Can Web Cure Drug Marketing Ills?

Can Web Cure Drug Marketing Ills?PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES are taking flak on several fronts for the direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising they've been doing for the last several years.

Those TV and print ads that advise you to "Ask your doctor about" mysterious remedies for unspecified ailments are encountering stiff criticism from consumer advocacy groups and have laid the firms open to unwanted attention from the Food and Drug Administration and possibly from Congress. Ads that don't go far enough to specify possible side effects may also play a part in the waves of Vioxx and Celebrex litigation that are just now beginning to hit court dockets.

In reaction to these potential dangers, many large drug companies are pulling back on their DTC ad plans for television, radio and print in favor of relationship marketing. And at least some players in the ad and drug industries say that should mean more online activity to promote awareness of their products and of the conditions they're meant to treat.

In June, Bristol-Myers Squibb announced it would wait at least 12 months after bringing a new drug to market before launching print, TV or radio ads and will spend that year educating medical professionals about the product's proper use and effects.

In early August, the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America trade group issued guidelines that call for just such educational efforts before any DTC advertising is placed - although it stopped short of Bristol-Myers Squibb's yearlong hiatus.

Soon after, Pfizer, the world's largest pharmaceutical company, announced it will spend as much to promote awareness of disease and public health issues as it does to advertise its brand-name drugs, including Lipitor, Zoloft, Zyrtec and Viagra.

So far, most companies have refused to comment on how these ad changes will affect their online ad budgets, which traditionally are a small fraction of their total media spending. For example, in 2003 drug manufacturers devoted about 2% of their total $5.3 billion ad budget to Web marketing. Small as that is, it was 66% more than what was spent the previous year.

Notwithstanding the recent public announcements by Bristol-Myers and Pfizer, pharma organizations usually are reluctant to speak about their marketing. And it's not clear whether they will readjust ad budgets to allocate more money for the Internet. But Bristol-Myers, at least, has specifically said the yearlong marketing hiatus will not be extended to online promotion efforts. Right now, those initiatives are primarily in disease awareness at Web sites dealing with cancer and HIV/AIDS.

But drug marketers have other valuable opportunities to touch their customers online, according to recent research from Prospectiv, an Internet marketing firm specializing in lead generation and currently working with several pharma customers. According to a study conducted in June, while consumers turn most often to their doctors for information about drug treatments, a growing number are willing to go online for the information they need - more than those who say they get their questions answered from TV or print ads.

Prospectiv's consumer preference index found that 73% of users turn to their physicians for primary drug information. But 14% said they use Web sites and e-mail as their main resources for treatment data; only 10% claimed they rely mostly on mass-market media, including TV, radio, magazines, newspapers and books.

Asked how they would like to receive drug information in the future, 17% cited e-mail and the Internet. Preference for newspapers and books fell to 3%, and TV and radio bottomed out at 1%. Asked how they'd prefer to receive online information about drug treatments, 47% said from a Web site, while 37% preferred e-mail.

Woburn, MA-based Prospectiv includes special-interest Web sites and e-newsletters among its lead-generation tactics and runs some microsites for brands such as Allegra and Claritin. While the company has yet to approach new pharma clients with this study, Prospectiv president and CEO Jere Doyle said current clients expressed no surprise at the results showing a preference for online drug and disease education.

"This confirms the value of what they've been doing with e-mail newsletters for some time," he said. "I've also had meetings with large ad agencies that do a lot of pharma business, and they asked for all the raw survey data. They see this as a huge opportunity to get in and close some business [with drug companies.]"

Interactive media such as the Internet and e-mail allow drug companies to do more relationship marketing than they can accomplish through TV or print, said Joe Tartaglia, a brand manager heading the Novartis account at mOne Group, where Bristol-Myers also is a client. His agency uses a range of tactics to connect drug makers and potential customers, from search marketing to banner ads that capture consumer opt-ins for further information via e-mail.

"TV gets the bulk of the ad dollars, and rightfully so," he said. "If you're always bringing new products to market, the best way to build awareness is through television. But the Web is a growth space for the pharmaceutical category." With online pharma ads up more than 10% over last year, it's one of the faster growing categories, right behind the auto industry, he noted. While Tartaglia wouldn't give specifics on the projected online ad spends among his agency's customers, he did say that "it's healthy and it's growing."

In the light of possible regulatory scrutiny of claims and side effects mentioned in their TV and print ad campaigns, drug firms also may gravitate to the Web because it permits them to offer more comprehensive information about both diseases and cures, according to Steve Butler, an analyst with research firm eMarketer who has tracked the industry.

"A condition-specific Web site can have the latest research on that ailment, and might include a look at various types of medications, not just the one the pharma company is promoting," he said.

The disease-awareness "soft sell" also suits the way most users employ the Internet for health information. Butler pointed to a recent Burst! Media study that found almost half of Internet users had researched drugs or treatments at a condition-specific Web site. By comparison, only about 20% had done research at an official site directly operated or sponsored by a pharma company.

Butler also noted another reason these companies may be inclined to take a closer look at online marketing. "With the rise of generic drugs, there's more importance than ever in treating brand loyalty among users," he said. "The Web increasingly is becoming an important vehicle for offering people the information they need. Whether it's done via a Web site or through a newsletter, if it's tailored to the consumer's needs, it's likely to be seen as a useful service at a stressful time."