A week ago I found myself in one of those conversations that made me check the date on my phone to confirm I hadn’t stepped through a wormhole and into a room in 2005. ‘In these times of tight resources, you know, digital is a nice to have when it comes to pharma marketing and sales‘, said a guy. Let’s call him Pharma Man.

Me when you say stupid things (source – Giphy)

Time to realise the ‘Emperor has no clothes’

A strange phenomenon is at work in the pharma industry – a collective denial. “Digital is a nice to have”. “We can’t do anything meaningful so we may as well do nothing”. “Pharma is behind other sectors – nobody is really ‘doing’ multichannel so it’s fine that we aren’t”.

There is comfort in such denial. There’s no need to fix what isn’t broken. No need to challenge your team or your organisation to do more…to find ways to just get things done rather than pointing to excuses. No reason challenge the status quo yet always a reason to challenge the mounting evidence that the world in which we operate has fundamentally changed and to not only compete but to thrive, we must adapt our approach.

Pharma Guy continued: ‘Digital just isn’t a priority and that’s the reality. It’s nice to do but will it really move the needle? Nah.’

If you believe this you need to rethink your approach to pharma marketing and read on…

The integration of digital is now taken for granted by your customers – whoever they are. The website. The social content. The mobile experience. It’s all expected. For most companies and brand teams, digital integration has transitioned from novelty, to challenge to necessity. Digital marketing…far from being novel…is now just integral to marketing. If you’re not delivering on your customers brand/service expectations then…congratulations…you’ve disappointed them before you started!

Pockets of innovation or digital integration is not success.
If you look across the pharmaceutical industry – and many other sectors – there are pockets of true multichannel marketing integration and valuable online customer experiences. However, for the most part, these are just that. Isolated sparks of brilliance in your organisation without becoming the norm and having an impact across the business. Commonly, there is a disconnect between specialist teams or projects and those in the decision making hot seat at a global or local level. A lack of belief, buy-in or knowledge which takes time to address.

Self-proclaimed digital gurus have done more harm than good in pharma marketing
For too long ‘gurus’ and ‘innovation leaders’ or ‘digital transformation strategists’ have made digital appear as something ‘other’. Something for specialists, not the jobbing marketer. Something that involved big budgets, advanced marketing technology and more than likely the launch of an app or a portal.

All of us working in marketing and communications today – in any sector – have a duty to bring things back to basics. To talk about the simple but commercially impactful ways digital tactics can be integrated into brand strategies. To create a digital foundation for future success.

Too many ‘fluffy’ digital innovation initiatives have been implemented without a big thick line connecting them to the brand objectives, supporting this ‘nice to have’ mentality. Initiatives that went without meaningful key performance indicators, or data, to confirm that what was implemented was ‘working’. Initiatives that were hard to embed in the business on a long term basis because time wasn’t invested in building the belief and knowledge required to execute on the strategy across the business.

Problems are complex – solutions should be simple.smartphone ownerships - customers are mobile - Pew data

A weak argument is no match for a pharma digital marketing ‘evidence bomb’.

Here are some quick facts to throw at your Pharma Man…

  • Your customers – regardless of type, age or gender – are hyper connected. They are not ‘going online’ anymore, they live online. In some markets smartphone penetration is upwards of 91%. This means that the vast majority of your customers are armed with the means to get any information they want or need any time. As a result, today the search engine is the gateway to the customer journey.


  • More than one third of physicians go online and search after being visited by a sales rep. Think about that for a minute. One third! Another two thirds go online after reading a journal article or hearing something at an event. That’s a huge  opportunity to provide information and resources that moves them from curious to convinced. The online and offline worlds are merging. You need to be as visible and as accessible online as you are offline. If you are not providing accurate, accessible, engaging information about your brand online then you allow your customer journey to be hijacked by whatever information they find through search – whoever that may be from.


  • There is a misconception that healthcare professionals don’t want digital resources from pharma due to scepticism about bias. However doctors are people (shocker). They will select the resources that are most convenient and readily available when ‘Googled’. They will regularly visit Wikipedia or any other source that meets their needs. The impact of digital tactics on prescription intent has also been evaluated – both in terms of digital tools in sales calls and in relation to value of standard channels such as brand and disease websites. In a study by Cegedim, branded websites had an average 40.3% positive impact on prescription intent and were an important pharma marketing touchpoint during information search.Impact of digital channels on prescription intent in pharma marketing


  • Pharma companies are actively investing in partnerships with technology players – filling their knowledge gap and fast tracking bringing compelling digital tools to market. Around one in ten of all the pharma deals between 2013 and 2015 related to digital health partnerships (including those in R&D). For example Novartis’ partnership with Qualcomm. Other collaborations focus on insight generation rather than technology such as UCBs partnership with PatientsLikeMe in epilepsy.global investment in digital tactics in pharmaceutical industry


  • Many people are scarred from costly, ineffectual digital campaigns. Its important to realise that just because something didn’t work once doesn’t mean the tactic should be removed from your pharma marketing playbook forever. Maybe your approach was wrong? Maybe your audience wasn’t right/ready? Maybe your content was wrong? Maybe the agency didn’t have the required expertise? Maybe digital tactics were not the right solution to the problem you had – sometimes print or face-to-face is best?

If you take a quick look online for every digital tactic from email campaigns to remote detailing, you can find benchmarks and case studies with return on investment (ROI) data. A recent M3/PharmaPhorum paper also detailed a case measuring ROI for digital (3.20 per pound spent) versus physical marketing (0.20 per pound spent) and the combination of both. It’s based on a UK initiative but worth a read.

When all is said and done – how can something that is transforming how we each learn, monitor, discuss, access and manage our health be a ‘nice to have’?