how changes to Facebook’s news feed and likely changes to data usage and advertising practice will impact brand marketing tactics on the platform. But as the President of Condé Nast International, Wolfgang Blau, said when the news feed changes were first announced: “It remains the world’s most powerful distributor of that most precious of resources called attention.”

Active engagement

The much-discussed algorithm changes to the Facebook newsfeed are a strong indicator of where social media marketing is heading. Facebook’s new engagement rules promote comments over “Likes” as a signal of meaningful interaction and social content that inspires active engagement will become ever more important.

Pharma’s focus on content marketing illustrates this narrative, with marketers looking to meet increasing demand for reliable healthcare information through content marketing. eConsultancy’s data shows 29% of pharma marketers prioritizing content marketing above all other digital-related activities.

Content marketing for consumers is still a challenge in the highly regulated life sciences market and techniques for personalization used successfully in other industries are more difficult for pharma. This means content targeted at healthcare professionals (HCPs) is still a priority.

Social media’s appetite for high-quality content is matched by a return to prominence for search marketing. eMarketer’s digital advertising forecasts show search and display are equally important formats for healthcare and pharma brands. 

Changes to Facebook’s algorithm may even bolster the importance of search, as the social network prioritizes content from friends and family over publisher and brand content. According to publisher referral data collected by analytics firm Parse.ly, whose customers include high-traffic sites like The Wall Street Journal, Google Search delivered 44% of all traffic to their customers’ sites compared to 25% for Facebook.

Traffic from other referral sources is generally very low in comparison; the next biggest social platform, Twitter, sends just 2.6%; and alternative search Bing, just 1.3%.

Declining public trust

Although a priority channel, the developing ROI for social media marketing may also be threatened by falling public trust in digital platforms. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer shows trust in social media and search platforms dipping by 11% in the US, the steepest decline anywhere in the world.

Against a background of “Fake News” and amid the backlash against unauthorized data manipulation, brands may be looking back to legacy publishers to deliver the credibility that comes from association with an established media player.

Kantar Media, reporting that total pharma spending on advertising in the US market rose 4.6% to $5.8 billion, noted that the jump includes a 6.4% rise in spending on magazines. That spike explains why consumer publishers from Condé Nast and Time Inc. to newcomers like Vice have all launched health content businesses.

Right message, right place, right time

The right time may be at home on a laptop, or on a social channel on a smartphone. It might also be at the point of care (POC), a channel that allows companies to target specific practices and patients at a point they are more receptive to health information.

Last year, sales and marketing consultancy ZS Associates reported that up to 20% of pharma brands were moving digital media spend to digital POC marketing in doctor’s offices or hospitals. Platforms highlighted included exam room tablets and interactive wall boards, waiting room TV, and sponsored apps, some incorporating geo-fencing to target video or text messaging at patients in doctors’ offices.

Getting the message right also means compliance. Alongside the age-old worries around FDA compliance, new worries around data protection legislation in Europe are now in play. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a harmonization of data privacy laws across Europe, is designed to protect EU citizens from privacy and data breaches. The legislation applies to all companies processing the personal data of subjects residing in the EU, regardless of the corporate location. That means that patient data collected in Europe but transferred to the US for processing needs to be complaint. With fines of up to 20 million euros threatened, proper data processing has taken on new gravity. 

Staying safe online

Possibly of more direct concern, at least to brand managers, is the onerous question of brand safety. A November 2017 survey of senior marketing people by video ad platform Teads showed nearly 80% of them said they are more concerned about brand safety than ever before. Tactics used to address their concerns included increasing spend on brand safe sites and review agency contracts.

Agencies are addressing the problem-GroupM has a dedicated brand-safety practice, for example-but ultimately, it’s brands that lose out if their ads appear next to questionable content. Last year, consumer brands including AT&T and Verizon pulled their advertising from YouTube after ads appeared next to clips used by predators to target children. Unilever has gone further and threatened to pull ads from digital channels that “create division in society and promote anger and hate.”

Whichever platforms turn out to be safest for pharma brands, developing a long-term digital strategy is essential. The headline message in CapGemini’s Digital Advantage report, literally, is that “digital leaders outperform their peers in every industry.”

The report warns that pharma executives see the threat in digital, but not the opportunities. The advice: get past the risks, as real as they undoubtedly are, and focus on the benefits inherent in a well-executed digital brand management strategy.

Individual tactics are less important. Well-known marketing guru and author Seth Godin wrote recently that if a tactic fails, its okay to consider abandoning it. “But that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with your strategy,” he says. “Your strategy is what you keep doing even after you walk away from a tactic.” 

So, where tactics like celebrity hashtags, infographics, or drone videos may come and go, the strategy of engaging customers and HCPs with your brand across digital platforms is here to stay. 


Peter Houston is a media and marketing expert and the founder of Flipping Pages Media. He can be reached at peter@flippingpagesblog.com


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