The role of online content in addressing the challenges of pharma marketing

Doctors are busy people with little time to spare. But engaging, relevant online content will appeal to doctors, and win the provider credibility.

Around this time last year, I wrote an article for pharmaphorum describing why content marketing is an ideal fit for pharma ( But what does content marketing look like in the pharma industry? What are we really asking brand managers to do differently, particularly in markets like ours here in Australia, where direct-to-consumer advertising is banned and the sole substrate of our content efforts is the healthcare professional?

Before I try to answer these questions, let me share with you my unique perspective. I am married to a doctor, so I see every day how a hospital-based doctor approaching 40 – a ‘digital native’ in marketing speak – engages with the online environment in a professional capacity.

So let me tell you a little bit about my husband, and how technology figures in his work day.

1. My husband is not what you would call a tech-head. He doesn’t have to own every new widget but certainly follows advances in technology, particularly those that serve a practical purpose (the Nike+iPod run kit, for example) or create efficiencies (Siri, for example). He retains a soft spot for ‘all-in-ones’ (he is eyeing up the new Bose sound system as we speak), and more than one product with an ‘i’ prefix features in his daily life. He is an avid reader of the daily newspaper, and once professed that he’d never read the paper on a tablet device, yet now has a digital subscription for the local rag – by choice.

“He has 10 medical apps on his phone, three of which he uses regularly. He is most likely to find out about an app from a colleague”

2. Time comes at an absolute premium. My husband has so little free time that he rarely responds to (or even reads) an email that is anything less than 100% relevant to his work (including emails from his wife.) You would be better off putting your entire message in the subject line. He reads most of his emails on his phone during coffee breaks or on the train home. Hence, he never really gives them his full attention and has a very low threshold for pressing the delete button.

3. He spends his entire day on his feet – in theatre, on the wards or in clinic – not in front of a computer screen. His phone functions as his desktop. The only time he is separated from it is when he is operating. Then a theatre nurse takes his calls. Siri, in effect, is his second wife; and his phone, as you are beginning to appreciate, is but an extension of his own hand. He frequently uses the notes app on his iPhone to keep ‘important information’ but always has a notepad and pen in his pocket for keeping lists. He has 10 medical apps on his phone, three of which he uses regularly. He is most likely to find out about an app from a colleague (or the college) rather than go searching for one.

4. If you snail-mail him something, it is highly likely that he will never read it. If you post it to his home address, it will sit in a pile of ‘non-urgent’ papers until the whole pile gets trashed during a spontaneous spring clean (by me). If you post it to his hospital address, he may not get it for months. When he eventually does receive it, it suffers the three-second treatment: if you don’t get him at hello, you’ll never get him.

5. He hates attending work-related events in the evening because it interrupts family time. If your event forces him to make a decision between spending what little free time he has with you or his young child, he will choose the latter every time. Your likeliest route to securing his attendance is a 7am journal club or lunchtime grand rounds, or part of a broader professional-development event he is already attending – for example, a conference.

“He will download an app for his go-to sources, because the digital versions are usually cheaper and more convenient to store”

6. He regularly seeks out the latest clinical evidence because this is what helps him make decisions on a daily basis, and helps justify those decisions to his patients. His preferred means for getting evidence is via UpToDate, college updates or peer-reviewed journals. He will download an app for his go-to sources, primarily because the digital versions are usually cheaper and more convenient to store.

7. He has a number of go-to online resources to which he directs patients or which he accesses during consultations in order to download and print off information that addresses commonly asked questions. Again, these sources typically come via word of mouth or courtesy of Google search.

8. He talks to colleagues in the corridor, at the hospital coffee shop, in theatre, on rounds and in hospital-run meetings, and by email or text – not online or in social community forums.

9. He has a Facebook account, which he uses for social purposes only, and, even then, only rarely. He barely understands what Twitter is and LinkedIn is a foreign concept, neither of which he has time to use anyway.

