Once upon a time, long ago before DVRs, Netflix and YouTube people merely viewed commercials as an inconvenience—and not always an unpleasant one. Now, commercials are increasingly becoming more of choice. Whether people choose to fast forward on their DVRs or click the “Skip Ad” button on YouTube, they can just pass right over ads. And there are even rumors that Apple is trying to launch a television service that will include a premium option that will allow viewers to avoid commercials entirely (with networks getting some kind of compensation for the loss of revenue), according to former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor Jessica Lessin.

“Pharma is not immune to this problem—it’s a sign of an overall shift in the way we do business and interact with consumers,” says Lindsey Weintraub, Social Media Strategist at ParkerWhite Brand Interactive. “This shift is one toward a greater focus on the consumer: Understanding the consumer’s needs and wants, listening to them, answering their questions and concerns, and building relationships.”

One thing to keep in mind about this new world where a simple click of a button can allow people to avoid ads: A simple click of a button can also allow people to pretty much view any content they want whenever they want—including ads. For instance, Leigh Householder, Chief Innovation Officer at GSW, recently wrote a post on the agency’s blog, Health Experience Project, about how Samsung has overcome the issue of ad avoidance by making their ads the very content people want to see—rather than want to skip.

“What we’re seeing is an essential shift in how leading brands use marketing,” Householder told Panorama in an email interview. “They’re moving from demanding attention to offering something valuable; from promoting the product benefit to creating a benefit with marketing. In fashion, you see it in the return to look and trend books that feel like high-end magazines; in B2B, it’s client conferences that give that top-tier prospects exclusive access to valuable experiences; and in that Samsung ad it’s both entertainment and an opportunity to learn how the coolest new technology really works.”

Now, the question is what can the pharma industry do? Seven marketing experts from across the industry offer their tips for how pharma can overcome the issue of ad avoidance and embrace this shift to a new model of marketing.

1. A Campaign With Benefits

As Householder explains above, marketing is moving towards a model where the actual campaign offers consumers a benefit. And fortunately for pharma, OTC has already laid down the path for how to do this right.

Householder offers the Tylenol “Feel Better” campaign as one example as it had great complementary advice built in. She also mentions the Robitussin Relief Finder app that both supports people’s self-diagnosing habits and makes it easy to navigate that impossible cold-and-flu aisle. Meanwhile, Aloxi worked with nurses to develop a tool that lets them create custom education packets for each patient and Sanofi taught its glucose monitor how to talk to our phones.

“We can take those critical interactions into testing instead of ad lobs,” explains Householder. “The question then isn’t which one do you like, but rather which one will you use? That’s how pharma will make the shift.”

2. Focus on Quality

Pharma marketers have to keep two things in mind when it comes to quality. First, is the quality of life of patients and second is the quality of the ad.

“It’s important to remember that the number of people time shifting programming is growing,” says Richard Meyer, Director of Online Strategic Solutions. “This means that they can watch what they want when they want. That being said, pharma has to shift to an advertising model that focuses on quality of life issues. That is what consumers care about today.”

Of course, when it does come to the actual ads, Meyer adds that the optimal way to inform people about new products is through effective reach and frequency.

“There are a lot of brands like Cialis and Advair that are continuing to run ads that are turning people off,” explains Meyer. “It’s like the annoying Progressive ads, people may like Flo but are they really going to switch.”

3. Create Sharable Content

Weintraub sums up the issue thusly: “If you want eyeballs today, you need to earn them instead of just pay for them.”

“Pharma in particular has struggled with this concept,” adds Weintraub. “How does an industry begin to ‘earn’ the attention of consumers when they have historically focused their attention on other stakeholders? This requires a fundamental shift in the way that pharma interacts with patients.”

According to Pew Research from January 2013, 59% of U.S. adults say they looked online for health information within the past year, however, Weintraub says that there is a growing concern in the digital health community regarding the accuracy of online health information. Therefore, Weintraub believes that it is the responsibility of pharma companies, who are—in theory—experts on their own drugs and the accompanying health conditions, to provide factual and accurate information.

“Understanding how to meet the needs of consumers today depends on a solid understanding of the consumer in order to develop a targeted content strategy,” explains Weintraub. “To be effective you don’t necessarily have to join Facebook, you just need to know how to create shareable content.”

