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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.


Messages of Medicine

Given that variety of findings, marketers working with pharmaceutical companies are now searching for the best online approach to reach consumers with drug information.

“It takes a whole spectrum of insights and tactics to message effectively to health care consumers and this requires deep knowledge of patients, a customer-relationship-management mindset and a strategy for helping patients manage their diseases beyond the pill,” Greene says.

What excites Greene about pharma is that the industry is “opening its eyes to the entire patient journey — not just diagnosis, but also disease awareness, getting started on a medication and adhering to a prescription,” he says. “We are seeing more and more pharma clients asking for help analyzing consumer outreach campaigns, which is a good thing for the industry.”

Greene adds that as more targeted treatments replace traditional blockbusters, and as generics enter many disease categories, this trend is accelerating. “We’re seeing brands spend more on support and adherence programs and less on mass media acquisition campaigns,” he says. “We are entering a very direct-oriented, digitally-influenced, behaviorally-focused era of pharma marketing.”

One example of this new digital marketing effort comes from Integrative Logic, a database marketing provider in Atlanta. It worked with a maker of acne medicine to develop an interactive Web site for parents and acne sufferers. Once registered on the site, users can sign up for an ongoing acne education program.

“The point is to share information in a way that is most meaningful to the individual,” says John Gardner, Interactive Logic’s president and CEO. “So for example, giving teens information and talking points eases some of the discomfort they may have in talking about acne with their parents and physicians.”

Gardner says the site got 850,000-plus unique visits in the first six months and that it has since built an engaged audience and pushed a 14.2-percent visitor-to-rebate-registration conversion rate. He adds that the search channel accounted for 28 percent of all rebate registrations and 78 percent of all rebate redemptions, indicating, among other things, that the site content compelled visitors to take the desired action — to register for the rebate, obtain a prescription and fill it.

The Economics of Drugs

Perhaps one reason social media outlets are gaining acceptance with drug makers is that they’re cheap ways to communicate.

Dave Duplay, president of MedTera, a health care marketing company in New York, says the pharma industry marketing climate couldn’t be more competitive, complex or dynamic. “In the last half of 2008 and first half of 2009, the industry made huge cost-cutting and staff reductions because of the economy and because the business model for pharmaceutical companies needed a change to be profitable again,” he says.

Duplay says this, coupled with aging products coming off patent, a reduced new drug pipeline, reduced access to their audiences and new federal regulations restricting working with, communicating with and compensating their audiences, has caused pharma companies to find a way to run leaner within those major cost reductions.

(Incidentally, Duplay says it now costs the pharmaceutical companies approximately $1.7 billion per drug for Food and Drug Administration approval.)

“The pharmaceutical industry, however, has rallied,” Duplay says. “It has reviewed its audiences, selected new ones to market to and reinvented efforts to market to them. Pharmaceutical companies have made paradigm shifts in how and with whom they communicate, using advancement in technology and segmenting messaging.”

More than anything else, the pharmaceutical industry has learned not only how to refine and segment their audiences, but has also started focusing on measuring the return on investment of all marketing efforts, Duplay says.

But Duplay believes the greatest need is to help the pharma industry create “mind share” between the doctor, patient or caregiver, pharmacy and the insurance payers. “If this can be accomplished, we may find that consumers will be more informed, but may also learn to again trust the pharmaceutical and health care industry,” he adds.

Irregular Regulations

Another new (and still gray) area related to social media and online communications is the regulatory landscape. No one has answers yet, but Washington is on the case. The FDA held a hearing specifically on social media and online promotion in November to get feedback from pharma and other groups, and the industry is expecting guidance sometime this year.

In the meantime, the door to social media usage remains open. “The FDA has consistently told us that social media promotion by pharma companies is not prohibited as long as we abide by prevailing law,” Greene says. “The trick is translating the law into these new media. How do you provide safety information in a 140-character Tweet? Until the FDA provides guidance, many pharma marketers are wary of experimenting.”

No doubt the industry remains under heavy scrutiny, says John Mack, a principal consultant with VirSci Corp., a medical communications company in Newtown, Pa.

Mack says the FDA has been accused of “guidance by warning letter,” which he says is unfair because everyone is on their own when it comes to how to interpret how it applies to them.

Crystal Rice, with the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research for the FDA, in Silver Spring, Md., says the FDA is continuing to enforce its rules against ads it deems false or misleading. The FDA issued 41 enforcement letters last year, Rice says. And it looks as if it’s increasing that enforcement considerably in 2010; by mid-April, it had already issued 22 such letters.

The most common violations in prescription drug promotion are “omission and minimization of risk information, promotion of unapproved uses, including broadening the approved indication of a drug and misleading claims of effectiveness,” Rice says.

Another kink in social media, according to Bob Shaffer, a sales manager for PointRoll, a full-service digital marketing company in Conshohocken, Pa., is control of communication. “For any prescription-based medicine, you must have a filter to capture adverse reactions,” Shaffer says. “If someone in a headache forum complains a drug caused a hand to turn green, that must be immediately reported to the FDA.”

Shaffer says publishers of social site forums can’t manage adverse claims in real time effectively. “You need constant monitoring. If they don’t, they’re breaking FDA rules,” he says. “It’s tricky.”

Figuring It All Out

Perhaps the best analogy for pharma and its use of social and digital media is that, like many drugs in their early stages of development, it’s just too early to tell what will work and what won’t.

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