Pharma Takes a Big Step Forward in Mobile—Finally

If these first few months have been any indication, 2016 is poised to be a big year for pharma marketers in mobile advertising. To date, pharma has virtually missed out on the mobile revolution and is years behind other less-regulated industries—but its mobile push is finally gaining significant momentum. The impetus for this is two-fold: A shift in supported ad formats and much-needed guidance in the collection and activation of privacy-safe data.

The Death of Flash

Last year, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) updated their Display Creative Guidelines (, which encouraged the broader ad tech industry to migrate from Flash to HTML5. The idea was that “the de facto standard—Flash—is not interoperable across devices,” while HTML5 is. The IAB’s suggestion essentially became a mandate on September 1 when Google’s Chrome browser began blocking ads built on Flash technology in favor of HTML5 formats. The announcement had a profound effect on pharma marketers in particular (and their estimated $1.9B in annual digital spend).1

Historically, the extensive time and cost associated with med/legal reviews of advertising assets resulted in many pharma companies focusing exclusively on Flash ads for desktop and avoiding the development of HTML5 versions for mobile. This severely restricted their mobile advertising options. Google’s policy change forced the issue and pharma marketers can now focus solely on HTML5.

Privacy Policy Guidance

Google’s policy change was preceded by an earlier development that set the stage for pharma’s mobile push. Beginning in late 2013, several major pharma companies updated their public privacy policies to allow for data collection and user-level data targeting. The updates came on the heels of jointly released self-regulatory codes by the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) and Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), which included guidance on the complex process of determining the sensitivity of different types of behavioral and medical data and brought clarity to its use for targeting purposes.

These updated privacy policies have greatly assisted marketers in responsibly activating a wide range of granular data that is essential for locating patient populations on smartphones—from site retargeting to behavioral data and geo- and propensity-based modeling. When activating such granular data, marketers should take care that their media partners adhere to the NAI and DAA codes and also employ privacy safeguards like anonymous user profiles and avoidance of PII. By taking these precautions, pharma marketers can more ambitiously engage consumer populations without fear of violating consumer privacy mandates.


As the mobile channel continues to command the majority of consumers’ digital consumption time, pharma marketers must move quickly to further develop their mobile strategies. The pronounced increase in mobile spend I’ve already witnessed suggests pharma marketers are finally poised to capitalize on this opportunity. While we’ll undoubtedly encounter challenges along the way, I strongly believe that pharma marketers are equipped to make 2016 a massive year of growth, learning, and innovation for mobile and data adoption. Now it’s time to execute.


1. Per eMarketer “U.S. Healthcare & Pharma Industry Digital Ad Spending 2014-2020” projections for 2016.

  • Diane Rinaldo

    Diane Rinaldo is VP, Healthcare Solutions at Conversant. Diane is a digital advertising professional with substantial experience at global organizations and startups developing marketing and cross-device strategies for brands and agencies. She specializes in digital solutions for healthcare.


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