recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, revealed that there may be a fundamental problem with most websites for branded pharmaceutical products: They are too difficult to understand. The study found that the reading level of patient-specific medical education materials may be too high for most online information-seeking patients to grasp. The average American adult reads at approximately a seventh to eighth grade level. Therefore, the American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services all recommend that patient education materials be written at a fourth to sixth grade reading level. Yet, the average reading level of online materials for patients typically falls anywhere from ninth grade to the sophomore year of college.

Product websites in general also follow a very text-heavy design that can appear daunting at first to new visitors who may already be feeling overwhelmed by a recent diagnosis. Meanwhile, returning visitors may find a site lacking if the content is not updated frequently with new information or tools that can help them along their patient journey.

Does this mean that the product website needs an overhaul? Should pharma re-think their entire approach to how they build these websites and present the information to patients? These are the types of questions Panorama posed to digital experts within the pharma industry to get their take on how and if product websites can be improved.

Building a Better Site

The first step in creating a better product site is in improving the site itself—specifically, its look and feel.

“Ultimately, pharma marketers want patients to engage with their websites and take action,” says Michael Parker, Director, User Experience at healthcare marketing agency HealthEd. “Yet many marketers take a template approach (basically copying another site that passed through legal without issue) rather than providing a tailored online experience that meets the individual needs and expectations of their potential customers.”

Instead, Parker believes that the needs of the customer—in this case patients—should guide the website’s structure/design, the development of content and specific features and even the voice/tone of the communications from the brand. For instance, many information-seeking patients want more content and more in-depth information, so product websites should be organized to meet the diverse needs of this audience. In order to accommodate this group of self-learning patients, Parker suggests a “scaffold” approach that provides “need to know” content above the fold and “nice to know” content within the deeper layers of the site.

Another important aspect to site design is adaptability. Or as Anthony Hall, Creative Director, Digital at healthcare agency Dudnyk explains: “Sites and apps are rarely designed for one audience, so adaptability is critical. Content must be relevant and personalized and the layouts must respond to any number of device sizes. When designers and writers work together—in the beginning of a project—the result is that the experience is simplified, users become more engaged and the message is better understood.”

According to Hall, there are several powerful content management platforms and analytics tools such as WordPress, Craft and SquareSpace which have services that can help minimize the technical barriers to developing and maintaining a website. Furthermore, these platforms give development teams detailed insight into the demographic profile of the user.

Speaking of users, pharma also needs to re-think how it is presenting this information to its audience.

“Pharma is in love with ‘information therapy’ or putting gobs of finger-wagging, trite instructions out there to a patient base they believe needs to hear this kind of stuff,” says Bob Hogan, Director, Consumer Services at Triple Threat Communications. “We need to think more along the lines of designing and presenting information as ‘adult storybooks’ that people can glance at and instantly grab the gist of their meaning.”

Hogan believes that there are already a few sites that are doing a good job of that including Lunesta and Weight Watchers. Both of these sites do not have a lot of text-heavy instruction, but instead use very graphic approaches to offering up their respective brand stories.

Bottom line, there is clearly an opportunity for pharma to grasp when it comes to a product website’s design. As Craig DeLarge, U.S. Leader, Multichannel Marketing & Customer Business Line Support at Merck puts it: “Mobile and aliterate formats are at least two critical success factors for the website (or better said, web destination) of today and beyond.”

But there are several other factors that pharma also must keep in mind.

Addressing the Language Issue

“I believe it is critical to make as much information available as possible to the patient community in a way that they can process it and take it to their physician to discuss,” says Patrick Connelly, Director, Corporate Communications at Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Company.

Our digital experts offer many suggestions on how pharma can do a better job of making this information more accessible to patients and perhaps a bit easier to understand.

