Stages of Courage to Excel in Digital Pharma Marketing

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Stages of Courage to Excel in Digital Pharma Marketing

Pharmaceutical companies conduct marketing based on the same principles as companies in any other industry: to promote the business, products, and services and to ultimately support revenue generation. But pharma companies must be extraordinarily careful not to transgress in their marketing and communications endeavors.

In addition to common marketing practices and laws, pharma companies must abide by a unique and complex set of rules, comprised by numerous elaborate directives, laws, and codes that vary at both international, regional, and national levels, e.g. IFPMA, EFPIA, EU Directive 2001/83/EC, FDA.

Regardless of the complexity of the governing rules, pharma marketing is still mainly about informing audiences about products – namely drug therapies that are proven to effectively treat various diseases. The paradoxical reality that pharma companies face is, however, that they must construct their marketing communication in such ways that it cannot be construed as being promotional of the very products that are ultimately being marketed.

Under these conditions, and because of the ever-looming risk of receiving warning letters from authorities, pharma companies are severely and continuously hampered in terms of their adaptation, sophistication, and appreciation of digital marketing initiatives – both in terms of technology, creativity, and efficacy.

Looking back over the past 10-12 years, there are seven distinct signifiers that reveal if a pharma company’s marketing tactics are courageously exploring the possibilities of the governing regulation, which otherwise mostly lowers the ceiling of marketing effectiveness.  

The pinnacle of courage in this regard coincides with the effectiveness of the marketing communications effort, e.g. in terms of reach, audience-targeting precision, attraction, engagement, and retention. As such, it is the case in each disease area, for each brand, and in each project that safer, more tried and true tactics will only reach a certain level of effectiveness, while the practical experience mostly shows that whoever dares also wins.

GATE – When any content piece is considered an extension of product brand messaging, and the pharmaceutical company enforces the often-self-imposed rule that users must willingly and deliberately log in to access the company’s content. Such a measure of promotional safety is a hard buy-in for users, which tends to severely limit online visibility and accessibility. Those select few who get exposed to the content tend to be thoroughly engaged, and for this reason, gating is not understood as a ‘lesser’ approach to pharma marketing. In fact, gating has tremendous benefits if used in the right ways, but the most common use of gates is for a company to simply wall-off the garden, without the slightest hint as to what awaits those who log in. Please also note that one-click gates where users disclaim whether they are healthcare professionals or not are not considered a part of this signifier.

CONSOLIDATE – When companies offer one-point access to a gated and more-or-less uniform portal of content that is by-invitation-only. These types of exclusionary content clusters are slightly superior to GATE content by virtue of being a one-stop shop for information, as opposed to offering individual digital assets such as educational- or brand websites, where success relies on relevant audiences finding each standalone asset. Practical examples of CONSOLIDATE are the many HCP portals that are offered by most major pharma companies.

DISSEMINATE – When single message content is broadcasted in one or few paid media channels that can ensure that the communication reaches the intended target audiences (e.g. medical news sites for HCPs, medical journals, or LinkedIn). For the most part, the communication here is a simple, one-off information transaction between pharma companies and target audiences – short-term standalone campaigns with limited content production, a simple goal, and a fixed budget.

CURATE – When companies source content from third parties, namely by sourcing public domain content such as social media content of relevance into an online property owned by the company. This signifier also encompasses content produced by third parties such as healthcare system authorities, independent research- & treatment organization, or patient advocacy groups. Examples of such sourced-in content includes treatment guidelines and descriptions of common practice processes.

PROPAGATE – When content that is produced in the spirit of multi- or omni-channel marketing strategies, which has grown in popularity among pharma companies and their agencies since the onset of COVID-19. The rapid acceleration in the adaptation and importance of digital media presence – combined with enough accumulated experience to have something as uncontrollable as social media in the default channel mix – is what drives pharma marketeers here. PROPAGATE also denotes a point in time where the majority of large pharma companies evolved their digital marketing approaches to shift the focus from a notion of channel effectiveness (e.g. website vs. email) to a focus on customer flows and how to cultivate customer relationships through marketing communications (e.g. from banner to website, to sign up to webinar, to reminder, to follow up after webinar, etc.)

CO-CREATE – When companies produce content from formalized editorial collaboration with third parties, both professionals and laypeople, as well as organizations and individuals. In marketing terms, this signifier encompasses influencer marketing tactics, which in the more conventional sense includes advisory boards and content that features key opinion leaders. More unconventional tactics include content that features patient opinion leaders and conveying messages that exceed the pharmaceutical company’s typical domain, i.e. ‘beyond-the-pill’ messaging.

