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Prescribing Healthy Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices

10 Jun, 2010 By: Doug McPherson Response

Drug makers are learning that persuading consumers isn’t as easy as, say, popping a pill. Their self-prescription for marketing today? A heavy dose of social media.

When federal regulators stamped their approval on direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising for pharmaceutical companies several years back, it was a no-brainer for those companies to flood traditional media with their messages.

But now drug makers are learning what other industries have discovered: Finding where consumers’ eyeballs are, and getting their fingers to dial or E-mail to buy, isn’t exactly as easy as popping a pill.

“With the recession taking a bite out of budgets, we’re seeing some of the sheen wear off from traditional DTC channels like magazines and television,” says Jeff Greene, director of strategic services and social media at HealthEd Group, a health marketing company in Clark, N.J. “And the pharma industry is realizing that health care consumers are different, and changing consumers’ health behavior is not the same thing as convincing them to try a new soft drink.”

The Internet has yielded “more empowered health care consumers, consumers who want details,” Greene says. “They want to read about a medication’s clinical trials, they want to learn about the experiences of other patients.”

But part of the problem for pharma companies is self-inflicted. They’re not communicating very well with their target audiences. “You often see patient materials that appear to be written for a medical audience — they can be overly complex with technical language and confusing graphics,” Greene says.

That might explain why many pharmaceutical companies are giving themselves a prescription of social media — a medium (and medicine?) that’s a natural for letting consumers discuss drugs in their own language and in their own way.

And it’s not just a few small outfits that are dipping their toes in YouTube, Twitter, blogs, Facebook and the rest of the social media menu — the big boys are there with bells on.

Pfizer, maker of Viagra and Celebrex, is putting up a social media site to let patients confidentially post personal health information so researchers can learn from them. Johnson & Johnson has loaded several videos onto YouTube and has its own corporate blog. AstraZeneca, which makes the asthma drug Symbicort, has a blog and Facebook page. GlaxoSmithKline launched a corporate blog called “More than Medicine” that, according to a company press release, is “expressly uninterested in promoting GSK brands” but will instead focus on “creating a dialogue about the pressing issues facing the health care industry.”

And drug giant Bayer may win the creativity award. It has unveiled a new online glucose-monitoring tool for young diabetics called Didget, which works with Nintendo gaming systems and rewards users for testing their blood sugar levels. Kids can also take part in a Bayer social-network site to create their own profiles and interact with others.


Being Social is Popular

Adding social media to their repertoires may be a healthy move for pharmas — it’s attracting users in droves.

Burst, an online advertising outfit in Burlington, Mass., surveyed more than 1,900 adults 18 years and older on social media usage for a study the company released last year. Four out of five respondents ages 18 to 34 and nearly half of baby boomers ages 45 to 64 say they belong to a social-networking site. What’s more, two out of three respondents use the Internet to gather wellness info. And a third of the respondents who seek wellness data online do so at least once a week — and more than 10 percent search daily.

Epsilon, a multi-channel marketing company in Dallas, found in a survey last year that health care conversations are happening on message boards more than on any other social media venue. Nearly half of respondents say they use message boards to discuss health issues online.

But Burst also found that even though many people belong to social-networking sites, they’re still spending more time on other pursuits while on the Internet. The 18- to-34-year-olds are reading entertainment news (48.6 percent), gaming (40.5 percent), local or national news (37.3 percent) and social media (35.5 percent). Boomers are perusing national news (55.8 percent), two out of five are shopping, and 40.2 percent are viewing health information.

However, there is good news in terms of effectiveness of branded Web sites for pharma companies. ComScore Inc., a digital marketing intelligence company in Reston, Va., found in its 2009 study that pharmaceutical companies’ online advertising and branded Web sites have a significant positive impact on awareness and favorability among patients and prospects. For prospects, exposure-only to an ad increased both aided and unaided brand awareness, with increases of 4.1 and 4.2 percentage points, respectively.

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