Healthcare is an essential service, and as such has been largely inured to a fluctuating economy. Unlike luxury items or consumer packaged goods, buyers need their pharma treatments, and often literally cannot live without them. But the global pandemic of 2020 is unprecedented, impacting not only the economy but the ability of patients, caregivers, and sales reps to physically go to the point of care.

Our new physical distancing normal has directly impacted pharma brands, as revealed by a CPM Survey: Half of the brand managers surveyed reveal that patient visits have plummeted by more 50%, while nearly two-thirds state that sales rep visits have diminished to zero. These numbers have put extreme pressure on pharma marketers to optimize their media strategies and spend while TRx and NRx fall.

The instinctive reaction during uncertain times with reduced revenue is “Wait and see…” A conservative approach makes sense given fallen script volumes, but perceptive brand teams and their media partners understand that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction: With competitors falling into reactive patterns, opportunities abound to gain strong share of voice and heightened engagement.

Five best practices that are already maximizing ROI for brands eager to take the lead during an unprecedented time of crisis are:

#1: Take Advantage of a Buyer’s Market for Paid Media

Our survey has revealed that most pharma brand managers have significantly reduced their media budgets. Specifically, more than 4 in 10 marketers have cut their media spend by over 25%, many by over 50%—a trend impacting both HCP and DTC campaigns. That’s in stark contrast to over half of these surveyed who also reveal that consumer engagement with their digital content has actually increased!

That essential stat reveals what we call the “Paradox of Pandemic Pharma Marketing.” On the one hand, most brand managers are slashing media spend in the wake of falling scripts, yet many of these same marketers acknowledge that audience engagement with their media buys have actually substantively increased. Given how millions of people are homebound now, that should come as no surprise.

So why not take advantage of the crash in ad spend? Thanks to most brands bowing out, inventory is now plentiful and therefore cheaper than ever before. Amid such a glut, take another look at your channel landscape, and don’t hesitate to negotiate rates and exploit unexpected opportunities—especially higher up in the funnel with awareness building. Broad reach for niche brands has never been this cost-effective.

#2: Contextualize the COVID-19 Messaging Your Audience Wants to Hear

Everyone is interested in only one topic now, so plan your content strategy accordingly. Making coronavirus messaging contextually relevant for your brand is essential but be leery of saturation. Consumers are exhausted by “We live in a time of crisis…” messaging, already eyerolling, cliched, and ignored. Instead, focus on the health benefits target audiences care about and then drive to how your brand delivers them.

The key to unlocking this puzzle of relevance amid saturation is demographics. The virus is impacting all of society, of course, but older audiences—the primary target for most chronic diseases and therefore most pharma treatments—are most vulnerable. Public health announcements related to coronavirus risk factors and comorbidities is a valuable service and highlights the importance of awareness and action.

Differentiating and prioritizing between “essential” and “non-essential” treatment indications is also extremely useful. Life-saving treatments present brands with increased urgency to communicate with HCPs and patients through media; optional treatments need to be kept top of mind, with a strategy lending itself more to unbranded and native. Of those surveyed, 45% have already evolved their content to meet new needs.

#3: Fill the Vast White Space in HCP Rep Access with Digital

An astonishing 63% of pharma marketing respondents surveyed stated that their sales rep access is “near zero” at this time. Fill-in comments include observations such as these: “We pulled all reps from the field 4 weeks ago…” “We have zero clinical research or sales activity at this time…” “We are doing virtual consultations now and they are very limited…” “Webinars and video meetings only…” to cite a few eye-openers.

To compensate, 62% of pharma marketers state that the use of telehealth consults has increased greatly, with 48% specifying video as a highly used modality. That shift breathes new life into the point of care for physicians and patients alike. Although still far from a complete substitute for physical visits, opportunities bound for savvy media plans that embed these modalities into engaging content and explicit calls to action.

Another viable NPP angle is eDetailing, typically relegated to the sales reps. In lieu of their ability to visit offices, virtual detailing coupled with a revitalized non-personal strategy can fill the gap. During lockdowns physicians experience reduced patient volume and increased time online. With buys down and HCP-specific ad inventory at an all-time high, now is the time to dominate share of voice and indication exclusivity!

#4: Measure and Optimize Your Channel-to-Channel Media Mix

Despite our enthusiasm, you are likely thinking: “These best practices are terrific in principle, but the bottom line is reduced media budgets. I’m getting pressure like never before to cut back in the wake of reduced script volume and sales rep visits, and not add on…” That’s understandable, and part of this quarter’s pressure point. The answer, as always, lies in mix modeling via good metrics, optimization, and substantiation of ROI.

With budgets tight and uncertain, now’s also the time to prioritize spend with the goal of quick wins and reduce risk with “performance-based” media tactics. All the tools at your pharma marketing disposal are available to you now: Paid search, targeted peer-to-peer, email, direct mail, print, EMRs, and more. Work with an experienced and trusted media partner to choose the best channels and engage with the best content.

As we’ve seen, telehealth is playing an increased role in lieu of physical point of care visits. Embed calls-to-action that drive consults, and purchase media tactics in which brands are only charged for measurable engagement indicators such as clicks, downloads, and registrations. Conversely, at the top of the funnel reduced competitor spends make paid search and social more appealing than ever before. Be bold!

#5: Build Momentum Now and Carry it Through into the New Normal

Savvy marketers are now efficiently driving awareness and strengthening long-term bonds with brands. Leverage your captive audience’s boosted digital engagement, the saturated inventories of media sellers, and the exponentially increasing telehealth adoption of patients and physicians to your brand’s benefit. Take full advantage of today’s “Paradox of Pandemic Pharma Marketing” while other brands stumble!

Every unique challenge presents an equally unique opportunity and, for most promoted brands, maintaining visibility while helping audiences overcome obstacles to treatment is critical. A creative, thoughtful, and data-driven approach to media strategy is more important now than ever before. Precise success metrics through the lens of leading and lagging KPIs will give you the agility to survive and even thrive through this crisis.

Despite the inherent fluidity and uncertainty of our “new normal,” pharma marketers can rely on the precision targeting, dynamic modeling, and measurable transparency of innovative digital media. Partner with a media expert you trust to craft goal-based strategies and provide nimble tactics capable of exceeding expectations during a downturn. You can’t control the weather but how you captain the ship is up to you!

  • Robert Kadar

    Robert Kadar heads up Customer Development at Convergence Point Media, an independent healthcare and pharmaceutical media and marketing services agency based in NYC. He brings 20-plus years of media, marketing, technology, and healthcare expertise to his clients and colleagues.


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