Industry Watch: Making Drug Buddies

Industry Watch-Making Drug BuddiesPharma is breaking out of its shell and networking

The Web isn't just good for filling cheap prescriptions for painkillers and finding erectile dysfunction pills promising "A night she'll never forget." Nope, it's become a primary source for health care and medical information. Legitimate information. Given the nature of consumer needs in the area - treatment, symptom analysis, drug information - the search begins with search. It's the most likely starting point in consumers' quest for health knowledge.

According to eMarketer's September pharmaceutical report, search engines were the main source of information on prescription drug brands, followed by TV ads and discussions with medical professionals. Beyond that, social media, blogs and video-sharing sites have become a key component of Internet content for consumers and physicians. In terms of blogs, JupiterResearch says 34 percent of the U.S. adult Internet population have connected with users or content created by others online about health and wellness issues in the past year, according to its March 2007 report "Online Health: Assessing the Risk and Opportunity of Social and One-to-One Media." As for doctors, a Google study conducted over the first half of last year found that 57 percent of doctors go to online resources for health information.

Marketing efforts by drug companies now almost routinely include some interactive component, with virtually all DTC TV ads - for drugs ranging from Schering-Plough's erectile dysfunction drug Levitra to Eli Lilly's osteoporosis drug Evista - referencing corresponding Web sites. Depending on the drug usage, Web sites are becoming more sophisticated in terms of information offered by marketers in the hopes of luring loyal patients as a result.

Allergan, for instance, maker of cosmetic dermatological products Botox and Juvéderm, found that the Web lends itself particularly well to "before and after" photos - a compelling way to lure consumers to these prescription cosmetic treatments. offers a host of consumer tools, including an online "self-assessment tool" that allows users to plug in the severity of their own expression lines and wrinkles and then see the potential results after getting injected with Juvéderm. In addition, the site contains streaming video of patient testimonials and a "how to find a doctor" tool, listing participating dermatologists by zip code.

But pharmaceutical marketers still don't really understand what they're getting in return for money spent on online efforts, according to a recent article in the drug trade magazine Pharmaceutical Executive. It cited a recent closed-door meeting led by consultancy TGaS Advisors in which 12 out of 14 pharmaceutical marketing executives were confused about the best ways to benchmark success of online promotions, and who should be responsible for executing them. Despite that, drug marketers are still shifting traditional advertising dollars to digital efforts, says Tom Donnelly, group strategy director at the Philadelphia office of interactive agency Imc2.

One thing marketers should certainly be aware of is blog chatter. "A lot of marketing is tactical, but it really should be based on sound research," says Donnelly, who spends about an hour a
day searching blogs. Some of the most active blogs are those dealing with more emotionally charged conditions, like infertility, versus the more mundane, like high cholesterol. These blogs can tend toward much edgier images than big pharma would have itself associated with. Some of the more popular unbranded infertility blogs include Coming2Terms, Stirrup Queens and The Maybe Baby.

Supporting its treatment Gonal-f, Merck, via its EMD Serono biotech unit, sponsors a branded infertility blog called Fertility LifeLines, which was created by Cramer Healthcare. Fertility LifeLines features live customer service. Representatives are available via a toll-free phone number if patients have questions about treatments, insurance or "just need emotional support."

The site notes that calls are confidential and callers may stay anonymous. Privacy is also protected elsewhere on the site.

Serono can use the blog to market and contact consumers if they opt in for information, for loyalty coupons to offset drug costs, or to register with the site. When consumers opt in, Serono might then strike up a dialogue, perhaps inquiring as to "where you are along the journey" in order to conduct segmented marketing.

"You don't want to communicate the same way to [in vitro fertilization] patients and to those on [the starter treatment] Clomid," says Donnelly, who is working on revamping the site to allow for more segmented marketing upon log-in. "The days of e-mail blasts are over and should be over."

With doctors spending less time with marketing sales reps, Donnelly says drug marketers are seeing the need to use interactive efforts not only with patients but also with prescribers, targeting doctors with e-detailing, podcasts and blogs. Pfizer recently signed a sponsorship deal with Sermo, an online network for physicians that currently has about 60,000 members. Sermo is essentially meant to be a discussion group, where member doctors can post and answer questions, have online conversations and ask for opinions. While there isn't advertising on the site per se, Pfizer's involvement works through Sermo "hot spots." The way it works is similar to search engine keywords. If a Pfizer-sponsored word is typed in, the word gets highlighted so that doctors may click on it and get to outside information or Pfizer-sponsored links.

In other cases, direct-to-professional might mean targeting nurses, who can have a big influence on prescriber habits and are often more open to going to branded Web sites than doctors are. Nephrologists, for example, don't spend much time online, but renal dietitians do, Donnelly says.

Another benefit of targeting nurses is patient contact. In certain specialty areas, such as infertility and oncology, nurses often have a bigger role in patient care and aftercare than they do in general practice. That also puts them in a better position to pass along drug company information to patients or refer them to a branded Web site or branded blog.

The information flows both ways. According to a Manhattan Research study, patients are showing up at doctors' offices armed with Internet research, and most of those physicians report that they spend more time with these patients as a result. At least they aren't going online to those Canadian pharmacies.

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