For instance, Weintraub suggests creating an infographic that provides great insights and information in a compelling visual that can help patients make healthcare decisions. Then, if the content is good enough, patients and caregivers will share it amongst one another.

“When pharma begins to create quality content that matters to people, the consumers will do the work of sharing it for them,” says Weintraub.

4. Advertise in the Right Venue

Linda Ruschau, Executive Vice President, Client Solutions at PatientPoint, doesn’t find it surprising when her own family members grab the remote to fast forward through commercials. Especially in the case of pharmaceutical ads that contain all of that legal gibberish about possible weird or scary side effects. After all, who really wants to focus on that when they are sitting down trying to watch entertainment? Rather, Ruschau suggests moving brand messaging to a venue where patients are more open and willing to receive the information—in the physician’s office.

“Point of care is the one place where consumers are not only captive and receptive, but seeking information about their health,” says Ruschau. “It behooves pharma to educate and empower patients there—when they are ready to ask their physician questions or learn more about a health condition that may be affecting them. Pharma—and big companies in general—will always love the ‘sexiness’ of a gorgeous and well executed print or TV campaign. Now let’s run it where it can make the biggest impact—at point of care.”

5. On-Demand Videos

For once, the pharma industry might actually come out ahead by being behind.

“I think pharma has an advantage that other industries may not have: The industry has historically been behind in innovative, head-turning, eye-catching, jaw-dropping content largely because consumers didn’t need ‘crazy content’ to tell them what they wanted to know,” explains Greg Cohen, Senior Manager, Social Media and Influence at UCB.

So while many retail and CPG marketers have embraced video apps like Vine to create shorter, bite-sized pieces of content to adjust for consumer’s changing viewing habits, pharma has so far avoided this path. However, that could actually be a good thing as Cohen believes there could very well be a market in the opposite direction—longer-form content. Instead of six to 15 second comedic videos or 60 to 90 second commercials, pharma could create four to 10 minute deep dive analyses into how different products work and/or affect the body.

“This tack would never work on TV for obvious reasons,” says Cohen, “but for online patients who are willing to seek out and take significant time listening to an online authority figure, I think there is an opportunity to break through the advertising clutter and get to the core objective that much of this advertising is seeking to accomplish: Providing on-demand information to patients and physicians in order to help them make important decisions about health and wellness.”

6. Better Targeted Ads

Yes, there is no denying the emergence of DVRs, Smart TVs, and web streaming on sites like Hulu have made ad avoidance easier, however, they also have the potential to make ad targeting easier.

“The larger point is that with the emergence of real-time bidding and retargeting, online advertisers have become remarkably effective at serving ads to users based on their online habits,” says Ben Plomion, VP Marketing at Chango. “And with a single mobile device used both for everyday life and for control of the TV, there’s no reason all this behavioral data can’t be put to work for more effective ad-targeting on TV.”

Plomion sees Hulu as the perfect example. People are already using Hulu on multiple devices, and consumers also tend to be logged in to various accounts while on these devices. That means that Hulu can pinpoint valuable information and serve even better ads.

“Why, after all, should I continue to see up to five Geico ads for every hour I watch Hulu,” explains Plomion, “especially since I’m already a Geico customer and log into Geico on my laptop and iPhone regularly? The data is sitting there and Hulu should be using it. Because no matter what screen you’re looking at, the days of showing ads to the wrong people should, finally, and mercifully, be over.”

7. Make Info Too Valuable to Skip

R.J. Lewis, the President and CEO of eHealthcare Solutions, believes that the problem of ad avoidance extends beyond video commercials as there are even browser plug-in tools and extensions such as Ad Block Plus that are making it easy to skip advertising on the Internet as well. The good news, for pharma marketers at least, is that they are well positioned as an information resource that allows them to remain relevant to both their consumer and professional audiences.

“The key for engagement in any form, including advertising, is to be relevant and useful to the user at the appropriate time,” says Lewis. Someone recently said, ‘a pill without education, is just poison.’ It is the highly useful and relevant information and education that comes with the medication that makes the treatment option itself useful and valuable.”

Lewis explains that it is up to marketers and educators to communicate the information in an inspiring, engaging and entertaining—at least when appropriate—manner that changes behavior and improves health. Because in the end: Why would anyone skip well-presented valuable and informative life-saving information?


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