windows showing search icons and pharma icons

“My perpetual frustration with our industry,” says Matt Lowe, CEO and founder of healthcare SEO agency Performance-io, “is the buzzword cycles of transformational change.”

“The big one in pharma was multichannel. And then it became omnichannel. Then within a few months, [it was] AI.”

“You can’t [reposition] every time there’s a new discipline or a new buzzword,” Lowe submits. He later opines that “AI has run Google for 8-9 years, since RankBrain rolled out. So it’s not new.”

Of course, it’s the time of year when the marketing industry gets (even more) obsessed with shiny new things – it’s trends deck season. And, cards on the table, I started the interview with Lowe with the aim of asking him about ‘trends’. However, the agency founder says he’s excited that the industry is starting to “move away from the echo chamber” and better understand the fundamentals of marketing online, particularly SEO and optimised content.

It’s been a long time coming. Indeed, when I spoke to Lowe early in 2018, just after he had founded the agency, Lowe painted a picture of an industry that was “certainly patient centric,” but didn’t “always behave like it online.” He described websites built “on ambition” and the “brand and strategic imperatives of the pharma company,” with no true understanding of “insights informed infrastructure”, and an industry that needed “investment in new people, new behaviours and new skills” in order to master disciplines such as event tracking and landing page optimisation.

Today, Lowe sees a more progressive approach.

The pharma model was broken, but the pandemic changed perceptions of SEO

“If you [had] a really good sales rep in pharma, you [would] put them in marketing so they could progress their career. And we wondered why we didn’t have an industry full of people who are really sophisticated in contemporary marketing,” says Lowe.

“Marketers from other disciplines are now coming into pharma and really cutting through the BS and our job is to try and make them stay.”

One example of how the industry is adapting is in its culture, one that Lowe characterises as being, understandably, risk averse, but which meant that in marketing, new ideas and approaches were often “killed with compliance” or “constricted with red tape straight away,” before they could be explored.

“That’s changing,” he adds, “and I see people coming in from FMCG, from Fintech, from Big Tech, from complex system architecture companies, and staying and going into budget holding roles… that sit centrally above brand.”

Lowe has been talking to pharma companies about SEO for 15 years but says that pre-pandemic he would often get strange looks. Covid changed that, he says, with healthcare businesses saying “maybe we should optimize our content” and then seeing big rises in customer engagement.

Everybody is familiar with the changes that occurred in 2020. Many consumer-facing brands were quick to react, and though lots of online activity and sales moved back offline again when society opened up, this digital shift was lasting in certain categories, notably healthcare.

matt lowe, performance-io
Matt Lowe, CEO at Performance-io.

Tackling cannibalisation and demanding more organic traffic

For SEOs and content managers in consumer facing industries, it might be a shock to hear Lowe say that more than 94% of traffic to pharma websites is driven by paid advertising (predominately paid search but also paid social). Organic traffic accounts for 2-4%, and a lot of this traffic may bounce if it hits a platform that requires a user to log in.

Lowe remarks that when it comes to customer acquisition, this channel distribution is set to change.

“[Pharma] will demand more from organic because they understand what that means,” he says, adding that “if you improve your domain authority and your organic space, your bid volumes come down, [too].”

Indeed, across his agency’s client list, Lowe says that CDOs and business leaders are on a “race to 30”, with many planning to grow organic to anywhere between 20-30% of total traffic due to the “upside in conversions and efficiencies elsewhere across the channel mix.”

“’How do I up titrate?’ ‘How do I switch?’ ‘What’s the best treatment?’ ‘Can I come to this conference?’ ‘Can I shape the agenda at your conference?’” – just some of the examples of user intent Lowe gives that can be set up as conversion goals and then tracked.

This pursuit of organic traffic has been hindered for many pharma companies, Lowe says, because of the focus on paid media strategy, and brand teams working very closely with agencies. Multiple domains and media campaigns can result in “cannibalization”, whereas the Performance-io founder advocates a “one-domain approach”, in line with what “big FMCG, banking, automotive, leisure and travel brands have done for years.”

What’s next? Could SGE disrupt search?

Lowe identifies some key areas of focus for pharma, including better ownership of data by the organisations themselves, and the responsible indexing of some of the content that currently lives in pharma walled gardens.

And, amidst the hype, Performance-io has plans to test with an LLM foundational model for SEO and pharma, targeting consistency, accuracy and compliance, with the aim of passing on cost savings in the long term. Lowe is keen to point out, however, that ‘AI’ is not a simple addition to the tech stack, but “a marriage of different AI integrations laddering up more broadly to commercial strategy.”

On the consumer side, Lowe doesn’t see the disintermediation of search anytime soon, but is excited by how AI is changing the landscape, and how pharma can tap into new search behaviours across other platforms such as TikTok.

He sounds a note of conservatism though, saying that despite Google’s Search Generative Experience, people still use the traditional SERPs (search engine results pages) “because they want context”.

Lowe adds that searchers predominately go to “Google for trust because of [the emphasis it places on] EEAT” (expertise, experience, authority and trust).

“Healthcare will start to understand EEAT… [and ultimately] they want to get the right information to the right people.”

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