Permission marketing and pharma: how to get it right

Invasive, one-way marketing messages are increasingly ineffective, but if customers feel they are respected, they are more open to receiving – and ultimately acting on – messages that are tailored to their needs and interests.

Brands are realising that the future of marketing is showing customers that you care. According to Seth Godin’s book Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers: “Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. It realises that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.”

Permission marketing is the cornerstone to marketing automation, a tactic that allows brands to nurture prospects through the sales funnel using highly sophisticated tools. Permission marketing could take various forms, utilised through a number of channels ranging from e-newsletters, to mobile apps to direct mail. Even social media is considered to employ a form of permission marketing. After all, when a user likes a brand page or a viewer subscribes to a YouTube channel, they give their approval to receive information from that company.

In the pharmaceutical industry, permission-based communication is mainly used to inform healthcare professionals about products and services, educate physicians on a therapeutic area, bring awareness to a disease, or support patients in overcoming adherence challenges.

The privilege (consent)

The basis of permission marketing is that customers give their explicit consent to receive communication before any messages are sent to them. People engage better with content from organisations they know than from unexpected sources, especially when the message is personalised. Customers are more likely to give their consent if they know what they are signing up for and if what you are offering is of value. An effective, non-incentivised method for getting that consent at registration is to indicate that the customer can opt out of communication at any time.

Historically, pharmaceutical companies predominately communicated with doctors to push their products, instead of addressing a need for unbiased information. Even though, in recent years, the approach has shifted, physicians still appear to distrust them. This lack of trust presents a larger challenge for the healthcare industry, in terms of gaining consent, compared to other industries. A way to overcome this is to develop a relationship with the customer by better understanding their needs around a therapeutic area, and tailoring the offering accordingly.

Once the customer’s trust has been gained, it then becomes about keeping them hooked. They have already made the decision to receive information, so the probability of conversion is relatively high. Pharma companies regarded as an authority in a specific therapeutic area can attain a deeper level of engagement with their audience.

But commitment is required to provide exceptional customer experience and keep the channel of communication open.

The commitment

Permission marketing is mostly about content, timing and nurturing relationships. This requires the right resources and corporate commitment to maintain engagement. That might include hiring the right person or people, allowing strategies to be insight-driven, and changing the business model to achieve desired results.

Content should be tailored to suit the individual

Permission marketing, if implemented correctly, provides quite a lot of data about a customer, which enables personalised content to be offered.

Permission marketing enables two-way relationships with customers, so pharma companies should think about their needs and concerns rather than constantly selling them a product or service. Customers in healthcare are looking for authenticity and empathy. Basically, show them that you understand what they’re going through, and that you care.

The more the relationship evolves, the more you should be able to learn about your customer – a concept called incremental profiling. It can allow you to customise your narrative to the individual over time.

Finding the right frequency while remaining responsive

Permission marketing opens a valuable continuous communication stream with target audiences. However, the higher the frequency, the lower the engagement with a brand. When asked what concerns them the most about their inbox, 42 per cent of respondents mentioned the frequency of permission-based emails (second to spam)1.

Frequency should vary based on audience, customers’ expectations, and your offering. You can test or monitor the frequency until you find the magic formula for each of your targeted segments, or you can give them the option to choose their own frequency. For example, physicians consult data and information at the moment of need or after working hours due to their busy schedule, so don’t bombard them with information, but show them that you value their time by providing content in a format that is easy to access at any time.

While it’s great to create anticipation by providing regular communication, and letting your audience know when to expect it, you have to be able to react to issues in the news too. This will keep you relevant and position you as an authority in the field. An agile process is necessary to respond quickly to new developments in the industry and in your market. A simple way to react to current news is to repurpose published content to fit current topics. Create an amalgamation of existing blog posts around a therapeutic area, which is being covered in the latest news, for example.

Nurturing the two-way street communication

Pharmaceutical companies that understand and influence engagement will earn brand loyalty. The golden rule is not to violate your audience’s trust by breaking the initial terms of your relationship. You have to restrain your communication to avoid invading your customers’ inboxes by sticking to the agreed frequency of messages. If you indicated that your newsletter would be monthly at sign up, don’t send a weekly email to your subscribers.

Additionally, reinforce the relationship by reminding them of the purpose of this dialogue and by making it easy for them to reach you. A best practice approach is to insert a one-liner at the top of your newsletter about its purpose and tell readers how they can respond to the content.

Some of the barriers that delay pharma companies integrating permission marketing into their strategies are: physicians’ lack of trust in them, industry restrictions on direct-to-consumer messaging, and companies’ internal regulation processes.

What to consider

Incorporating permission marketing into your organisation’s activities is not a one-time event, but rather a rigorous process that cannot be rushed. A permission strategy may take years to shape, especially in healthcare, and requires a clear strategy and robust planning, as there are many aspects to consider:

• Who do you want to communicate with and why?

• Which channel is the best to reach your audience?

• Which business function should own permission marketing? Is it a marketing or sales team-driven initiative?

• How should you collect contacts and manage data?

• How should you structure customer data capture?

• How will you use data to enhance the customer experience?

• How should you maintain the relationship?

• Which CRM technology best suits your needs?

• What are the regional and international data privacy laws that you have to adhere to?

• What is the role of the customer-facing team in your strategy?

• And finally, who is going to do it, and how much of their time will be allocated to managing permission marketing tactics?

The advice

Permission marketing can seem quite overwhelming, especially in highly regulated industries. To start with, choose a suitable channel to reach your target, build your strategy and internal processes around that before expanding your efforts to other channels, and designate the right person to manage it. The most utilised channel in permission strategies is email due to cost-efficient reach and ease of measurement.

Each company interprets regulations differently. If you are too cautious with your permission-based approach, there is a risk that the highly robust, highly regulated process will hinder uptake, leaving you with a non-starter or a database with limited reach. Finding the right managerial balance in regulating activities without restricting marketers is crucial for optimal results. Additionally, some marketers tend to treat permission marketing as a separate tactic from their overall strategy. Permission marketing does not stand on its own and should be an integral part of a multichannel strategy.

Finally, with the right marketing automation software in place, your marketing and sales team can plan, manage and measure all online and offline activities from lead generation through the entire sales process. The danger lies when marketers rely solely on these platforms to generate leads, nurture relationships and close the sale. These sophisticated platforms offer robust functionalities, but without insight-driven strategy feeding them, their functionalities are useless.

On an ongoing basis, consider how to integrate your permission-based activities with your offline tactics. It can seem daunting to start tackling such a complex challenge, but the rewards from getting it right will make it worthwhile.


1 Bill Nussey, The Quiet Revolution in Email Marketing.

About the author:

Mirella Mokbel is a senior consultant at Blue Latitude, a strategic marketing consultancy specialising in healthcare. With over 10 years’ experience in brand strategy, Mirella has created multichannel strategies for a variety of brands in diverse industries including: retail, automotive, consumer goods and not-for-profit.

With an MBA from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Canada, she has a passion for behavioural psychology, as well as brand strategy and transformation.

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