Healthcare in Europe is vastly different to healthcare in the US.
The key difference that UK visitors notice on a trip to the US is the
plethora of prescription-only medicines advertised on television. In
contrast, this kind of brand marketing to consumers is forbidden in
Europe and all prescription-only drug marketing is tightly regulated.

In the UK, the industry body is the ABPI (Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry), which provides pharmaceutical companies with guidance on marketing best practice.

Just because it is an industry body does not mean that it is a light touch as Swiss drug firm Roche Pharma found out when it was found to have carried out actions that brought discredit on, or cut confidence in, the pharmaceutical industry, and suspended for six months.

The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) administers this. These guidelines don’t currently address online marketing techniques, instead the ABPI and PMCPA are taking a wait-and-see approach to digital campaigns penalizing those companies which overstep the mark.

One can understand their hesitancy, as conventional wisdom on geography and rule-of-law generally do not gel easily with the global nature of the web.

This non-action also means that there is a disincentive for pharmaceutical companies to innovate in the UK marketplace. There is no first-mover advantage in digital marketing, so generally is a lot of talk about online marketing and social media but not a lot of activity, something that Red Door Communications managing director Catherine Warne recently complained about on PR Week Online. Consequently, there aren’t that many campaigns that become the talk of the industry.

One campaign that stood out recently was work that German pharmaceutical Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) did to promote the results of its RELY study when the results were presented at the European Society of Cardiology congress at the beginning of September.

BI used tweets from their corporate Twitter account (@Boehringer) to provide real-time highlights of the study results as they were presented.  They also posted a photo to demonstrate the buzz around the survey results showing that “demand is high to get into the RELY press briefing”.

Boehringer Ingelheim’s campaign may seem quite staid to digital marketer, but in the world of European pharmaceutical marketing, this was daring.  Industry blogs PharmaGossip and Pharma Marketing closely followed the campaign.

How did they do it?

  • Break down content into bite-sized chunks. All the tweets were taken from the talking points for their press conference showcasing the RE-LY study results.
  • Have a personality. The tweets were told from an ‘eye witness’ perspective of the press conference and the pictures of the attendees queuing to get into the event added to the personal feel of the Twitter stream.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. All of the content used pre-approved wording taken from press materials, thus avoiding a lengthy vetting and legal approvals process which would have otherwise killed the spontaneous nature of the campaign with red tape.

I feel inspired, how do I start?

The first step in any organisation’s online activity is to set out rules of engagement including any legal and regulatory restrictions. This encompasses issues such as:

  • Content vetting and approvals process.
  • Integration of online social media activity with traditiional marketing techniques and patient group activity.
  • Safeguards for physician | clinician-orientated communications.
  • Are comments allowed, if so who should do them?
  • Online monitoring, who should do it and how should this process integrate with adverse event reporting processes. An adverse event is where a consumer discusses ill effects that they had during the time that they were taking a medication. These event reports are given by an EU directive and the ABPI have published guidelines on reporting events that have been discovered through market research to the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency)
  • Corporate tone and style guide, the tone that Boehringer Ingelheim use may not accurately reflect the image that your company may want to portray.
  • How should online fit in with crisis management procedures, in concert with Department of Health and other government bodies?

Different companies are more cautious than others and may be relying on different legal counsel so there are no definitive examples of guidelines that I would point to as best practice. However once this ‘sand pit’ has been defined you can then move forwards with planning online activity.