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Pharma companies are not doing a great job at reaching physicians through social, and their ability to advertise to consumers could be eliminated in the US if the American Medical Association (AMA) has its way.

But the pharmaceutical industry's largest trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), isn't targeting physicians or consumers in what could be its most important ad campaign.

As detailed by the Wall Street Journal, as part of PhRMA's multi-million dollar spend this year, the organization will be relying heavily on social channels like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for the digital portion of the campaign.

The goal: counter ongoing public outrage over drug prices with the pharma industry's perspective in an effort to avoid or limit action that could harm pharma companies.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the ads will try to put a human face on the industry:

Many of the ads feature patients who have been helped by new medicines, and company scientists working on drug development. Others highlight the financial assistance companies provide to the poor and uninsured, through copay assistance and free-drug programs.

Smart targeting

The most interesting aspect of PhRMA's digital campaign is that it won't be attempting to win the hearts and minds of the general population.

That is an impossible undertaking, as PhRMA board member and Celgene Corp CEO Robert Hugin told attendees at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco in January.

Instead, PhRMA plans to use the targeting tools offered by social channels to target its digital ads specifically to influential individuals, namely politicians and analysts who impact healthcare policy.

Those targeting tools are increasingly powerful. For example, on Facebook, advertisers can target their ads to users in specific locations, like Washington DC.

Combined with Facebook's ability to target using demographics, interests and behaviors, and it's likely that an organization like PhRMA could have quite a bit of success reaching a relatively small group of influencers with just a handful of thoughtful filters.

For even greater accuracy, PhRMA could even employ Custom Audiences and Lookalike Audiences to deliver ads to specific individuals already known to the organization, and people who are similar to them.

Obviously, given the controversy over how drug companies price their medications, it's improbable that a highly-targeted digital campaign alone would be sufficient.

But combined with ads in other channels and direct lobbying/outreach, PhRMA's digital ads could play an important role in helping the organization reach political and policy influencers.

Most importantly, they show how the increasingly sophisticated targeting capabilities of large social platforms like Facebook are changing the game for marketers who need to reach small and very specific groups of users within the largest online crowds.

For more on this topic read, Healthcare Study: Organizing Marketing in the Digital Age, which was published in partnership with Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide.

Patricio Robles

Published 29 February, 2016 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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