The Impact Of COVID-19 On Pharmaceutical Marketing
Digital transformation within the pharma and healthcare sectors has been accelerated by COVID-19. COVID-19 cancelled face-to-face events in 2020 and affected other forms of traditional marketing leading to an increase in the use of digital tactics, meaning the digital marketplace has become even more crowded and more competitive than ever.
Research carried out by Accenture on 750 healthcare professionals and 2700 patients showed that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased virtual and digital interactions with both patients and HCP seeing positive impacts. Also new 2021 PMCPA digital guidance means that pharma marketing teams will need to adapt to the challenges of the new digital-enabled post-pandemic world.
Many separate components exist within a pharmaceutical digital strategy. However, many pharma companies are falling ‘behind the curve’ in terms of their digital presence and activities. All you have to do is observe the number of poor-quality pharma websites that still exist to see evidence of this. For these companies creating a website was simply a box checking exercise and ‘digital’ was seen as not being relevant to the business and marketing planning process.
The reality for these companies is that unless they invest in a digital transformation plan and look to future proof their marketing strategies, they are most likely going to find their more innovative competitors gaining a real competitive advantage. The forward-thinking organisations have changed what they communicate beyond just product information with the creation of digital services and tools offering clearer, effective and on-demand value compared to the pre-COVID-19 era. Now is the time for pharma companies to redefine their relevance through digital communications and evolve their sales and marketing models.
What Is Pharmaceutical Digital Marketing & Advertising?
Pharmaceutical digital marketing enables your organisation to educate audiences and promote its brand, products and services to a range of individuals, from healthcare professionals to patients, through to researchers and investors. Adopting multiple channels and techniques allows you to create a highly tailored, measurable and compliant pharma marketing and advertising strategy so you can interact with multiple distinct audiences and create a positive impact on health outcomes .
The most widely used digital tools and techniques are:
- Organic Search (SEO)
- Paid Search & Media (pay per click advertising)
- Online Advertising
- Social Media
- Content Marketing
Why Is Pharma Digital Marketing Important?
It can be difficult to find innovative ways to reach your audiences in the pharmaceutical sectors. Digital marketing provides better exposure for pharma companies to reach out to both healthcare professionals and patients. Unlike traditional approaches like face-to-face interaction, which is expensive, time consuming and as a result of Covid-19 sometimes not possible at all, digital marketing not only reduces the marketing cost and time, but also increases your target audience reach.
For example, a common digital marketing strategy that would have been adopted in the last year due to the cancellation of pharmaceutical and medical conferences, would be to deliver digital material to delegates of those events via a virtual environment, coupled with a range of supporting digital assets. The COVID-19 crisis has meant that most pharmaceutical organisations are required to move towards digital-only strategies, with some launching new business models to survive and to reach their target audiences. Digital innovations, which were always there for adoption, are now being accessed to restructure portfolios, change business processes and collaborate in strategic alliances.
As we know more and more individuals are using search engines and social media platforms to find online content. Even patients are turning to doctor/clinician review sites and social media postings above recommendations from their GP to inform their personal healthcare decision marking.
Pharmaceutical companies that still heavily rely on traditional routes to their ‘customers’, such as B2B sales reps and conference / events attendance are building a high degree of risk into their business plan by under investing in digital asset creation and distribution.
By improving the distribution of, and accessibility to, pharmaceutical data and educational information pharma marketing teams will improve their chances of converting customers directly, in the digital landscape.
Pharma Digital Marketing Strategy
Across the B2B and B2C sectors there are a range of digital marketing methods that can be adopted to reach your audience, and it’s important you find the right method of digital marketing to help your achieve your communication and commercial objectives. The options available to pharma marketers are far and wide.
Start with a plan
There are so many disciplines that make up the digital marketing mix such as SEO, apps, social media etc that it’s far too easy to get caught up in the hype that often surrounds these tools and channels and jump headfirst into implementing tactical activity. It’s important that you take a step back and consider the fundamentals of marketing strategy. Tactics and channels change, but the core concepts and principles of marketing will never change.
Focus on the customer
Begin by asking “what are my ‘customers’ doing online?”
The more evidence you can gather to help you to better understand your target audiences’ online behaviour, the easier it will be for you to develop a digital strategy and plan that focuses on creating the right assets and using the right channels to reach and engage with those audiences.
Some simple things you can do to better understand what types of digital tools and services they are using and what content they are looking for is to:
- Listen to the online conversations going on in social media around your brand, competitors, therapy areas etc.
- Carry out some research on Google to see what keywords individuals are using to find online content relating to your business and sector.
- Visit the app stores and NHS Health Apps directory to see what mobile apps have been published that are aimed at your target audience and read the reviews.
