Industry Insights

Pharma Wars Continue - Episode III: Revenge of the Net

Posted by April Giarla on Apr 13, 2016 6:00:00 AM

The old Pharma Marketing Republic is crumbling.

It is hard to imagine how regulatory authorities will control global digital communication in the future. Yet, there is little doubt that they will try.

The digital world can feel like a chaotic black hole as there seems to be more confusing misinformation floating around the pharma galaxy than valuable, reliable sources.

Ironically, the one entity that cannot fully engage in online discussions is exactly the party that is often in the best position to provide the most accurate information: the pharmaceutical manufacturer

In spite of all this, it is hard to imagine a world in the future where digital pharma marketing is not entirely pervasive. 

The question becomes: how do we get from today's situation to that new reality?

In simple terms, digital marketing is just leveraging digital tools to implement marketing activities to engage with your customers. Sounds easy, right?

Well the simplicity clearly stops at this definition as so many pharma marketers struggle to understand, let alone optimize, digital tools effectively. Those marketers that do not embrace and utilize digital tools effectively are doomed to experience the inevitable revenge of the net

As an industry, pharma is light-years away from other industries in terms of comfort level and utilization of digital tools. We’re catching up but still laggards in this respect.

The most common excuse, as you may have guessed, is too many restrictions. And this includes both internal and external constraints.

Nevertheless, we at StratX believe that innovation is a product of having too few options as opposed to too many. The winning companies and brands are the ones that work creatively within this highly regulated environment.

An interesting example is Novo Nordisk's sponsorship of Charlie Kimball, a professional racecar driver who has diabetes and is very open about his experience managing his condition as a professional athlete. A heavy user of Twitter (@racewithinsulin), Charlie claims to have sent the first branded pharmaceutical tweet in history in 2009.

Another example of a pharma company pushing against the boundaries through aggressive social media activities is Boehringer Ingelheim. As a mid-sized pharma company, they have been punching above their weight for years.

While it’s a great to push for the “wow factor” and maximum exposure, it is critical to support the business objectives while addressing the brand’s market situation.

As a first step, having strong digital awareness and social listening practices are non-negotiables. Nevertheless, we are surprised how little marketers know about their own brands and competitor brand activities.   

In many cases, we recommend ignoring digital at first. Jumping into the digital domain blindly can cause more harm than good. It’s best to start with an understanding of the key issues you need to address in order to succeed. 

What are the challenges you face?  Is it low acceptance of a new therapeutic class?  Is it that the move from diagnosis to active treatment slow?  Or is it difficult to get prescribers to feel confident enough to move from initial treatment to repeat prescription of the drug? 

Depending on your challenge, there are different digital and non-digital tools that you can use in concert to drive results.

When it comes to good digital marketing practices, we really like the digital funnel, a digital equivalent to the classic ladder of adoption in marketing. Essentially, it is a question of understanding customers’ digital behaviors in connection to their awareness, consideration, first use and repeat use of a brand.

When this is well understood, the next step is to know which digital tools can drive this, and which digital metrics to use to track your success.

It’s much easier said than done.

In our practice, we focus on a simple four-step approach:

  1. Understand why you want to engage with potential customers  
  2. Know which tools work with your audience
  3. Provide compelling reasons for people to engage
  4. Enable people to easily transition into being a customer or advocate

Sounds remarkably similar to customer centricity, doesn’t it?

Given the multitude of available tools and all the constraints within pharma,digital should be a strong enabler that boosts your multichannel approach. Digital should not be a free-standing appendage to more traditional marketing approaches, but truly integrated into the marketing plan. 

This also means that brand teams can't succeed simply with the mindset of "we hired a digital specialist and she is gonna take care of that stuff for us."  Digital marketing experts need to be fully integrated into the brand team and all pharma marketers have to see themselves as digital marketers, as well!

Eventually we will look back on this transitional period and marvel at the fact that we considered digital and non-digital marketing as distinct alternatives and, in some cases, as opposing forces.  In the future, virtually all marketing will include a digital component.

Feel free to contact Yann Cartier ( to see how StratX can help your teams avoid the revenge of the net.

Stayed tuned for the next installment --  Episode IV: LEX & The New Slope.

Article written by Alan Slavik and Richard Hainsworth.

You can find our previous installments here:

Topics: Biopharma

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