For the People, By the People

May 1, 2008
Pharmaceutical Executive

Volume 0, Issue 0

Thanks to Dr. Google and Nurse Yahoo, pharma consumers know better than ever how to get exactly what they want

The traditional model of pharmaceutical marketing is dying. In its place is a new paradigm, spurred by the rapid growth of the digital world and built around consumers whose influence is growing with every click. These five top trends take a closer look at the paradigm shift, and provide a prescription for Big Pharma to better understand—and master—this new digital reality.

Lynn O'Connor Vos

Consumerization of Healthcare

The mass consumerization of healthcare is the biggest trend affecting pharmaceutical marketers today. In his book, Microtrends, Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn calls today's consumers "do-it-yourself doctors." The Web makes it easy for them: they can research their own symptoms, diagnose their own illnesses, and administer their own cures. In a way, some patients have almost begun to treat doctors like ATM machines, showing up for appointments with full-color descriptions of their conditions, found online, and asking for prescriptions they already know they need.

According to e-marketer.com, 30 million Americans consider the Internet their first source for health information. This has an enormous impact on patients' relationships with healthcare providers, emboldening them to feel and act like equal partners to the experts.

As a result of these factors, patients today—not the organizations that serve or market to them, not even their doctors—are in control of their health. They decide who their trusted source of information will be.

It All Starts with Search

Consumers' new health mantra? "Search and ye shall find!" The Internet is patients' overwhelming choice for researching ailments and drug information. Web site e-marketer.com shows that one-third of the US population—100 million people—research health issues online each year.

Today, the majority of healthcare seekers go to search engines first, even before visiting their doctors—and most go back to the Internet after their appointment to learn more. These numbers reveal one immutable fact: Dr. Google and Nurse Yahoo are now essential components of the nation's healthcare system.

The bad news for Big Pharma is that people aren't looking to them for health information. One reason is that consumers never seek industry Web sites. According to e-marketer.com, only 4 percent of consumers turn to pharma Web sites first when researching health issues. Many pharma sites were set up years ago, and are not optimized for searches. Most need face-lifts, if not major overhauls. Other times, consumers shy away from industry sites because marketers haven't gained the trust of online communities' patients.

By using a combination of organic and paid search engine optimization tools, and by making it desirable for consumers to talk online, companies can ensure that patients, doctors, and others make it to their online destination. It's critical that pharma companies stop carrying on a monologue and start a dialogue with customers.

It's About the Conversation

Today's digital age truly is all about the conversation. Through social media such as blogs, communities, and review sites, 64 million US adults regularly share advice with others online.

For marketers, this means brands now live not on television or in magazines, but in the conversations about them online. Increasingly, consumers are relying on the opinions of friends, family, and even strangers to select physicians and make decisions about their bodies. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine reinforced the idea that the company we keep can have an important impact on our health. Researchers studied a large social network of over 12,000 people over the course of 32 years, from 1971 to 2003. The study found that people were three times as likely to become obese when a close friend became obese. This information sparked a lively public discussion about how a social network can also influence healthy behaviors. As online social networking reaches a new phase, the business case for harnessing these consumer voices, and the influence they carry, is becoming apparent.

Savvy marketers are making their companies part of the conversation by being where their customers are, in the right context, with highly relevant messages. Others are waiting on the sidelines, in some cases trying to keep their reputations intact when conversations go awry.

In today's digital world, the requirement for companies that want to lead is to know not only what people are saying about them, but to actively participate in that conversation. Technology makes "scraping the blogosphere" easy. Marketers can identify online influencers, monitor their opinions, respond to consumer sentiment, and track potentially problematic issues. The real risks are not using the data, not understanding its impact, and not engaging new groups of influencers in the dialogue as active partners. What's at stake is no less than helping people find information they need to make health decisions and to engage them actively so they won't walk away from potentially necessary and appropriate treatment.

Consumers Trust Other Consumers

Frequency breeds authority. Like power sellers on eBay, users of social media have an enormous influence on their peers. A bariatric surgeon in Nebraska who posted 300 videos on YouTube became an overnight sensation. A general practitioner from the Midwest with a site optimized for search became an authority on cholesterol.

But it's not just physicians who have influence. We trust information from those who share our problems and concerns. In one example, a cancer survivor communicating via the micro-blogging platform Twitter has become an informal advisor to others battling the disease.

Many influencers have valid, proven information and advice. Others do not—but because of their online presence, their authority accrues. These facts are alarming: according to Forrester Research, 87 percent of consumers trust peer-generated content. But only a startling 3 percent of those consumers question its trustworthiness.

Healthcare today is about the conversations taking place online. Industry must act to make certain that the people talking are armed with accurate medical information that goes beyond their own personal story to help others engage in the health system, find what they need, and obtain the best outcome.

Engagement Marketing Is Inevitable

The mass consumerization of healthcare has ushered in an unprecedented level of brand engagement.

In other consumer businesses, companies are creating branded communities at the center of their marketing mix, with content driven by users. Those companies that are engaging consumers as de facto brand managers are reaping significant rewards in the form of customer loyalty and higher sales.

As public knowledge about health, treatment, and disease continues to grow, pharma companies will also benefit from engaging consumers.

Trusted online destinations using information validated by experts, where users come to get smarter about their health, are the wave of the future. As A.G. Lafley, CEO of Proctor & Gamble said, "The power is with the consumer. Consumers are beginning, in a very real sense, to own our brands and participate in their creation. We need to begin to let go."

By its troublingly slow pace of adoption, the pharma industry is missing the opportunity this new healthcare marketing paradigm has to offer.

The risks are manageable; the benefits, enormous. And the case for becoming digitally driven, clear. We won't get there simply by bolting digital tactics onto marketing programs, keeping digital expertise hidden in a silo, or our heads buried in the sand.

Marketers must serve as role models for clients, evolving our own companies from having digital specialists to having digital specialty as a core competency.

For the healthcare industry, this is a new way of thinking. It requires a massive shift in the orientation of its communications—from monologue to dialogue, from push-only branding to real-time experiential marketing, from total control to shared control. It's risky, and it won't come easy. But consumers are out there searching for the healthy answer. And we must help them find it.

Lynn O'Connor Vos is CEO of Grey Healthcare Group. She can be reached at vos@ghgroup.com