- Check out YouTube to see what video content is being published online
Digital SWOT analysis
By carrying out a comprehensive audit and SWOT analysis of your own digital presence and footprint you’ll be able to assess how visible you are online and how your website and other digital / content assets compare to that of your competitors. These insights will help you to identify your current digital strengths and weaknesses; identify new opportunities to reach your audiences and highlight the key marketing and communication problems you’re trying to solve.
For instance, you might have invested in designing a great website, with plenty of useful content but because your site has not been optimised for search engines, users are unable to find that content online. So, a key priority would be to invest in an on-going healthcare SEO campaign so you can improve your content’s visibility in search engines and on social media.
Set SMART objectives
Once you know what digital problems you’re trying to solve, it’s important to define your objectives and benchmark your current performance. SMART objectives are ones that are:
- Specific – don’t have something like I want to improve the performance of my website. Be specific and think about what areas of your website need improving. For instance, you may want to set a target to the reduce the bounce rate on a specific web page by 5%.
- Measurable – one of the greatest advantages of digital is that it is so much easier to track the performance of online activities compared to offline marketing. Tools like Google Analytics allow you to capture and analyse a whole host of data. The key however is focusing on the metrics that matter most to you. I always recommend that before starting any digital activities my clients list the KPIs they want to focus on, and then make sure that they have the right digital reporting tools to be able to obtain the data to measure any performance gains.
- Achievable – so no “I want to be no.1 on Google for the keyword “medicines” please! Of course, design objectives to be challenging, but ensure that failure is not built into those objectives. Objectives should be agreed by managers and your agencies to ensure commitment to them.
- Relevant – suggests that there is a clear understanding of how the objective might be reached and are appropriate to the individual or team and your current levels of performance. It’s also important that those digital objectives align with the overall purpose and strategy of the organisation.
- Timebound – it is necessary to set a date or time by which the objective should have been accomplished or completed and this contributes to making objectives measurable. For objectives that may take weeks or even months to fully achieve, it is good practice to identify milestones or key steps and to set deadlines for these to help keep progress towards the end objective on track.
Digital Pharma Marketing Compliance
No pharma marketing strategy would be complete without a compliance plan. I still come across pharma companies that get very nervous about digital and unfortunately there has been a lot of miscommunication of what you can and can’t do when it comes to online marketing. Check out this excellent article by Dr Rina Newton titled: ABPI Code & digital content myth-busting
The UK ABPI will update their code in July 2021. The code sets standards for the promotion and advertising of medicines to health professionals and other relevant decision makers in the UK. The code doesn’t get updated every year but as a result of some key changes that EFPIA made in 2019 the ABPI needed to incorporate those European level changes into the UK country code. This video: 2021 ABPI Code of Practice – what are the proposed key changes for MedComms? provides an excellent overview of how these changes will impact pharma marketing. Learning to pick the right digital strategy which is 100% and 2021 PMCPA code compliant is going to be crucial, so you avoid high risk code areas.
A well thought through digital strategy backed up by recent and relevant research and insights, is going to provide pharma marketers with a number of highly targeted and cost effective communication channels (for reaching and engaging with both patients and medical professionals). But be advised: You will encounter obstacles. The obstacles that the technologies themselves often create, followed by some potential compliance hurdles that you will no doubt already be used to. Embracing this change is why many pharma brands are hesitant about moving forward with their digital transformation plan – perhaps due to the constantly growing number of digital channels to consider and the rapid changes that are taking place with development technologies, so you have every right to feel overwhelmed.
But it does get easier, and there are some basics that you will want to get right first.
Get your website in order
Improving the quality of your website is a great place to start. Remember that your pharmaceutical-based website is there to inform your users about your products, services and educate them and not just an internal tool for sales reps.
Spend time understanding your end-users and define a purpose for the website and always design it with those end users in mind. Some users will appreciate design and style, but often they are also impatient and prone to scanning pages and content. They also want control and will follow their intuition. On the flip side, you may also find that scientific and medical professionals, although often very busy, typically like to see more detail and in-depth content. So getting the balance right is potentially a difficult task.
Analyse the data and assess how visible you are in search engines
Jump into your Google Analytics and Search Console accounts and investigate how users are using and finding your site and if any technical issues need addressing. The clues will be there as to whether your website provides an effective user experience via its content. Also, investigate how easy it is to find your website’s content in search engines. The pool of potential prospects that can find you via the search channel is far greater than social and email, so don’t under estimate the importance of search engine marketing and optimisation.
Damon Lightley is a co-founder and Digital Marketing Strategist at Genetic Digital. Genetic Digital is a small and friendly healthcare digital marketing agency with a proven track record in pharma website design, healthcare SEO and digital marketing strategy. We have a working knowledge of the ABPI code of practice and so fully understand the key challenges and constraints that you face when it comes to promoting information about medicines.