Pharma brands must ‘up the ante’ in their digital presence

Since COVID-19 hit, many industries have shifted a heavier weighting of their business into the online world, relying on e-commerce and digital engagement to counterbalance the reduced ability for physical interactions.

The pharma world is no exception, and this year both small and large players have made the transition – partly out of necessity – from a world that relied predominantly on the face-to-face side of doing business, into a new digital world.

By no means has this been an easy task, and even now some pharma businesses are still struggling to embrace this much needed digital transformation. As with every other sector, pharma has come to recognise that there has never been a better time to have an online presence when it comes to future business growth.

This year as a nation – and globally – we are more aware of our health than ever before. Coupled with national and regional lockdowns, consumers want to minimise face-to-face contact as much as possible. Offering medicines and healthcare products in a digital capacity through online purchasing and delivery, or via a click-and-collect service, is the perfect solution. And for those pharma businesses that can get it right, digital adoption is certainly the way forward.

For pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the move to digital was fuelled through a desire to evolve and happened way ahead of others within the industry. The first step was changing their business model with a focus on building trust and creating transparency. Part of this strategy saw the launch of new digital platforms, including e-commerce. As one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, GSK is known for its innovation and is at the forefront when it comes to digital transformation.

“Pharma businesses need to ensure that they market themselves accordingly to both B2B and B2C. Targeted advertising is crucial to ensure the messaging is tailored to the right audience – healthcare and medical professionals or customers and consumers”

The challenge of compliance

One of the main concerns the pharma industry faces is around the issue of compliance and what products they can and can’t advertise. The good news is Pharma businesses have the opportunity to use a multitude of digital marketing channels to advertise on such as LinkedIn, YouTube, Google and Twitter.

Each country has different regulations in regard to the online advertising of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines. In the UK, Google allows the promotion of online pharmacies providing they follow Google’s procedures and are registered with the relevant pharmaceutical authorities in the countries their ad campaign targets. These procedures include:

  • Being registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council & approved by Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency;
  • No promotion of prescription or specific drugs within adverts or landing pages; and
  • Where a marketing company might own and manage a domain on behalf of a pharma brand, written proof from the brand is needed to confirm collaboration with the marketing company.

Providing these conditions are adhered to, there should be no reason for pharma businesses not to use online advertising, which is positive news especially in a world where more and more people are online.

How to maximise your digital marketing strategy

Pharma businesses need to ensure that they market themselves accordingly to both B2B and B2C. Targeted advertising is crucial to ensure the messaging is tailored to the right audience – healthcare and medical professionals or customers and consumers. Ensure keywords used are relevant for your audience – medical terminology for professionals and informational keywords providing solutions to ailments for consumers. Also, it is vital that all adverts and landing pages add value and are easily digestible.

Remarketing allows brands to stay at the forefront of customer’s minds, even after they have visited your website, through display advertising across platforms such as Google Ads and LinkedIn. Both platforms allow specific audience targeting and offer tracking of ROI to ensure the method is working effectively.

For independent pharmaceutical businesses, who do not have the same budget as some of the larger players in the industry, justifying advertising spend can be difficult. Therefore, it is crucial to trial and test digital marketing methods to work out which ones will deliver the best results, and to track all touchpoints to fully understand the customer journey.

One way to test is through split testing of adverts – giving each advert a separate UTM (Urchin Tracking Module) code which can be used to track performance and give insight on where traffic is coming from. If this is done correctly then it will provide understanding of which audiences and targeting are generating the highest ROI. By adopting this method, it will also ensure you are always improving your advert quality.

Using Twitter for campaigns to raise brand awareness, and to encourage healthcare practitioners to sign up for relevant webinars or download content about your brand, is another effective marketing method. Twitter’s advertising policy covers the promotion of clinical trial data, so care must be taken to avoid using keywords which make any health claims surrounding diagnosis, prevention and cures. As with Google, use target keywords relevant to your audience.

How to make the move from physical to digital

Transitioning commerce from a traditional bricks-and-mortar store to online means pharma businesses need to ensure they offer a seamless customer experience. Online customers behave differently to how they would in a physical store.

If you think of how pharmacies have traditionally been used – the customer tells the pharmacist their ailment and the pharmacist talks them through a range of medicines that may help them, guiding them through the decision making process – a process that cannot be replicated online.

The customer journey needs to be clear – the features and benefits of the products they are looking to purchase should be easy to understand – consumers do not want to be met with medical jargon.

Purchasing should be simple – preferably via an e-commerce function on their own website. Selling through other retailers, or through a direct to consumer (DTC) marketplace such as Amazon, will not be as profitable in the long run. However, Amazon can typically offer high conversion rates and it is possible to get instant traffic through sponsored product adverts on their website. So it should certainly be considered as part of your marketing strategy.

Case Study: UK leading emergency contraceptive pill

In January 2020, one of the UK’s leading emergency contraceptive pill brands which is available online and in pharmacies worldwide, chose to invest in its paid and organic digital marketing activity; with an emphasis on optimising the customer journey.

To ensure all the activity adhered to the strict compliance guidelines, the campaign worked with medical professionals and regulators to make sure its activity was validated and performed optimally on search engines.

To date, the business value to the brand includes:

  • An 118% rise in consumer engagement meaning more people are now aware of the brand and its product,
  • 155% uplift on clicks from the campaign to their independent sales site or other major retailers who stock their product such as Boots and Lloyds Pharmacies, and
  • An impressive reduction in the cost-per-click of 60%, meaning budgets have been used effectively. The reduction also means budget is being saved which can therefore be allocated for other activities.

Customers are spending more time online than ever before, and this transition is set to stay, and continue to grow. Whilst not all pharma businesses will follow in the steps of GSK when it comes to embracing the digital world, they should certainly learn from them and incorporate elements of their business strategies into their own. The move to digital should be a permanent requirement, not just a temporary solution to the pandemic.

About the author

Rachel MurrayRachel Murray is head of partnerships and a strategist for Fountain Partnership.