For pharma, simply moving traditional marketing materials and tactics from print to online is not enough—a true digital transition must be interactive to be effective.
According to a new report from comScore, which works with health industry marketers to quantify the success of their online programs and provides competitive intelligence and benchmarking solutions, the most effective and successful digital advertising for pharma is a message that can engage the audience not just by being interactive, but by making the right type of information available at the right time, in the right format, targeted to the consumer at exactly the moment they’re looking for it.
Recently, David Shronk, senior director of the pharmaceutical division at comScore, sat down with Pharmaceutical Executive to discuss what these benchmarks mean and how this data can be leveraged for maximum ROI in online advertising.
PE: What benchmarks are there to measure the success of online advertising in pharma?
DS: We’re looking at brand equity-type benchmarks associated with aided and unaided awareness, favorability to the brand, intent to take action—whether that’s to search some more for information or whether that’s intent to talk to a doctor or make an appointment.
In every campaign and every measurement we do, it always comes back to customizing it a bit towards the clients’ objectives. And so if they’re trying to drive interest in new starts with their drugs, in the end I think the benchmarks that are important are … you always have to consider the soft and the hard measures. Soft measures being: are you driving positive brand equity and brand experience? Those are the awareness and favorability type measures. And in the hard metrics, are you driving short-term revenue? I think in the end you have to have a mix of both as a marketer. Short-term revenue, especially in the last few years with tightened budgets, is extremely important, so I think the follow-through to Rx conversion is usually the ultimate goal. But you usually don’t get follow through to Rx conversion unless you have a good brand equity or good brand experience with your consumers. So I think it’s really important to be able to measure both.
PE: So the measures of success tend to be a little bit different depending on the objectives of each campaign at the start?
DS: Yes, because some campaigns may have a different focus depending on where companies are in their lifecycle. Launch brands are more focused on the brand equity and awareness; those who have been around for a couple of years are really more short-term revenue oriented rather than focusing on driving new starts efficiently with their budget; and brands toward the end of their patent life are more focused oftentimes on building the CRM databases and getting discounts and direct-response advertising out there to get coupons and keep annuity up. So it’s the idea that depending on where you are in your lifecycle and your strategy, things could change a bit depending on where you’re going.
PE: The report states that consumers are moving online for health information so rapidly that growth of health information online has completely outpaced the growth of the Internet as a whole. What factors contribute to this migration for health information?
DS: I think online growth has basically peaked over these past few years—I think everyone who is going to get online is basically online at this point. It used to be—when Internet advertising started 10 years ago—when you looked at changes in the Internet population, you knew that the Internet population was different than the American population. And at this point, the Internet population has become the American population.
But I think, externally, the main driver that gets people to go online is privacy. Going online for health information is a way for you to get private information no one else has to be involved in, and you can delve in. The content has exploded in the last few years, not only through publishers but also user-generated content online. The ability of people to go online and share stories and that community growth has impacted the online migration dramatically also. I also think it’s the aging of America, the baby boomer generation getting older; they’re on a lot of medications and a lot of illnesses occur as people get older. So I think it’s a combination of those external forces.
I also think there’s an internal push in a way—when you look at pharma’s role in this, pharma sees online as the future of how they’re going to interact with customers. We all know budgets have tightened over the last five years or so, but pharma continues to experiment with online and they continue to grow their online presence. So there’s a lot more push in this direction—they have a smaller budget overall, but there’s a lot more of it going to online every year. If you look at the amount of healthcare content that’s available online now versus a few years ago, it’s staggering. Ten years ago, WebMD was the one place you would go and it still is in some sense. But now you can go to something like migraine.com and just talk about migraines. And you have tons of user-generated content like that.
PE: So now that these users are all online, how can pharma leverage that in a genuine, interactive way, rather than using the Internet as a new tool to push out interruption-style advertising? Where does interaction come in?