1. Start With Simpler Language: “Website information about our clients’ healthcare product or service must be presented in simple language that’s culturally appropriate and engaging,” says Dan Snyders, Agency Partner and Vice President of Public Relations at Armada Medical Marketing. “And just using ‘simple’ language isn’t enough; content must be unambiguous and engaging through the ample use of video, graphics and animation. Whatever it takes to communicate benefits clearly, without jargon—and with understanding.”

2. Use More Visuals: “The use of video and visuals [can] help enhance the content available on brand sites making it easier for consumers to understand the information presented,” offers Jeff Rohwer, Partner, Strategy at interactive agency Sentient. (He adds that that there may be some variance in terms of reading levels by disease state so it’s important not to implement a one-size-fits-all strategy for content development.)

Parker also notes that: “It’s widely documented that the majority of online users don’t read. And those who do generally scan only the first few words of each paragraph. The more visuals you can use to describe MOA, dosing and what have you, the better.”

3. Turn Info into Images: “Our favorite strategy for increasing readability is using infographics,” says Kerry Hilton, CEO of healthcare agency HCB Health. “Patients love them, and we can convey a huge amount of valuable information by combining words with images in a visually appealing and easy-to-digest format.”

A Resource Supplier—Not Just an Information Provider

In addition to just making information easier for patients to understand, pharma can also take it a step further and provide more resources so that patients can have a better handle on their disease and how to manage it.

“Pharma product sites still largely disseminate product information/attributes, which is only effective at driving awareness,” says Jessica Brueggeman, Vice President, Health Behavior Group at MicroMass Communications. “Information-seeking patients need support for complex behavioral issues associated with product use and disease management. Ultimately, what patients and physicians both want are optimal outcomes.”

Brueggeman believes that product websites should incorporate evidence-based behavioral approaches—such as motivational interviewing, goal setting and cognitive behavioral techniques—to support patients in making therapy decisions, setting appropriate treatment expectations and adhering to therapy.

Connelly adds that product websites need to provide tools that help patients engage their HCP in meaningful dialogue on their condition and selected treatment.

“Giving patients good questions to ask their provider can help stimulate a more productive discussion with their HCP and increase their active participation and understanding of the medicines they are taking,” explains Connelly. “During treatment, providing patients with assessment tools they can use to monitor themselves and their wellbeing while on a medication can hopefully also help catch any adverse events and sides effects at the initial onset.”

Joel Gerber, Chief Technology Officer at healthcare agency GSW also believes that a site should serve as a “wellness” resource hub for patients. For example, the site can provide doctor/patient discussion guides, disease management tips, a product savings card and opt-ins for CRM information.

Gautam Gulati, MD, MBA, MPH, Chief Medical & Innovation Officer, Senior Vice President for Product Marketing at Physicians Interactive thinks product sites can go beyond even that.

“Typical pharma patient support programs consist of a co-pay program and some type of medication reminder mechanism,” says Gulati. “But patients need more than coupons and electronic reminders on their smartphones. Pharma should strive to continually connect with HCPs, patients and caregivers to understand the specific issues related to the brand and develop new content and touch points for patients and HCPs to help support the adherence and compliance goals. Pharma needs a way to gather insights in a meaningful way and then act on them.”

Tailoring Websites to the Patient

“Pharmaceutical product websites tend to serve a specific purpose,” says Shawn O’Hagan, Sr. Manager, Marketing Solutions, Multi-Channel Marketing at Daiichi Sankyo. “Each is crafted and designed to meet the brand’s strategy. How well that ‘strategy’ resonates with its readers, is determined by how well that brand understands and listens to their audience.”

If product websites are designed to educate, inform and help patients, then it would only make sense for pharma to find a way to incorporate patients’ perspectives and preferences into the design and choice of content on these sites. In this sense, sites do not need an overhaul, but rather a shift in focus.

“Overhaul implies a more drastic and singular action,” says Craig Douglass, Executive Creative Director at Digitas Health. “I think the more appropriate response is subtler, continuous and frankly more difficult. By paying close attention to customer behavior (precisely how they interact with your brand across channels and overtime) and orchestrating the most useful customer experience, brands can best meet the needs of their customers.”

