Commentary

Can Programmatic Be Pharma-Friendly?

Pharmaceutical companies are finding the notion of programmatic marketing a lot more palatable these days. In fact, some of them are jumping in with both feet. Some pharma brands have hired dedicated managers of programmatic ad buying. ExL Pharma hosted its Life Science Programmatic Buying Summit in August to help professionals from pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device and generic research companies sharpen learn how to adopt programmatic buying within their organizations. And trading desks are seeing significant budgets from big pharma come their way.

Why is this big news? While marketers in virtually every sector have embraced programmatic, those working for pharmaceutical companies stayed largely on the sidelines. Unlike the Travel and Leisure, Shopping and Fashion or even the CPG sectors (all of which thrive on leveraging programmatic to target the right consumer at the right time), some life-science companies may face criticism if they cookie people. After all, consumers who read articles on the symptoms of colon cancer don’t want to be retargeted by drug companies. In fact, this issue is so sensitive that for several years some of the pharma legal departments within the life science companies have restricted their marketing department’s use of cookies.

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Additionally, pharmaceutical companies must adhere to a host of restrictions governing advertising. For example, it’s illegal for pharmaceutical companies to advertise directly to consumers outside the U.S., and ads often may not appear in context of user-generated content. So control over where ads appear has been a core focus for Pharma brands.  

Given that most programmatic marketing strives to do exactly what pharmaceutical companies are often barred from doing – collecting data on individual (if not personally identified) consumers in order to craft unique brand experiences for them – one would expect big pharma to sit on the sidelines forever.

Targeting Pages, Not People

Why isn’t that happening? As it turns out, hyper targeting with exchange based media isn’t limited to just consumers; it can be deployed to page content. Page-level targeting is an emerging strategy that focuses message placement based on very specific content criteria and places ads only when there is an exact match. In digital advertising terms, it’s the ultimate in endemic advertising.

Think of page-level targeting as contextual targeting on steroids. It leverages extremely granular targeting criteria, eschewing the ineffective meta data publishers use on their sites, which, by the way, is the reason why cookie-based behavioral targeting developed in the first place. Other filters can be deployed to find viewable pages and pages that have performed well historically.

This level of targeting allows pharmaceutical marketers to place ads based on very specific criteria. For instance, marketers who offer products for patients with type 2 diabetes can ensure their ads appear only on pages with type 2 diabetes content. Certain keywords can also be avoided, ie the word Gerd can be targeted while avoiding the word Heartburn.

Kevin Holowicki, former director of integrated marketing and media at Glaxo Smithkline, commented, “Pharma brands are starting to look at programmatic buying in digital to achieve cost efficiency in brand-safe environments with sufficient reach. A key factor is that the content is 100% transparent and ideally off an approved white list of sites.”

Here’s where it’s game-changing for pharma: If a consumer opts to look at a page with type 1 diabetes content, an ad will not seem out of place or offensive. More than that, the ad is presented at the most ideal time because the consumer is actively engaged with the topic at hand. Additionally, it’s very easy for programmatic buying platforms to target only pages that are U.S. based, and free of user-generated content. Put another way, programmatic can be quite “pharma-friendly.”

Scale has long been a concern with regards to endemic-based contextual advertising. Can endemic campaigns achieve the necessary scale?

I think the issue of scale has largely been resolved, thanks to the massive volumes of inventory in the global ad exchanges. Page-level targeting, like behavioral targeting, acquires inventory programmatically, and it’s worth noting that publishers are increasingly embracing programmatic sales of their inventory. Thus, page-level targeting can leverage high quality inventory from such publishers as Forbes, WebMD, AOL and others, making it an effective strategy for launching campaigns at scale.

2 comments about "Can Programmatic Be Pharma-Friendly?".
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  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 9, 2015 at 5:57 p.m.

    Creepy and disgusting. People who are at their most vulnerable used for pharmas outrageous profits (this doesn't mean pharmas are not entitled to make a profit). They are not doctors nor have or ever should have health records.

  2. Scott Fasser from Hacker Agency, September 14, 2015 at 8:24 p.m.

    This type of targeting has been around for a decade through Google. It's called AdSense and is a pretty robust platform. I wouldn't call it emerging - creepy or not.

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