DS: Interaction is extremely important. The biggest example that we see in our benchmarks has to do with search engine optimization (SEO). Facilitating a natural search that leads to a branded website has the greatest impact on when people go to get prescriptions. Can you interact or be there when a customers is ready to interact with you or engage with you? And can you be in the right place at the right time? That’s the magic moment for all marketers and that’s what they strive for—when someone gets to the right part of the patient continuum and they’re looking for your information, can you get them to the right place on your website or within your marketing material to be able to motivate them to take some action? The benchmarks report really shows the importance of SEO and people getting there naturally—NOT through paid advertising—but just getting there naturally as they seek or search along the Internet.
Beyond that, the whole idea of a patient continuum is pretty important. People come to websites or search for information online for a variety of reasons, and that information ranges from symptom identification to product discounts if they’re already on a script. I think the interaction—if you extrapolate a little beyond our benchmarks a bit—engaging people where they are in that patient continuum is extremely important. And they could be looking for symptoms or they could be looking at discounts—just providing an interrupting brand message may not be the right element for someone who is early on in the patient continuum.
In the end, we know that brand websites are really key in the ability to get people to talk about a product and begin using that product. We know that the interruption advertising of banner ads and even RMU (rich media units), while they have some benefit, are nowhere near as effective as the branded website. So if you extrapolate a little bit, it’s the engagement element that’s really important. In the future, how is promotion going to change and how are people going to engage and interact in different ways, to be able to evolve this beyond just a brand website? So that’s where the potential lies—how do we continue to get past just interruptions and engage people where they are in the pathway, with the right type of content, to be able to move them along the pathway, to move them from symptom identification to thinking about products?
One thing that we see in our studies often is that everyone has an intent and a communication strategy for their website and within their media online—whether it’s data search or what publisher they’re going to go with, or what kind of creative message they have. And what ends up happening a lot of times is there’s a large gap between planning a campaign or planning a website and (after med/reg/legal review) the actual websites that’s created. For example, the greatest intent may have been to have someone who’s searching for safety information be able to get to that safety information on your website. But sometimes what ends up happening is that the person searching for safety information is getting directed to recipes on your website or a discount card sign-up or something like that. So the intentions are there, but in the end result based on med/reg/legal review or other complications is that oftentimes there’s a lot of mismatches between what people want and what people get or are linked to when they get to a website.
PE: Are there elements of the branded websites that are different now than they were 10 years ago? In terms of more information geared towards the patient, more symptom information, safety information—what has changed to accommodate the more informed, empowered patients’ needs?
DS: If you could look at pharma websites from 10 years ago, you’d see how simplistic the websites were, and how in the early days there really wasn’t as big of a med/reg/legal presence as there is today. The most dramatic change to the websites that you see over time is that the visibility and the prominence of safety information has changed dramatically. The real estate and the amount of call-out that safety information takes up now is staggering when you compare it to years ago. What’s interesting in pharma is that because of how the FDA has regulated—or as a lot of people would say has not really regulated—how to promote online, the pharmaceutical companies are being very conservative in their use of technology. And you can even see it in the designs for their website and the use of video and things like that—the pharmaceutical companies are extremely conservative in nature, partly because the FDA has not provided true guidance on how to deal with user-generated content and social media. There’s no true guidance to be able to help people do this, so I think you see pharmaceutical companies lagging behind other industries in their ability to evolve. While their sites look very different from years ago, you don’t see a lot of the same capabilities on pharmaceutical sites—especially around user-generated content—as you would see in other industries.
I think in the end that grey area of uncertainty due to lack of guidelines is more concerning, and to tell you the truth I think the grey area is probably more effective in putting handcuffs on the industry than an actual guidance would be. I think the fear has caused everyone to remain stagnant. So I’d love to say that there are lots of differences in pharma websites today, but when you look at pharmaceutical websites versus non-pharma consumer websites, it’s probably the lack of change over time that’s actually the more interesting thing.
PE: So you’re not really seeing a difference in terms of patient-centered content or pages directed specifically to the patients?
