Why Isn't Pharma All Over Search?

Yesterday, I drove up Route 1 and attended the Direct Marketing Association's Pharmaceutical Marketing Conference in Princeton. I couldn't believe what was missing from the proceedings.

The presentations and seminars all seemed to cover similar themes. The marketplace for pharma sales people is a very different one from just a few years back. There is much more competition, almost to a saturation point, on a doctor-by-doctor basis. The doctors themselves have never been more empowered by information - and that's to say nothing about how empowered the patients have become.

There are more marketing channels than ever before, and there are always new ways to use "technology."

That damn word... Technology. Multiple presentations at this event spoke of the ever changing technological landscape, and how consumers increasingly used "the Internet" to become more informed, occasionally even bringing competitive pharmaceutical company literature while sitting next to the sales reps in doctor's offices.



This was a story that elicited many nodding heads all around me. I felt like standing up and screaming, "And how do you guys think these patients found their information?!"

Granted, this was a DM event, so everyone there was in direct marketing at some level. But, every single tactic discussed throughout the day was a "push" tactic. I attended sessions that featured long rounds of applause at such "new and creative" approaches as better targeting through better database solutions, and direct to consumer campaigns that were going to leverage the US Mail in innovative ways.

Whenever I encountered someone with a senior title on their badge, I pigeonholed them with a simple question - "What is your company doing to leverage Search this year?" Not a single one had any plans to use Search, and in fact - not a single one had any idea what I was talking about when using descriptors like "pull versus push" marketing.

How could this be? These were major brands at this show, and I know that many pharma brands leverage Search today. The fact is that Search should be something of a silver bullet for pharma. No other industry has the targeting needs that would be so well addressed by Search's self-selection. And Search makes so many privacy considerations all but disappear. Want to build a database but can't buy an opt-in email list from one of the disease cohort sites? Create an optimized target page with a form, and buy the right keywords.

Is this really that hard?

"There's still a steep learning curve," said one senior product director, who asked that I not use his name. "It's still very early even in direct mail, so companies have been slow to learn what they can do online. Knowledge of Search will have to come after that."

I don't intend to seem critical of direct marketers, or of this industry. I think it was just good for me to get out "in the field," as it were, and see what life is like in "the verticals."

As I drove back to the office, I kept thinking about the size of the opportunity, and how Search is going to change everything these marketers and others have taken for granted in the next few years. It's no wonder that analysts are saying that Paid Search is going to grow so much more quickly than Natural Search, and so much more quickly than all other kinds of interactive. It's all about the ROI, of course. For pharma, and many other multiple-segmented verticals, that consumer self-selection part is huge.

But, before you get there, all you Search sales people, make sure you ask the right questions. If you're the one doing most of the talking up front, you'll do little to reduce that learning curve.

I think we can all expect Pharmaceuticals to comprise a major portion of new money entering Search in the next few years. But, trite as it may sound, this will have to happen one successful campaign at a time.

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