ACTUATE – This signifier is currently the best for achieving what is commonly understood when referring to ‘marketing communications effectiveness’. In practice, this is when content pushes the regulatory boundaries by conveying messages that arguably are closely aligned with product brand messages. Such content is constructed in such ways and distributed through such tactics that it enables and stimulates target audiences to take direct real-life action. As a result of more product-aligned messaging, the marketing effects experienced here are similar to marketing communication in B2B- and B2C industries other than healthcare, because brand awareness and product demand are a forefront goal, and because these goals are believed to be more achievable than with conventional, compliance-failsafe messaging and tactics.

Boldness in pharma marketing is effective, but understandably rare

As far as marketing theory goes, “pharma marketing” should be labelled an oxymoron, simply because in most markets worldwide, it is prohibited to mention the brand- and compound names of the products that are marketed, unless the target audiences are verified HCPs or patients prescribed to the Rx product in question. Clearly, this hampers marketing effectiveness, because how can you maximize your marketing effectiveness, when you cannot promote a product brand name, nor showcase the products’ positive characteristics to audiences broadly and without abided by strict rules of exclusivity?

Understanding the severe consequences of crossing the line of what regulation is interpreted to allow, it is interesting to see the apparent increase in pharmaceutical companies that launches initiatives which can be labelled as ‘ACTUATE’. The trend is seen as a direct consequence of the massive regulation-oriented barriers in the industry, as well as digital media being ubiquitous to the point of being indispensable in and inseparable from modern life. Pharma companies’ stakeholders no longer go online – they virtually live online, and the most courageous, the most digitally savvy, and most evolved pharmaceutical companies realize this and act on it by finding new ways to cultivate the digital landscape around them, e.g. by courageously testing the boundaries of what has hitherto been safe, mainstay modes for communications.

If you have not yet experienced ACTUATE content yourself, here are a few examples of what can be observed in the current digital landscape. Do note that the common characteristic of these examples is that they drive brand awareness for pharmaceutical drugs through non-US web properties and outside of hard-gated environments. As all the examples are ‘live’ at the time of writing, it is assumed that all the examples comply with pharma marketing regulations in the respective markets. Still, because the details of local regulations that must abided are unknown, the examples have been anonymized.

  • One company’s non-gated disease education & patient support website mentions the brand names of all pharmaceutical drugs that are available to treat the disease in focus. The sentence is copy-pasted from the website of a national self-help group, which offers an overview of treatment centers in the target country. As links to this self-help group’s website is placed throughout the pharma company’s website, users are ACTUATED by receiving ample and easy access to information about where to get treated with pharma brand X, Y, and Z.
  • Leveraging a third-party voice, such as the national self-help group in the above example, is already a common component in ACTUATE content. One pharma company posted an 11-minute video by a third-party organization, in which almost three minutes are dedicated to describing the modes of action of available pharmaceutical drugs – mentioned by both compound- and brand name.
  • One of the more subtle tactics observed include a pharma company which describes how advances in medical research have led to the availability of pharmaceutical treatments. This statement is followed by a description of one particular drug’s mode of action – presumably that of the sender pharma company’s product. This is ACTUATE content, because anyone who has consumed this content and later enquires about the described mode of action is guaranteed to find only this pharmaceutical company’s drug, because of its novelty and uniqueness.
  • The final example is one that arguably over-complicates matters in its attempt to ACTUATE users through brand awareness: One company offers a link-button, labelled “For Healthcare Professionals” on their non-US, non-gated disease education website for patients and caregivers. Anyone who has evaluated user behavior data for pharma-owned websites know that non-professional are very likely to also visit ‘For HCPs only’-websites. When the “For HCPs” button in this example is clicked, users are sent to a non-gated subdomain inside the pharma company’s corporate website. This is also labelled as being ‘For HCPs’, but much of the content offered content is not gate-protected, incl. a page about “Treatment Approach”, on which the company’s product brand and competing treatment compound names are mentioned. This piece of ACTUATE content then offers brief highlight information about key-selling points for the one product that is referred by brand name and offers an off-site link to this product’s Summary of Product Characteristics.

As a pharma marketeer, I can certainly see the inherent effectiveness of ACTUATE tactics, but these tactics are clearly not for the risk-averse, and it will be challenging for anyone willing to pursue ACTUATE tactics to strike the perfect balance between the all-important regulatory compliance and maximum marketing effectiveness.

But ACTUATE is an interesting trend, and looking across time and all seven signifiers, ACTUATE is one of several recent signs that attitudes are changing inside the marketing and legal departments of pharmaceutical companies. More and more innovative marketing ideas are no longer met by knee-jerk reactions like “In terms of regulations, it’s not feasible to execute such a concept”.

Rather, I’m seeing more and more pharmaceutical companies boldly exploring ways to achieve extraordinary marketing excellence by being frontrunners who can push the boundaries by aligning the intentions of regulatory guidelines with marketing initiatives that achieves maximum ROI while undeniably serve the interests of both HCPs and the public.

PS. Here is the process to get started with an Omnichannel Strategy for your brand: Omnichannel Product Launch in Healthcare – past the Why to What & How (

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