DS: I think pharmaceutical sites are definitely trying to become much more patient-centered, and they’re trying to decide on a strategy around whether they’re promotional or whether they’re patient-centric, and what that means. When we first started, the website was just another promotional channel in a lot of ways, and we see it as people struggle with trying to determine their strategy. Is the website just a promotional arena with an objective to try to get people to do the most important things that the brand would like to communicate? Or is it a customer service portal along with a promotional site, where you’re able to try to be customer-centric and service all different kinds of people’s needs, from diet information to discounts to safety information to efficacy. You can see that companies are having that struggle, but in the end the difficult part is that they have to drive traffic there, but they also have to make sure that they pay for everything that they’re doing. In the end, the traffic that is ready to engage is the most valuable. Communication strategies have always been focused on simple communication, and when you go customer-centric, nothing is simple when you’re customizing for everybody’s needs.
The way you become more patient-centric is by understanding who is coming to your websites, what they are coming for, what their needs are, and how you can address them. Does it come down to consumer literacy, to better explanation of safety information, are they looking for efficacy, or are they looking for financial support for their healthcare needs? And figuring that out and allowing patients to get to it in the most efficient way, whether that’s deep-linking them to their content as best as you can, or making your website user-friendly so that they can get to that information quickly and easily—that’s very important. So that’s where the patient-centricity can come in. When people get to the right content they usually have better satisfaction scores. And usually, whether it’s better satisfaction or better engagement with your website, both of those things end up equating to better brand equity and better pull-through of doctor visits and prescriptions.
PE: One of the words that stood out in the benchmarks report was impact, and how community engagement and interactivity online offers a greater impact that traditional media. How and why can it offer a greater impact? Is it an emotional impact or a behavior change impact—where are you seeing a difference?
DS: The great thing about online is that regardless of whether it’s banners or websites, online is not only a promotional avenue, but it also is supportive of all other media. So to your point, people are interrupted by television ads—a forceful interruption when you’re trying to watch House, MD. And the difference is, online is there and is trying to interact and engage with you when you’re already in the art of surfing. If you think about true surfing, you control left and right for the most part, but the wave is bringing you in. And when you think about how that fits into the Internet, you’re either looking for information, which is important, or you’re surfing along not sure where you’re going, and you’re engaging with content. So either way, whether you’re hunting for something or you’re surfing and just come upon it, you’re engaging with the content and you’re actively touching that material.
In the end the big difference is that you have a better chance to get brand equity online, and what we see is that at least at this point, the branded websites continue to have the best impact, compared to anything else online. And while cross-media is not in this report, we see that it’s important, because the brand website is not only promotional—it’s also supportive. A TV ad may drive people to the Internet, and the Internet will drive them to the brand website. So the website can be promotional, but it can also support your TV ad or your office ad or other marketing efforts. That’s customer engagement—now they’re not just being interrupted. At that point they’ve got a relationship with you. They’ve been to your website, they’ve actively searched it, they’ve been through it, and hopefully they’re generating some brand equity and that’s helping them in some way. And it’s not just pushed upon then—they’re actually choosing to engage with your content.
That’s extremely important online. It’s private, it’s engaged, and I think it’s something they can take with them. More and more brands are finding that if you can optimize media online to people who are searching for information, that’s where the sweet spot is, and you start at the sweet spot and you build out. You don’t start at general awareness with a $150 million TV ad anymore. You try to get the people who are searching for your information first at the right publishers first, and then you build your media plan out from there.
PE: What are the key takeaways and what can pharma do with this information to improve their websites or increase their ROI from online advertising?
DS: When I first came to ComScore from GSK two or three years ago, we were still in this realm where you had people who believed the Internet was the future and you had people who were still kicking the tires and saying, ‘Is it going to work or not?’ The big thing that we take away is that not only do you have impact by looking at our benchmarks—you can use them to help prioritize strategy and determine how you’re going to do your customer-centric advertising. On top of that, while our benchmarks are looking backwards and giving you insights, I still think that there’s a lot of innovation occurring and that the web is generally changing, so while our norms are telling you how things have always happened in the past, there’s a lot of innovation that’s going to continue to occur online in the future. You can use these benchmarks to prioritize and understand, but you also need to continue to experiment online. And as technology increases, as communication increases, and as your capabilities to engage customers changes—more video, more user-generated content, etc.— you need to be able to utilize this type of results-oriented research to inform your opinions about not only what happened in the past but how you’re going to extrapolate that into the future.