Once the powerhouse of pharmaceutical marketing, the standard approach of combining field force detailing with traditional media coverage now seems limp wristed and tired. Worse still, storytelling has seemingly lost its magic just as pharma marketers began to use it. The new game in town is digital engagement in the pharmaceutical industry.
Physicians, patients and everyone else in the world now embrace digital tools to learn and connect with one another. In response to this interest in digital engagement, the pharmaceutical industry must embrace commercial strategies that reach, appeal to and educate an ever-expanding online audience.
The healthcare profession is now going digital, following retail, financial and other services, to make shopping and marketing an anytime, anywhere experience but merely presenting medical and product data on an iPad or tablet to clinicians is simply not enough anymore. Pharmaceutical companies must go beyond the static webpage or PowerPoint presentation, and utilize tools and channels physicians, patients and caregivers use to confirm what they think they already know. As with marketers in other industries, pharma must reallocate resources away from traditional television and print ads and towards digital marketing.
Patients and healthcare providers rely heavily on mobile technologies, making the time right to launch a digital marketing campaign for physicians and patients. In fact, one in 20 Google searches is for health-related information, according to a newly published e-book from McKinsey & Co., Google and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, entitled Pharma 3D–Rewriting the Script for Marketing in the Digital Age.
A 2015 survey by Black Book Market Research found that nearly a third of physicians use smartphones to manage care. The most likely clinicians to use smartphones were ED physicians, radiologists, obstetrician-gynecologists, and general and orthopedic surgeons.
In 2013, 89 percent of primary and internal medicine physicians said they used smartphones to communicate with other staff members, and just over half said they used these mobile devices to look up information. At that time, 8 percent said they used their smartphone for e-prescribing, to access records, to order tests or to review results. An overwhelming 83 percent would use mobile apps to order medications and perform other functions if vendors would make the features available.
Patients are becoming less dependent on doctors for advice and more willing to take control over their own health, which means they would be more accepting of digital marketing for patients. The vast amount of health information on the internet and in apps empowers patients, as does the huge assortment of health and fitness wearables, such as Apple Watch and FitBit. In fact, there are more than 165,000 mobile health applications, or mHealth apps, available to consumers.
This availability of healthcare technology gives patients more confidence in taking control of their own healthcare. In one survey, more than 85 percent of patients felt confident in their ability to take care of their health and knew how to access resources online. Furthermore, patients are more amenable to evaluating different healthcare products and services because they bear a growing proportion of the costs. Digital engagement that allows pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare professionals to engage with patients who are evaluating different products will be increasingly essential to the success of a pharma company's commercial model.
Patients in the survey were slightly less confident when it came to understand medicines, however, which demonstrates the need for increased digital engagement in pharma marketing. The survey findings revealed that most of the participants agree that over-the-counter (OTC) products are important tools in the management of health but 38 percent said they were unsure whether they had enough information to decide which OTC product was right for them. More than half said they seek the advice of their primary care practitioner, pharmacists or other healthcare provider for guidance in choosing the right OTC product.
Medical professionals – and internet users – frequently engage in confirmation bias, which is the inclination to seek the opinion of others to confirm what the individual thinks is true. Clinicians often ask for confirmation from their peers and other thought leaders when making a difficult medical diagnosis, for example, while patients seek confirmation from their physicians, other patients and advocacy groups when trying to understand a disease, procedure, or medication.
Patients used to rely on the knowledge of their doctors and pharmacists when it came to healthcare and, especially, prescriptions. These patients would dutifully fill the prescription and take it as directed, rarely engaging the prescriber or anyone else in a conversation about the medication.
Millennials are changing all that. This new generation of patients confirms prescriptions by performing research online and discussing medications on social networks. There is great variations in quality when it comes to social media for patients. While an educated patient is usually a healthier patient, online information does not always flow from credible sources and it can be quite difficult to tell the reputable sources from the scams. This increases the risk that patients – and some practitioners – mistakenly confirm incorrect notions about the potential benefits and risks of a product.
A digital revolution is occurring, and pharmaceutical companies can play a central role in the uprising, but capturing the opportunity requires identifying the right initiatives. While they are well aware of the disruptive potential, many pharma executives are not quite sure what pharma digital marketing success will look like five or ten years down the road. Mobile communications, advanced analytics, the Internet of Things and the cloud are just a few of the innovations transforming the healthcare industry as they did the retail, media, and banking industries.
Insurance providers and government are increasingly sharpening their focus on managing costs while continuing to deliver improved patient outcomes. This puts an even greater onus of pharma companies to demonstrate the value of their drugs in the real world and not only in controlled trials if they want to retain premium pricing and market access.
In traditional marketing, pharma companies controlled generation and dissemination of information about products. Digital technology weakened that control as it opened an array of new, independent information channels. Countless online communities provided opportunities to share and discuss patient experiences along with a constant flush of apps and sensors to monitor the effects of therapy on a patient’s daily life.
Advanced analysis and data aggregation allows researchers to link disparate, complex data sets and provide fresh insight into the efficacy and safety of drugs. Pharmaceutical marketers can take advantage of these “beyond the pill” solutions by including sensors that collect and analyze data, solutions that not only improve adherence to treatment and outcomes but also generate data that pharmaceutical companies need to demonstrate the superior efficacy of their drugs.
To take full advantage of the power of digital engagement, pharma companies must ready themselves to anticipate or respond quickly to these new sources of evidence so that they can benefit from the information gathered there while maintaining their position as the main authority on the performance of their products.
In an attempt to participate in the digital revolution, some companies are dabbling in one or two platforms while others are experimenting with a wide range of digital initiatives, but almost all are finding it difficult to determine which initiatives to scale up and exactly how to optimize the power of digital engagement in their marketing. No matter which form of digital engagement a company chooses, pharma must refocus its communication strategies to create a patient-centric approach and discover new ways to maximize digital engagement.