The pharma marketer’s dilemma: creating long-term value

Last time out, I discussed how Pharma has long favoured a ‘build and own’ approach to digital strategy. Adopting an inside-out, as opposed to outside-in perspective has positioned corporate priorities above customer needs. Unfortunately for Pharma, the main consequences of this are that HCPs are now spoilt for choice and increasingly picky about online content and its origins.

I highlighted three ‘truths’ which provide an indication of the state of play online:

  1. HCPs are more likely to visit trusted (bookmarked) sites than the average internet user
  2. HCPs need different types of information at different points in the product life cycle
  3. HCPS have come to trust Pharma only for certain types of information

I ended my last article by suggesting that content partners and owned channels can and should work together, as they offer best return on investment at different points in the product life cycle. But how can this work in practice?

Short and long-term

Commercial partners will not like the implications of the above paradigm – they see themselves as a distinct sector and are looking to forge longer-term relationships with clients. If viewed primarily as a ‘quick fix’, they will be forced to compete on audience reach and little else, and this will ultimately harm their market. Instead, each network has to achieve focused differentiation, for instance via service offering, measurement or technical expertise. And this makes it more difficult for marketers to directly compare. But that’s another article.

The current state of play is that prominent commercial medical sites are most often visited by HCPs as a matter of routine. They are ‘scanning’ for information (usually around therapy news and new treatment developments) rather than ‘seeking’ answers to specific queries. Partners are useful if they allow you to engage your audience on the same terms for which they visit the partner site (ie. filling key gaps in the partner’s provision of relevant content), but become counter-intuitive for a longer-term content proposition.

Changing needs

We have established that the online behaviour of your customer should inform your channel choice, however the nature of the channel should also inform the content provided. In other words, if you select a content partner to reach your audience, bear in mind that you will need to adapt the messaging to fit. Product versus therapy is a classic example – ultimately, your marketing objectives will be product-focused, but we know HCPs are unreceptive to product-focused content on non-Pharma channels.

What this all points to is the difficulty of executing a (cost-) effective, short-term, product-focused digital campaign. The nature of HCP online use requires you to adapt your messaging, content and positioning, and ultimately think longer-term. However, what commercial sites do offer is an opportunity to ‘prep’ your audience by taking advantage of their scanning behaviour. By fulfilling unmet information needs in the therapy area which also answer your product objectives, you can position yourself favourably with HCPs for when you ‘pull’ them to your owned site.

In summary – for reasons of content ‘opportunity’, audience receptiveness and cost, content partnerships should be used before owned channels, but also feed into them, as part of a unified, longer-term strategy. The potential ROI from such a strategy for an individual product can be assessed by traditional means of potential revenue, existing market presence and position in your wider portfolio. But what seems likely is that at a time of progressively fewer new, approved drugs, and heightened competition within therapy areas, the creation of longer-term value will become more important, not less.

Nevertheless, the question remains: how can this long-term value be created when HCPs only trust Pharma to provide a limited range of content (the third truth)? Commercial partners may slightly obfuscate the association with Pharma, but product-centric owned channels cannot escape it.

Allow me a brief aside here to reinforce my belief that trust is a valid strategic imperative. It underpins customer loyalty and retention, opening up new and more cost-effective marketing opportunities. But trust needn’t be a high-falutin’ ideal (at home in your company’s vision statement and nowhere else). In the digital space, trust can be won through the consistent repetition or iteration of a desired or at least preferable experience.

Trust through experience

The premise of both these articles was how to define an effective, long-term digital strategy for the introduction of a new product in stringent times (economic and regulatory). What we haven’t dwelled on is how products are fundamentally differentiated at the start of their lives, competing either on:

  1. Cost (my product is comparable to the market leader, but cheaper)
  2. Niche (there is nothing/little out there directly comparable to my product)
  3. Differentiation (my product is comparable to the market leader and offers additional benefits)

This initial choice will dictate your product strategy and therefore your marketing strategy. In today’s broad, saturated markets, the third way is increasingly common. Crucially, it allows you to compete with the market leader and potentially demand a higher price.

What is required is clear and unique added value, and this can be co-created through your digital strategy. HCPs will use Pharma for online tools and resources which answer persistent needs of improved product accessibility, adherence and after-care (to name a few), if these needs are not well-met elsewhere. As the number of online start-ups proliferates and healthcare moves more mainstream, these needs are beginning to be addressed from many different perspectives. The battle for Pharma will be to deliver a consistently superior experience which can be built into and around your product to achieve differentiation in a crowded marketplace.

At Blue Latitude we have structured our capabilities around this likely future: multichannel planning and strategy to pinpoint the synergies between on- and offline environments; customer experience to understand HCP needs and specify unique, added value services, and continued optimisation to deliver a consistently superior experience.

Everyone online is in the information-provision business. As core product benefits converge on each other and information around them is more rapidly disseminated, the what and how of the services we provide will increasingly act as the key differentiator and gateway to customer retention.

This post was written for Blue Latitude by Marketing Coach and Pitch Guru Mark Walmsley

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