The number of consumers going online for health information continues to rise while pharma’s digital marketing spending remains stagnant—something doesn’t quite add up.

According to a report from Cegedim, DTC spending declined 22% in 2012 from 2011. There are, of course, many reasons for the decline in DTC spending—including some big name brands coming off patent. But with more and more consumers going online for health information I cannot help but wonder if pharma can mobilize enough resources to truly market prescription drugs in the digital space.

Digital marketing is changing and evolving rapidly, in part, due to consumer packaged goods (CPG) marketers demanding more accountability for their digital marketing dollars. CPG brands are continuing to allocate more dollars to digital marketing while pharma lags far behind. A Path to Purchase Institute survey recently indicated that 74% of CPG companies plan to increase digital media spending. In pharma, total digital ad spending is projected to be just 2.8% of marketing media budgets. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Older demographics are a key target for drug marketers as they tend to use more prescription medications. However, we are seeing a shift in senior demographics from the Greatest Generation (WWII) to Boomers. Boomers, who are turning 65 at the rate of around 10,000 per day, still trust their physicians to recommend healthcare treatments but they also challenge and verify everything, usually online. While drug product websites are a part of the collection of healthcare information available, they are just a brief stop on the journey. These websites also tend to be static and updated very sparingly. In a sense, they have become billboards that only change once or twice a year. The problem is that drug marketers have not done much to engage their target audiences via the web beyond these product sites.

The FDA was supposed to issue online marketing guidelines for social media back in 2009 and they have been asked by Congress to issue guidelines no later than July 2014. Some pharma marketers aren’t waiting, but way too many are sitting on the sidelines while the clock ticks and consumers make treatment decisions based on the health information they find online. In fact, only one pharma company, Sanofi, has a social media community manger. Today that is unacceptable.

The future of DTC marketing is going to be strongly contingent on digital marketing capabilities. The challenge for drug companies is to build these capabilities at a time when budgets are being reduced. Pharma could outsource all their digital marketing to agencies, but they have to find agencies that are more of a strategic partner, rather than just vendors. The other issue is to keep marketing people in the marketing department and not consistently move them around the organization. It takes time for agency people to develop a good relationship with their counterparts on the brand team and the longer they work together the stronger that relationship becomes.

Companies that invest in new capabilities and organizational structures are the ones that are going to be the best prepared for the challenges of this new marketing world in which empowered consumers rely on the web to help sort out the sales talk from the reality. Nowhere is this truer than for health information.

  • Richard Meyer

    Richard Meyer has worked in healthcare marketing for more than 12 years and is the author of www.worldof dtcmarketing.com and www.newmediaand marketing.com. He is the Director of Online Strategic Solutions.

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