Could there be a pharma, healthcare or life sciences company that decides to shun sales representatives?

Matt Lowe, pharma agency veteran and founder (just this week) of healthtech agency performance.io, believes that such a company, relying heavily on search and performance marketing, may be a possiblity in the next few years (albeit once somebody has the courage to take the leap).

I spoke to Lowe about what he has seen across pharma and healthcare marketing, and the skills that are currently lacking in the industry. He painted a picture of pharma companies that are "certainly patient centric, they just don’t always behave like it online." 

B2B and B2C are blurring

"The healthcare and life sciences industry needs to understand, I believe, that doctors are consumers like anyone else, and so are patients and carers and nurses and pharmacists," says Lowe.

He adds that though most people's first point of contact when looking for medical advice is a search engine [62% of UK patients], "currently pharma has this decentralised model - a plan gets handed out and it’s very much based on sales force and market access – understandably, because that model has delivered significant returns for many, many years."

Such an approach has to change if pharma is to keep up with agile tech companies. Lowe mentions Amazon and JPMorgan Chase, saying "they have digital woven into the fabric of how they operate - pharma doesn’t, so trying to be agile and define how it engages with audiences is going to be a slow process."

Patient-focused content will impact the bottom line

The process of building website infrastructure and online content is one where Lowe sees a breakdown in patient focus – he describes websites as "built based on the ambition, critical success factors, brand and strategic imperatives of the pharma company," but adding that "patients don't care about any of those things. They care about solutions when they need it most, whether it’s a stubbed toe or multiple myeloma."

"For the companies that have the most data on these solutions, the way they use that data is really bad. I get asked sometimes - ‘Do people want information from a big pharma company?’ - and I genuinely think people don’t care where the information comes from, if it’s well balanced, useful, relieves anxiety, or helps with the next best step."

This sort of content often benefits communities dealing with a particular condition, such as diabetes or cardiovascular problems, but Lowe asserts that the value of this approach for pharma also impacts on harder metrics, not just the softer ones.

"From a financial aspect," he says, "if people are better controlled then concordance is better (compliance, persistence, adherence) people stay on drugs longer, there's more effective up-titrating and it affects the P&L very positively."

Analytics and planning skills are lacking, for now

Pharma is stereotyped as being a laggard in some areas of digital. Though this is perhaps too easy an assumption to make, Lowe characterises the typical campaign or website build involving perhaps "a social listening exercise, maybe a keyword planner" but not truly understanding "insights informed infrastructure".

According to Lowe, marketers need to look at a slew of search and behavioural data and decide "what to avoid, what is useful based on semantic search behaviours, what kind of content is engaged with, on which platforms, with what frequency, and in which formats."

This type of activity will help set "domain strategy, url taxonomy, site structure, and onsite and offsite keywords", but according to Lowe the industry needs to recruit better skills in technology such as "tag management, advanced analytics, Google search console etc." 

Pharma needs to join the dots with performance marketing

Once campaigns and content are live, the next task is optimisation of performance marketing. Again, knowing how to track users and understand the success of content is key.

Lowe gives the example of event tracking, such as how many doctors are watching videos on up-titration of a complex medicine, or tracking consumers downloading a helpful PDF. Combining event tracking with acquistion through social media, and landing page optimisation is the kind of marketing industry standard conversion funnel that pharma needs to properly implement.

In order to do this, says Lowe, "investment in new people, new behaviours and new skills" is needed.

The rest of the world isn’t standing still

Many of these techniques of performance marketing are fairly well established now, but pharma marketers shouldn't be complacent and think that bringing their capability up to standard will be simple. Tech continues to evolve, with innovation such as blockchain creeping into paid media.

As ever, digital transformation is a journey, not an endpoint. Whether pharma needs its sales reps or not, the skillset for pharma marketers is changing.

Econsultancy subscribers can now read Healthcare and Pharma - Digital Trends and Developments

Ben Davis

Published 26 February, 2018 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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