Commentary

Online Product Integration, Pharma-style

Product integration has evolved to the point of distraction -- on TV, in movies and even on the Web. Think Mary-Louise Parker on "Weeds" carefully picking up that Diet Coke, making sure the label is facing the camera. Or a contestant on "Top Chef" casually mentioning that they hopped into the Lexus RX 450 and headed out to Whole Foods. What is meant to be a subtle push for brand recognition often ends up cheapening both the medium and the product.

Fortunately, thanks to a little something called "fair balance," you won't see Hugh Laurie proudly brandishing his painkiller label on "House" anytime soon -- though there were plenty of prescription drug names dropping on TV just a few years ago. With the FDA's crackdown on one-sided or misleading pharmaceutical advertising in recent years, we are instead left with dull 60-second TV spots, five-page print ads and Web banners with prescribing information that scrolls for what feels like an hour.

On one end of the spectrum you have marketing that hits you over the head with blatant promotion; on the other, pharmaceutical ads that have you flipping channels, turning the page or tuning them out altogether. With the right approach, pharma can take those same creative assets and put them to good use. When you're limited in what you can say, you should at least be in a place where the consumer wants to listen.

Integration Within Specialized Online Health Content

Even as the eHealth world sits in a holding pattern over social media integration, opportunities exist to present pharma brands in the right context, within highly targeted content consumers actually need. Rather than building out branded microsites that simply mirror stock information already found on the brand's Web site, creative assets can be integrated into an existing educational resource on a trusted site.

To that end, it would behoove publishers to develop condition-specific, demographically focused resources to attract consumers seeking specialized content and advertisers looking to target certain patient segments. Patients are going to be drawn to a section devoted specifically to their gender, race, age group or stage of the disease where they can find content tailored to their unique situation. We've had success with this approach on TheBody.com, a leading HIV/AIDS site, by developing resources for African Americans and women, among others.

I'm not suggesting anything revolutionary, of course: It is only a reminder that, through it all, the old "content is king" adage still holds true. Dropping advertising into a highly targeted resource on a well-respected site is an ideal way for pharma to establish a brand's online presence without being a distraction. You position your brand alongside valuable, credible content, without the heavy-handedness of product placement and without the fleeting nature of a run-of-health campaign. Best of all, you can find hands-off solutions that don't require the dreaded "sponsored by" verbiage that will make any med legal department self-combust.

This approach illustrates a principle that lies at the heart of product integration: the opportunity to weave a brand into the content such that it's unavoidable. It's not a commercial that can be skipped or a page in a magazine that can be flipped. The Internet is a unique medium in that clearly labeled advertising can be seamlessly interspersed with content. It is graphically separated, yet always visible even as the audience consumes the independent content on the page.

Much as a company would choose to integrate its brand into "Glee" in order to capture the 18-34 year-old demographic (the Holy Grail of TV audiences), pharma can put a brand front and center within a resource focused on its key demographic. This can also eliminate the need for invasive practices like cookie-based targeting, a no-no in an age when privacy is of the utmost concern in the health space.

The Rewards of Putting the Consumer First

It's easy to fall victim to the desire to control every aspect of the advertising environment. But, by being in a place that truly respects its audience, pharma will reap the rewards of the highly-engaged patient. The key lies in a willingness to let brand messaging take a backseat to the primary information patients seek. The content itself will give the user a reason to stick around long enough to actually notice -- and maybe even, dare I say, click -- on an ad. On TheBody.com we've seen that these types of focused resources outperform every other mode of advertising -- in terms of time spent, click-through and overall engagement.

Until the day we see a scrolling ISI across Dr. House's forehead, know that there are far less obtrusive and ultimately far more productive, ways to connect with patients online. The next time you're looking at a marketing solution for your brand -- whether you work for pharma, an agency or a publisher -- think of the consumer first and the rest will follow.

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