Why does digital marketing
in pharma fail?


Ok, the title may have a negative undertone, but embracing what isn’t perfect and being self-aware can help with being more successful in digital media – and show that using digital marketing channels is truly valuable for you as a pharma business.

There are thousands of HCP portals online, loaded with so much information that physicians could probably spend their entire week reading about your products. In 2017, Research2Guidance counted more than 325.000 apps on AppStore and Google Play within the category “health” alone.

This number might give you the impression that pharma is doing great in using digital media. The reality is very different, as just one out of 6 pharma executives state that they are satisfied with their own digital activities1. Truth be told, most of digital initiatives are not really adding any value to your business or the end users.

Since we started to work with pharma in digital marketing in 2002, the type of initiatives and services available have evolved along with the maturity of online media - especially in connection to the social media boom and new mobile technologies. However, our assessment is that most online initiatives are still performing poorly, or at least show the potential to make the initiative a lot more successful.

So what could be the reasons? Generally, we tend to see a lack of a strong business case, which should be based on a thorough analysis and key understanding of the end-users, as the root cause for this. It is about asking the WHY, which should lead you to questions such as:

  • What is in it for us as a pharma company?
  • What is in it for the HCPs?
  • What is in it for the patient and the relatives?

Creativity vs analysis

Stating it differently, how did the idea for the initiative come up? Was it based maybe on an “everyone else is doing it”-approach: ‘we need a website’ or ‘we should have an app’? It is great to be creative about the design of your solution, but it should be driven by real business and end-user needs. Have you drawn up journeys for your target groups based on research?

The design process

It is not a new concept, but a very important one: to involve the end users in designing your services. Yes, it will take some extra effort to include patients, relatives and healthcare professionals, but the alternative is to simply guess their requirements. Sometimes, we are asked why we need to involve end users since we have User Experience Specialists. The answer is that even though we have confidence in the design, we are not the end user. The best way to make sure whether we have the right design is to have the user engage with it. They need to tell us how it works - without any instructions or guidance beforehand. If they like the product, we know we’re headed in the right direction.

Functional slimming

In a lot of industries, it can be a challenge when project scopes grow over time. This phenomenon is often referred to as feature creep. When it comes to pharma initiatives, quite the opposite often happens: functional slimming. This means reducing the feature set. Yes, it is tempting to do so in order to avoid having to handle adverse event reporting or getting a CE-mark of approval for your app. However, have you considered the impact of your decisions have for end users? How can you verify if it is still value that you are bringing to the market?

Campaign or sustainable service?

The approach to most digital initiatives is in alignment with the one-off project/campaign approach. There is a lot of focus on the project until launch, and then all efforts are being re-directed elsewhere. The problem is that the digital sphere is iterative, and only by adopting the way you work to an iterative way, you get the full benefits. Often, websites or apps are built and launched, and afterwards just minor updates get implemented. Some years later, a new brand manager may be in place. Is he going to optimize what already exists, or rather invent something new with his name on it?

Budget and product life cycle

During the years of launching new molecules, you may have a larger budget and choose to set parts of it aside for digital initiatives. Later on, you unexpectedly might have to make cuts in your marketing budget. The life cycle of your digital initiative may not follow the way you initially allocated your budget. How does your 3-5 year digital plan take this into consideration, and who has bought into it?

Metrics and KPIs

In the digital world, we talk about the great opportunity to measure. Now we finally have the possibility to track everything. The tricky point is to choose the right tracking parameters, and to link these to the business objectives. This should be bound to an ongoing evaluation/analysis model where results are used for decision making rather than just conclusions, which leads back to the iterative approach.

The above-mentioned ideas should be taken into consideration when doing digital marketing. If done correctly, you have a great opportunity to make your business successful with digital media. And when looking at the future and the changes in the healthcare environment, I believe that starting to communicate digitally may become an integral part of your business.

Andreas Dam, Chief Executive Officer