5 digital marketing mistakes that can derail drug launches

With all eyes on marketing, the stakes are never higher than Day 1 of a new drug launch. 

A lot has changed during my 19 years in pharma marketing; tactics that were once surefire shortcuts to success are now insufficient, or outdated. Ever evolving regulations dictate what you can say and when you can say it. Patients and prescriber expectations are constantly shaped and reshaped by digital and social trends. Today’s digital marketer must account for a new ecosystem of platforms, partners, and audience needs when preparing for a drug launch.  

Yet, time and time again, I encounter digital marketers whose launch plans fail to account for these mission-critical components. With research and development costs growing, drug makers can’t afford to cut corners on digital marketing before launch, or they’ll face the consequences of a flop.  

Mistake: “I created a marketing plan” 

The number one (and most expensive) launch mistake digital marketers make is failing to create a fully cross-functional plan that accounts for each role — especially those outside of marketing. These include PRC/MLR, IT, medical affairs, medical education, sales, and strategic partners.

SolutionUpgrade your plan to be cross-functional

Don’t assume that other teams know what you need from them for launch. Marketers who clearly define deliverables, timelines, and interdependencies for every function reduce costly oversight and increase their odds of launch success. As soon as possible, document the process for each team. Make sure to socialise your plan and confirm buy-in from supporting groups as early as you can. The best plans detail how each team will: 

  • Define, communicate, and track bottom-line KPIs for overall launch success 
  • Track budgets and manage funds dedicated to the launch  
  • Report on pre-defined milestones at fixed intervals to all teams involved 
  • Communicate and resolve any issues that arise 
  • Activate next steps (and what those steps are) when approval is granted 

Mistake: “I thought my martech stack was working!” 

Even if you have all of your materials ready on Day 1, is your martech stack, and the teams that support it, ready to deploy them? I’ve seen teams fall into a last-minute frenzy to license software or approve user permissions because they incorrectly assumed that their martech stacks were launch-ready. This is especially common among marketers who moved from large, digitally mature pharma organisations to newer biotechs who haven’t had to implement the proper tooling yet or may be on their first launch.

Solution: Audit your martech stack immediately 

Take a close look at the underlying technology required to support tactics for every launch deliverable. Chances are that your CMS and CRM platforms are intact and ready to go, but don’t underestimate the value of rigorous QA testing prior to site launch. Commonly neglected stack components include customer data management (CDP), security safeguards, and APIs or integrations. In addition to assessing whether you have the required platforms to launch, be certain to evaluate each one for: 

  • Legal, regulatory, and procurement vetting and approval 
  • Licensing of all required capabilities (purchased or renewed) 
  • Proper access permissions granted to internal and external users 
  • Adequate user training or certification  
  • Security, functionality, and quality assurance testing  
  • Integration with the rest of your stack 

Mistake: “I’ll rely on my usual regulatory process.” 

Mixed signals between marketing and regulatory teams practically guarantee failure to launch. But brand teams regularly make assumptions about how the timing, process, and expectations of regulatory teams will collaborate during this critical window of time. Even if you normally count on institutionalised workflows for regulatory approval, surprises are commonplace during a drug launch. In one case, I witnessed a brand team receive FDA approval on a Friday evening, only to discover that the regulatory team had departed for the weekend — leaving them in a lurch.

Solution: Formalise the regulatory process for launch

When your approval date arrives, PRC/MLR resources should be lined up and ready to go. All legal and regulatory stakeholders should be privy to your expected timeline at least three months — and ideally six or more — in advance of launch to ensure the process goes smoothly. The timeline should include: 

  • Roles and responsibilities of each review committee member 
  • Early concept review of features or content that may be viewed as risky or novel 
  • SOP for document storage, version control, signature matrix, etc. 
  • Sequence and dates of asset submission, review, and publication  
  • Regularly scheduled status reports (meetings or check-ins)  
  • Anticipated approval window and predetermined triggers for review 

Mistake: “My vendors have us covered” 

Once upon a time, your AOR handled most external launch needs. With pharmas turning to more specialised partners, you’ll work with multiple organisations to support launch activities like creative, design, web development, and content. A lack of alignment among them is an open invitation for chaos; and the last thing you need is discord among your multiple partners due to fuzzy rules of engagement. 

Solution: Create a stakeholder RACI chart 

Minimise the risk of overlap or missed deliverables by providing clear expectations on how each partner slots into your launch plan. Define, document, and share these guidelines with all agency partners, consultants, and internal teams to preserve good vendor relationships (and your personal sanity). Any partner involved in your launch should know: 

  • Points of contact: How should partners communicate with you, and with one another? 
  • Escalation path: What is the chain of command in the event of unanticipated problems? 
  • Meeting cadence: How often will agencies meet, what will they discuss, and who will attend? 
  • Reporting strategy: What data will be shared, how, and with whom? Who needs to know what? 
  • Deliverables: What does each stakeholder own, and how will you communicate it to all of them? 
  • Handoff process: How and when will deliverables be exchanged among partners? 
  • Interdependencies: What tasks or milestones are on the critical path? Are there potential points of failure for the team if one stakeholder’s misses a deliverable? 

Mistake: “Our sales reps know what to expect.”  

FDA marketing restrictions limit the messaging and assets you can leverage on Day 1. If your sales leadership and field reps expect materials to be ready sooner than you can legally deploy them, it will conflict — and marketing will take the blame. 

Solution: Level-set with sales

Reps are on the hook to bring in launch revenue, and they need to know exactly when each asset will be ready — as well as where it can be found and how it will be utilised, modified, decommissioned, or expanded post-launch. When will their visual aids be ready? Do they need to download files, or will they be automatically pushed to mobile devices? How will you let them know if an update is required? Typical Day 1 sales materials can include the following and be expanded upon 60-90 days post launch: 

  • HCP and patient sites with live data collection forms (CRM) 
  • 1:1 rep-triggered email templates for personal communications with HCP audiences 
  • Sales aids ready to deploy to the field  
  • Limited nonpersonal promotional materials (e.g. banner ads) 
  • “Now approved” emails for registered pre-launch prescriber and patient leads 

Today’s marketers too often rely on yesterday’s standards to launch tomorrow’s drugs — ignoring the new requirements of our increasingly digital market. Successful commercialisation requires planning and well-orchestrated execution in order to find success. Drug launches are fraught with enough risk as it is; apply these five solutions to minimise it where you can.  

About the author

Justin Grossman is CEO of meltmedia. He began his career at Accenture, building expertise in the enterprise space. He moved on to apply his consulting expertise to smaller technology startups, where he developed a passion for building and growing companies. His talents in business, technology, and design have led to a 20-year career focused on software and digital marketing consulting for life sciences clients such as Genentech and Johnson & Johnson.