The landscape for pharma marketing is changing rapidly and pharma companies are being forced to rethink how and to whom they market.

For example, it’s now reasonable to talk about the possibility of a pharma company shunning sales reps entirely and instead using digital channels to reach healthcare professionals and patients directly – an approach that probably would have seemed unthinkable less than a decade ago.

While pharma marketers have lots of room for improvement in terms of how they connect to professionals and consumers online, they’re increasingly active in digital channels ranging from search to social.

Through these digital channels, pharma marketers have the opportunity to connect healthcare professionals and consumers to content and resources that are relevant to conditions they treat, are being treated for, or need treatment for.

Of course, thanks to regulations like HIPAA, pharma marketers are far more limited in how they can target their digital ads. Use of first-party data is generally a no-no, and some otherwise commonly-used types of remarketing are also often not permissible.

This makes it more difficult for pharma marketers to reach the specific people they want to reach. So they develop campaigns that are less granularly targeted and thus often more expensive. They purchase ads against specific condition-related terms. And so on and so forth.

But in the not too distant future, is it possible that pharma marketers will have access to targeting solutions based on digital phenotyping?

As the New York Times recently detailed in a piece about digital phenotyping, which one study defined as “moment-by-moment quantification of the individual-level human phenotype in situ using data from personal digital devices, a growing number of tech companies and researchers “are tracking users’ social media posts, calls, scrolls and clicks in search of behavior changes that could correlate with disease symptoms.”

Much of the exploration of digital phenotyping to date has focused on mental illness and mood disorders. For instance, Mindstrong Health, a mental health startup, is analyzing smartphone usage in an attempt to detect signs of depression. And Facebook is already using artificial intelligence to scan content posted by users for signs of suicidal thought. In some cases, it has used its technology to display notifications or to alert local authorities so they can follow up and intervene if necessary.

While there are significant questions about the accuracy of digital phenotyping, it’s not difficult to see the potential for it to also be applied to digital marketing, giving pharma marketers the ability to target consumers on more than just demographics, stated interests, search keywords and the like.

The big question: will this ever happen?

That isn’t clear. Facebook, for instance, has been vying for pharma ad dollars, apparently with mixed success. The social media giant late last year held an event to pitch pharma marketers on the use of Facebook to target users for clinical trials. At that event, it reportedly indicated that it would not allow pharma marketers to target users based on health conditions.

Facebook’s stance makes sense. Allowing pharma marketers to target its users based on conditions the social network knows or thinks they have would almost certainly lead to a PR backlash. There would no doubt be calls for legal and regulatory action. In Europe this sort of profiling is regulated by the new GDPR.

A reminder of the value of digital data

While it’s possible that other players in the digital advertising ecosystem might be more willing than Facebook to apply digital phenotyping to marketing solutions – there is already a sizable and growing market for third-party data – one of the most important take-aways for pharma marketers in the rise of digital phenotyping is that digital data is extremely valuable and might prove even more valuable than previously thought.

Pharma marketers should keep this in mind as they develop homegrown digital initiatives.

To learn more about digital transformation in Pharma, join us at ePharma in New York on March 21-23. Our VP of Research Stefan Tornquist will be discussing the future of digital and marketing with Anthony Lambrou, Director of Corporate Strategy and Innovation at Pfizer, as well as hosting a roundtable for you to learn, share and connect with fellow pharma marketers. Find out more and secure your spot: