The Place of Digital in the Pharma Marketing Mix

October 8, 2014
Mark Perlotto

Mark Perlotto is the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Atlanta-based Adair-Green Healthcare Communications.

Pharmaceutical Executive

Thirty-nine years ago this past June, an article appeared in BusinessWeek that offered readers what was for its time a startling degree of foresight.

Thirty-nine years ago this past June, an article appeared in BusinessWeek that offered readers what was for its time a startling degree of foresight. Four paragraphs down, just above their first historic mention of what they called “the paperless office,” the authors of “The Office of the Future” passed along a prediction by George Pake, head of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center:

“Pake says that in 1995 his office will be completely different; there will be a TV-display terminal with keyboard sitting on his desk. ‘I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button,’ he says. ‘I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world.’”

Coming in a time when the typewriter was still de rigueur in any modern office, the first part of Pake’s prediction was far-seeing-and quite correct. The integration of computers into office environments may seem like a self-evident development with hindsight-but I don’t recall anyone predicting the future ubiquity of smartphones or social media 20 years ago. So the first part of Pake’s prediction should be considered one of the more impressive in the history of business prophecy.

The second part of Pake’s prediction-the bit about paper-is more troublesome. In the same 20 years that saw Pake’s display terminal prediction come true, the use of paper in North American offices actually rose. And while paper use in offices has declined somewhat since the 1990s, overall world consumption of paper has grown by four times since Pake made his prediction.

Why the history lesson? Because we as marketers need to get out of our heads the idea that the advent of digital technologies means the immediate irrelevance of more traditional forms of communication.

Evolution, not revolution
We as marketers can achieve extraordinary things with digital tools. They have transformed the business of health, greatly for the better, and will continue to do so in ways that we can barely imagine today.

But no matter how enthusiastic we are about the shiny new tools in our toolbox, and no matter how much we talk to each other at digital conferences about how digital and mobile and social have grown from mere tactics to Capital-S Strategy, vast swaths of our audience are still consuming vast swaths of content via traditional channels.

Why? Because in today’s world, the speed of technology evolution is outpacing human habits, and human nature. People have been reading and writing and sketching on paper for nearly two thousand years, and on a variety of other non-digital tactile media for unknown thousands of years before that. We’ll probably reach the age of the paperless office and fully paperless content consumption someday, but it’ll most likely be after everyone who reads this article is dead. Any evolution in the fundamentals of ways humans communicate and perceive their world takes a long time-generations steeped in the old ways must pass and new generations be born, often several times over, before such an evolution can be considered complete. Even evolution itself is an evolution-“On the Origin of Species” was first published more than 150 years ago, and still only about six in ten Americans-or so says Pew Research- believe in its fundamental assertion.

According to the AMA’s Physician Master File, 47.4% of all active physicians were age 50 and up as of 2012. So nearly half of our single most important constituency are old enough to remember watching the Apollo 11 mission on television. Also, more than half of physicians regardless of age-55%, according to Kantar’s latest survey-still read articles from medical publications in physical form, nearly double the number who read such articles on a tablet and well more than double the number that read them on a smartphone.

Patients too. While the median age of the American population is 37, the use of healthcare isn’t distributed evenly across that population. According to one published study, only a fifth of the average person’s lifetime medical expenditure will be spent during the first half of his/her life, and nearly half of that expenditure will occur after age 65. That’s not to say that young people don’t consume plenty of healthcare services-of course they do. But older people consume a lot more. And in ten years, older people will still consume a lot more, and those older people will still be old enough to have begun their professional lives well before the advent of the desktop computer, let alone the smartphone or tablet or social media. These are people whose formative years were spent consuming information via traditional, non-digital means, and a large number of them still prefer to consume information that way.

Back to basics
All this being the case, when considering the proper place of digital media in any marketing mix, we need to go back to basics. The Ur-question for marketers is the same today as it was in 1914 and will be in 2114: Who is our audience, and what is the best way to communicate with that audience? Now, brand audiences are not monolithic-they include all sorts of internal variations depending on the variables of each brand’s labeling and value proposition, not to mention the variability of people and their information consumption habits. That’s why one needs a marketing mix. But if we really know our audience, we can at least draw certain basic conclusions. Such as: if our median audience member is more than 50 years old, it would be foolish for the center of gravity of our marketing mix to lie on the digital side of the scale.

So why the rush to digital? We as marketers are suffering from a cognitive bias-a bias in favor of our own preferences. We are by nature creative and innovative people, and it’s our responsibility to stay abreast of new developments in marketing, so we surround ourselves with the new, the innovative, the transformative. Digital turns us on. So we have a tendency to place our audiences in our shoes, rather than the reverse. We see our audience not as they are, but as we are. In so doing, we run the risk of failing to place our messaging in front of large numbers of people who might well benefit from it, people who don’t correspond to our own biases about media consumption.

To avoid the effects of this cognitive bias, we need to reacquaint ourselves with our brands’ audiences. The emergence of digital media and research tools offers us greater capacity than we’ve ever had before to find out as much as possible about our audiences’ individual content delivery preferences. Then, we can go about the task of defining-or redefining-our marketing mix, incorporating digital and traditional elements as the audience’s nature dictates. That mix will likely include a majority of one and a significant minority of the other, depending on the nature of the audience. But it will always be a mix, strategically appropriate content passing through a carefully balanced recipe of the various forms of media delivery, digital and otherwise.

Yes, digital is the future of marketing. But brands and the people that use them don’t live in the future- they live now. To be successful as marketers, we need to remember two things: 1) that our messages belong where our audience is today-not where they may be in the future and 2) because our target audiences are not homogeneous, applying a balanced marketing mix is crucial. Whether the medium is stone, papyrus, paper, billboards, bus stops, television, desktops, smartphones, the Oculus Rift, or little chips embedded in the brain-wherever our audience is today, in all its infinite variations, that’s where our message belongs.

Mark Perlotto is the founder and president of Excitant Healthcare Advertising. He can be reached at mperlotto@excitanthealthcare.com.

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