Of transparency and clarity: Using marketing channels to educate patients

These days, pharmaceutical and healthcare firms are increasingly stepping forward to become more transparent in educating consumers about their products.

That trend was likely one factor in pharma's ad spending for 2014, which grew 18 percent over 2013 to reach $4.53 billion. Factors driving such pharma-led education efforts include growing consumer self-advocacy, the need to counter misinformation from other online sources and physician schedules that can limit in-depth conversations with patients.

As part of the trend, the digital realm is slowly becoming more attractive to healthcare and pharma; eMarketer predicts online ad expenditures in those categories will increase 98 percent between 2013 and 2019 to reach $2.55 billion.

“Dramatic changes in the traditional roles and dynamics of healthcare stakeholders have basic implications for pharma companies,” notes a 2015 McKinsey Research report. “The digital revolution has spawned a consumer revolution symbolized by an increasing demand for connectedness and information.”

How can you as a pharma marketer maximize your educational campaign? Consider the following.

1. What is my target market?

In pharma, your most effective target for educational purposes may be patients, doctors or researchers; Merck, for example, focuses much of its marketing on the pharmaceutical scientists who publish and present at conferences.

“Your most important customers are not those that generate the most revenue, but those that can unlock the most value in your business,” explains Robert Simons in Harvard Business Review. “For some … an intermediary such as a re-seller or a broker will be the critical customer.”

Beyond that, research-driven statistics on your customers can help you learn how they're most likely to respond to your educational campaigns. It helps to understand your audiences' wants, need and pain points, and whether they're motivated by price, service or access to the best technology, brand or other advantage.

2.  What are my most important messages?

The might start by studying up on the FAQ your company is receiving from currently available channels, identifying where knowledge gaps lie. Beyond that, focus on your ultimate campaign goals: Are you trying to inform on side effects, benefits, risks or regulatory issues? Provide cutting-edge news regarding your products? Change behavior? Ease fears? Position yourself as a consumer, physician or researcher partner? Advise on services related to your products? Point your audience to certain information sources or communication channels? Built relationships? Or just increase credibility and trust in general?

“(Pharma firms) must get more specific information about their customers to identify the solutions and experiences — not just the products and drugs — those customers really need,” notes the McKinsey study.

Further, while pharma has long struggled with creating compelling marketing materials in the face of hyper-restrictive regulations, consumers are increasingly disgruntled with overly dry clinical ads and product websites. As such, marketers are challenged to strike a balance between governmental controls and the appeal of consumer-controlled sites that encourage an unrestricted sharing of information.

3. What venues work best?

For pharma’s consumer market, a recent study by Manhattan Research says TV, print and radio ads are becoming less effective as the consumer media mix continues to fragment, though offline venues are still the most popular for direct-to-consumer marketing. Still, digital is gradually gaining market share for pharma in response to customer demand.

For digital, the study advises making your product website the hub of your consumer marketing strategy, enhancing the brand experience when possible through videos, an online community, interactive quizzes and other features. Consumers tend to appreciate touch points through websites, email, text messaging, message boards and blogs, it reports, as well as clear calls to action and compelling offers in display ads (such as free trial offers or coupons applying to expensive drugs).

Reaching the physician market can be challenging, it says, so try a mix of displays ads, e-newsletter sponsorship's, paid search ads and other options. Physicians rely heavily on search engines (especially Google) when researching medical and pharmaceutical information online, so consider paid search and search engine optimization strategies to drive them to customer service portals. Online journals, virtual conferences, physician social networks and other professional online sources provide alternate opportunities. Historically, the study says, doctors have responded well to disease-specific info, electronic sampling and professional education resources. And they want to access resources on their own terms, at their own convenience.

Whatever pharma marketing program you put in place, remember to keep monitoring responses so you can adjust your campaign to keep up with customer tastes, emerging technologies, changing regulations and new competitors.