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Patient Empowerment and the Future of Pharma Advertising


Pharmaceutical Executive

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

With digitalization enabling patient engagement with their own health experience more than ever before, two critical elements will steer pharma’s advertising path.

With digitalization enabling patient engagement with their own health experience more than ever before, two critical elements will steer pharma’s advertising path


In the wake of the recent Facebook scandal and the continued emergence of our existence within a data-driven world, the average consumer for pharmaceutical products are increasingly more aware of how their data is used, and, as a result, more empowered in their expectations as to what advertisements they are exposed to and why.

This balance between data privacy concerns and expectations of a more nuanced ad experience plays perfectly into the capabilities of the pharma industry. First, let’s address the privacy concerns. After it was revealed that the personal data of over 70 million Facebook users was shared with several entities for the purposes of hyper-targeted advertising, there was a global gut check. Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress twice and Facebook made (seemingly) sweeping policy changes in terms of personal data. This is a direct reflection of this growing concern when it comes to the use of personal data for advertising. Where for many industries, this is a hurdle to overcome in regards to establishing consumer trust, for the pharma sector, this is an opportunity.

In many respects, the US is the Wild West when it comes to data privacy; we run on the “opt-out” rather than the “opt-in” approach to granting company access to our data, we do not have anything like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in place (though it will still impact US companies), and we are one of only two countries in the world where pharma advertising is legal. However, unlike a soda company trying to figure out if someone drinks Coke or Pepsi, for pharma, there is HIPAA in place to protect the consumer and, in turn, protect the brand. 

When everyone is questioning which companies have access to their data, what data these companies have, and how it is being used, the pharma industry is the lone wolf. Unlike any other sector, the pharma industry can ensure the proper and private use of user data. With this in mind, pharma should be shouting from the rooftops of its dedication to HIPAA certification in order to put privacy first. There is an opportunity here to quiet the concerns of a now data-phobic public.

By promoting the industry’s historical commitment to data and personal privacy, it opens the doors to engaging the empowered consumer in ways they are most likely to respond. Recent privacy concerns aside, what consumers have consistently stated is they hate getting advertisements that don’t apply to them. If a person doesn’t have diabetes, or fibromyalgia, for example, they’re not likely going to want to see ads for those conditions while binge watching the latest new Hulu series. Unfortunately, for many pharma brands, that is the approach taken-mass distribution of a product’s message based on generalized demographic data. If one in 10 people in the country has diabetes, and a company runs a national TV campaign in support of an insulin pump product, based solely on the disease prevalence, nine out of every 10 commercials aired will reach someone who is not a potential customer-and potentially annoy a cross section of future customers.

A more empowered patient means they often have a larger voice in their own medical treatments. Again, this presents a prime opportunity for the pharma industry by alleviating customer concerns of privacy with an emphasis on HIPAA certification and what that means for data privacy, and by being aware of the shifting expectations of targeted advertising to be directly relevant to those viewing the ads. There is just one thing missing-technology.

There have been several technological advances over the past few years, which make targeting consumers with ads that they want and need, but without violating HIPAA, possible. These advances include the digital transformation of the industry, wider and faster consumer access to the internet, huge advancements in digital and connected television, and big data analytics and AI. When all of these are combined, brand teams are left with the ability to target customers like never before.

Because of this digitalization, there are more directed channels to reach customers. While HIPAA prevents companies from directly targeting customers individually, it does allow for more targeted focus than a traditional demographic-only approach. Addressable TV is a great example. This broadcast advancement allows for brands to get closer to the individual viewer than ever before. For pharma brands, this means fine tuning the likelihood of reaching that diabetic or fibromyalgia sufferer by applying big data analytics to HIPAA-certified data and folding in the demographic information. This keeps data anonymous but makes the regions targeted go from traditional advertising-designated market areas (DMAs) down to a much smaller geographic division. This changes the efficiency of that diabetic ad campaign from an accuracy of 10% to 25%-40%.

We are at a point in time where the pharma consumer has never been more engaged with their own health experience. We are also at a point where the technology available to us allows the delivery of targeted advertisements to those who would benefit, while leaving those who would not alone. The future of advertising in the pharma industry is a combination of educating the public on data privacy and using the technology available to deliver the results everyone wants by adhering to that data privacy.


Michael Joachim is Senior Vice President, Growth and Innovation, at Medicx


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