Douglass adds that one of the ways pharma can do better is by improving the “findability” of its content via search. However, Nathan Stewart, Senior Search Analyst at Intouch Solutions, believes they can do more with search than just making it easier for patients to find the content they are looking for—pharma can also learn exactly what that content is and then provide it.

“Being a bit of an SEO (search engine optimization) geek, my mind immediately goes to creating content informed by patient search behavior,” explains Stewart. “If we use the language that patients are using to search for information about their disease and treatment, then we are creating content that already resonates with patient needs.”

Basically, Stewart says that pharma needs to follow three simple rules: 1) Leverage user online behavior to inform content, 2) Create a variety of content for different patient needs, as long as it follows rule No. 1, and 3) Make the content work for every device.

However, Jim Lefevere, Director, Global Digital Marketing at Roche Diagnostics Diabetes Care, believes that pharma should also be creating customized content for each digital channel and not just making sure that content from a website looks good on a mobile device.

“Many companies follow a Homeland – Embassy strategy and understand that brand websites fill an important role—but it is not the only place that a customer may receive information while they are on their ‘journey,’ ” says Lefevere. “I think the guideline to keep in mind is know your patient and develop different types of content for that patient—customized to the channel. Each digital channel and tactic provides an opportunity to provide the right type and level of content to the right person. The key is to tailor the content.”

Of course, the next question is: How can pharma become better and more efficient generators of content?

Generating Fresh Content

The problem, as Stewart describes it, is in finding a way to be able to get content through the rigorous medical, legal and regulatory review process quickly and efficiently without reverting back to a more complicated form that may not be as relevant to the average patient.

“Too often content can go into the review process with a patient-centric vocabulary, and come out very technical, too clinical or riddled with legalese,” says Stewart. “There needs to be a focus on refining, streamlining and expediting this process.”

Stewart recommends three steps that can, in fact, help streamline this process.

First: There must be ongoing communication between the content generators and the medical, legal and regulatory teams. This communication will allow these departments to voice their concerns and feedback directly, and will allow content generators to provide reasoning and research to inform their content.

Second: Medical, legal and regulatory teams must be educated about the need for more patient-centric content, what that content looks like, and its purpose.

Third: Streamline the content submission process. If pharma hopes to have relevant content for its patients in the digital world, then it needs to be able to generate, review and publish content in a matter of days, not months.

Meanwhile, Connelly thinks it is a good idea for pharma companies to develop editorial calendars and maintenance schedules of all of digital properties before they are approved to go live to the public. Additionally, it is imperative that both the HCP and patient side of a branded pharma site are available to the public.

“I believe the recent increase of social technology and online media campaigns show how, as an industry, we are evolving our approach to reach educated and empowered patients,” says Connelly. “Patients are taking a more active role in their treatments and having more informed discussions with their HCPs. Providing them with accurate, easy-to-understand information is critical to helping improve the lives of the very patients we serve.”

Learning Lessons from Outside Pharma

In order to truly understand how digital can impact the patient’s journey and how pharma can best serve patients seeking information on this channel, Trish Nettleship, Director, Social Media & Influence at UCB, Inc., recommends that pharma look outside the industry.

“The American Express OPEN forum is doing a great job of providing content across the customer’s journey regardless of the stage of their business,” says Nettleship. “Small businesses can find help whether they are just starting a business or have been in business for 10 years and are looking to grow their business. It’s a model that provides the customer with useful information that keeps them coming back to American Express time and time again for. While content marketing is fairly new to pharma, many companies have been doing it well for years.”

In the end, pharma will never be done tinkering, updating and upgrading its product websites.

“As your brand’s ‘home base’ the product website will always be central to a healthy marketing ecosystem,” says Douglass. “And it will require constant analysis and optimization.”

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