Digital marketing is transforming the landscape of the healthcare industry and enabling consumers to interact with data in ways that are more engaging and personal than in years past.

Pharma marketing trends historically diverge in favor of face-to-face interactions with sales representatives. These types of exchanges account for 60% of total pharmaceutical expenditures over the last 50 years—but now companies are increasingly looking to broaden their strategies to include digital marketing methods.

Meanwhile, dimensional-to-digital approaches—which integrate a direct mail marketing campaign with the best initiatives that digital mediums have to offer—provide an innovative solution for those in search of both direct and mobile marketing platforms.

Industry Trends Toward Digitization

Since 2009, nearly a third of all healthcare providers—ranging from those in hospitals to private practices—have installed some form of health IT technology, including electronic health records and e-prescriptions. According to the Wall Street Journal, the mandate to adopt these technologies was largely instigated by legislation passed in that same year by Congress and the White House through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH).

The costs of digitization in the medical industry vary. In addition to the fees attached to investing in technology products that support digital devices—an amount that can average between $150 and $200 million for a major hospital—the cost of training, linking, updating and integrating systems can add up to $1 billion, the Wall Street Journal reports. However, Manhattan Research notes that ARRA—which sets aside $19.2 billion toward health IT, or $44,000 per physician under Medicare and $63,750 per provider under Medicaid—reduces some of the financial burden that comes with upgrading.

Yet according to recent studies by McMaster University and Regenstrief, a health IT research center, digitization, despite its promises to minimize care-related costs and make medical administration more effective, may have little bearing on overall savings on healthcare expenses. Instead, where digitization seems to have its most powerful impact is in the realm of marketing and direct-to-consumer care.

Popular Digital Marketing Strategies for 2013

As digitization takes the healthcare industry by storm with financial incentives from the U.S. federal government, the time is ripe for marketing strategies that use mobile forms of communication to their advantage. And, as the use of personal mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets proliferates, more pharma companies eager to expand their market share can find success by targeting potential consumers through social networking sites, mobile applications and other web-based mediums where people exchange information.

In 2013, mobile marketing is expected to grow exponentially. Internet Income University reported that the sale of smartphones and other wireless means of communication outpaced the sale of home computers. This trend underscores the importance of creating digital content that is specially designed for users on the go.

For emerging brands, digital marketing through apps or social network-friendly websites such as Facebook and Twitter offers a way to stake out a corner of the market, particularly when coupled with dynamic content that collects data from visitors using an algorithm, and aggregates this information for future use and reference. This makes the experience more personal for users over time.

Another popular trend in 2013 is search engine optimization (SEO), but unlike historical attempts focused solely on increasing ranking on search engine sites such as Google or Bing, the industry is turning toward valuable content that can be sought out and recommended to other clients due to the level of expertise.

Capitalizing on mHealth Opportunities

Marketing strategies that use mHealth offer pharma the chance to connect a network of users to one technology that, in turn, can dispense educational videos, medical alerts and create a forum through which individuals can reach out to physicians, pharmacists and users affected by similar health issues.

According to Cutting Edge Information, in order to fully benefit from mHealth and address important factors, such as increasing patient adherence and brand awareness, pharma should look to work with companies that can help them develop a mobile strategy that is engaging and consistent, offers return-on-investment metrics of measurement and provides creative programming to help obtain the desired levels of consumer engagement during future initiatives.

 Direct Mailing in the Healthcare Industry

In the age of digital media, the role of direct mailing is constantly undergoing scrutiny. As more developers and pharma companies race to embrace strategies that focus entirely on reaching out to the mobile consumer, direct mailing—which has been used for promotional purposes for 140 years—can seem less effective or more costly. However, several recent studies have been found in favor of this marketing method, which can be easily integrated with other campaigns and be effective in influencing traffic flow, boosting brand knowledge and enhancing customer loyalty—for both young and older clients.

A 2011 survey conducted by Epsilon Targeting found that 50% of U.S. consumers prefer direct mailing to email, believing the latter to be less trustworthy, while 60% claimed that they enjoyed the comfort of physically checking their mailboxes—a finding that exposes the enduring emotional tie that people feel toward postal delivery.

“It’s just ‘surprising’ because everything you hear in the media is basically counter to what the consumers are actually telling us,” says Warren Storey, vice president of product marketing and insight at ICOM, a division of Epsilon Targeting, “which is that direct mail is still the preferred channel.”

Meanwhile, reports by Nielson and CMI/Compas have found that direct mailing has adapted to the challenges of an increasingly mobile consumer by providing an integral layer of connectivity between every medium, rather than stagnating in the face of an evolving media. In addition, CMI/Compas notes that personalized touches, such as including business reply cards and web keys, help expand the reach of a campaign.

Specialty Pharma: Making the Most of Niches

So how can an integrated, dimensional-to-digital approach to marketing help your pharma company, particularly if you specialize in the treatment of uncommon diseases and not conditions that are more widespread, such as diabetes, hypertension or asthma?

Similar to the industry itself—with careful planning and investment in cutting edge technologies—or in this case, strategies—specialty pharma companies stand to gain in a big way. Gilead, which offers medication for ailments such as hepatitis B and HIV, has continually expanded its corporate strategy by innovating on existing medications well before patent expiration. This proactive approach strikes at the heart of success for specialty pharma companies struggling to grow their brand despite market emphasis on primary care medicines.

While niche oriented by nature, pharma companies that target rare or uncommon conditions can use an inventive, multi-layered marketing campaign, such as a dimensional-to-digital approach, to promote patient awareness, available medications and recent findings in the medical community that support treatment.

  • David Duplay

    Dave Duplay is the president and founder of MedTera, an integrated marketing solutions company dedicated to improving education, promotion and communications in the healthcare, life sciences and pharmaceutical industries

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