“If he knew that a sales call was going to be worth his time every time, he would be more accommodating”

10. He doesn’t much care for sales reps or product specialists, both because they intrude on his time and because he finds that the quality of one selling experience varies considerably from another. If he knew that a sales call was going to be worth his time every time, he would be more accommodating. But generally speaking, if a rep can walk and talk, get to the point quickly and hold a conversation about the footy, they will get their five minutes with him.

Granted, my husband represents a very specific cohort: a 30-something-year-old digital native focused on completing his college training and spending time with his young family. But it gives you an idea of what healthcare marketers are up against when communicating with any doctor, namely, a lack of:

* Time

* Credibility

* Relevance

* Interest.

So what content would a doctor like my husband give the time of day?

In some ways, the answer to this question has not changed. Like their forebears, doctors continue to need access to a constant flow of new and beneficial information. But what is changing – and has already changed for many clinicians – is where they find and consume this information.

Convenience is driving time-poor doctors online via phones and tablet devices. In the process, consumption habits are changing. Perhaps, then, the better question is: ‘How does the online environment help pharma marketers better address these age-old barriers?’ The answer is multi-stranded, and should give us pause for reflection.


There may be fewer opportunities to catch a doctor face to face in a traditional sales call, but there are many chances to get your product (or related messages) in front of a doctor through repeated virtual encounters.

“The doctor is exposed to your brand on many more occasions than they would have been if your brand did not have an online presence”

The online environment offers the potential to interact with a doctor much more frequently than a quarterly five-minute sales call and/or six-monthly industry event. For example, a doctor might now attend a live webinar you host, watch a YouTube video detailing the mechanism of action of your drug, download a PDF summarising the latest clinical trial data from your product’s website, refer a patient to educational material on your website, use (on rounds and in clinic) a clinical app you have produced and see (not necessarily open) one or more emails you send.

The good news is that on most of these occasions, the doctor has proactively sought out your content. You have become part of their day – and an enabler, not an intruder, in that day.

Further, the nature of the online environment allows us to divvy up technical content into digestible chunks. Like the old exercise adage, ‘Ten minutes three times a day is just as effective as 30 minutes once a day’, this kind of piecemeal approach to selling does work when convenience is a key driver.


The online environment doesn’t overcome pharma’s broader credibility issue with clinicians, but it can help dissolve some reputational impediments. For example, a website that is easy and quick to navigate and offers high-quality product and patient information is likely to lead clinicians to view your brand more favourably. By helping doctors to serve their patients better, you are seen to provide a useful service. ‘Information as a service’ forms part of the customer excellence strategy I outlined in a previous article for pharmaphorum (


If you understand your audience’s information needs and likely semantic search queries, and optimise your content accordingly, your content is much more likely to appear in organic search results. A doctor may not be searching for information from your brand specifically, but this does not matter if the information they happen to come across – supplied, it turns out, by you – meets their needs. As a result, they are henceforth more likely to search for information associated with your brand.

“Armed with tablet devices, sales reps can offer much more visually compelling information in a relatively short space of time”


Online content, by virtue of its interactive nature, is often more engaging, memorable and compelling to consume than non-digital alternatives. Anecdotally, doctors’ tolerance for online content is also higher. For example, watching a short video animation of your drug’s mechanism of action is much easier than wading through six pages of graphics in a hard-copy brochure. Armed as nowadays they are with tablet devices, sales reps can offer much more visually compelling information in a relatively short space of time.

Of course, there are caveats to all of the above. Online is not a sure bet for brand-building success. It all depends on your capacity as a brand team to understand your audience well enough to provide the right information at the right time in the right way to the right person. And underlying all of that has to be a robust marketing-communications strategy and quality execution. See, things haven’t really changed much after all!


About the author:

Dr Candice O’Sullivan is Director and Head of Strategy at Wellmark, a creative agency with specialist expertise in healthcare communications and pharmaceutical marketing.

For more information, visit You can follow her tweets @candicepill and @wellmark_health. You can also find Candice on Google+

Have your say: Does technology really improve access to doctors?