The Next Frontier of Pharmaceutical E-Marketing

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Pharmaceutical sales and marketing traditionally have focused on physicians. They were the primary healthcare decision-makers, but they neither paid for nor consumed the products.

Beginning in the 1980s, health plans gained power. Formularies dictated the drugs that patients could take.

Now, the success of direct-to-consumer marketing and the disappointment with the healthcare status quo have increased consumer power. Prevention magazine confirmed this trend in a survey showing that 80 percent of physicians comply with a consumer's request for an advertised drug.

As consumers have gained power, their appetite for healthcare information has increased. Cyber Dialogue, New York, estimates that 36.7 million American consumers will search the Internet for healthcare information this year.

A wide range of Web portals and online pharmacies serve these consumers. Healthcare sites provide not just information, but also disease management services, tools for monitoring health, dietary advice as well as prescription and nonprescription drugs.

Web sites have the added benefit of being available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In many ways, the relationship between consumers and these Web sites goes far beyond the traditional doctor-patient relationship in both frequency and depth of interaction.

In the midst of these powerful trends, what can pharmaceutical companies do?

First, they must apply their tremendous experience in marketing to physicians. Many of the principles for selling to doctors apply to portals. Yet, each portal interacts with a patient population that far exceeds that of any one physician.

Although the Internet can never replace the doctor-patient relationship, the marketing issues raised by Web sites are similar. Many Web sites even have doctors on staff to field visitor questions.

To establish a trusted relationship, doctors must establish an environment of quality and professionalism. Although constantly barraged with sales messages from pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers, consumers trust their doctors to be an unbiased filter for medical information.

Healthcare Web sites assume a similar responsibility. As patients become more proactive and research their options, these sites present unique opportunities for pharmaceutical manufacturers to establish relationships with a well-qualified patient population.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers engaged in DTC marketing have started to develop strategies for patient relationship management. However, this marketing model is rapidly being usurped by the patient-managed relationship, where patients drive the healthcare decision process. Consumers trust portals to present relevant information from many sources without compromising their privacy. Conveniently, pharmaceutical marketers seek to establish relationships with these well-qualified patients.

Now is an opportune time for health Web sites to consider this new marketing perspective. Portals are in poor health themselves. Limited by the cost-per-thousand pricing of banner ads, many have looked to e-commerce opportunities as their solution. However, this approach fails to fully leverage their most valuable asset: trusted healthcare relationships with millions of members.

What are these relationships worth? The lifetime value of a new patient to a pharmaceutical company is often hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Consumers visiting a healthcare site are highly qualified prospects or current patients with an active interest. The ability of pharmaceutical companies to reach these consumers is a vital next step in the evolution of healthcare consumer marketing. Options include sharing manufacturer-sponsored research, disease management tools and interactive e-mail newsletters and campaigns.

When Web marketing in healthcare began, it was treated like another media buy, albeit one with lower cost and less reach. Site or disease-specific sponsorships then became an effective means of improving impressions as the channel was proved. E-marketers are exploring new ways to engage e-health consumers that both preserve the trusted position of portals and deliver new opportunities for patient interaction with pharmaceutical marketers.

• Paul Buta is vice president of sales and marketing at Optas, Wakefield, MA, an e-marketing services provider for healthcare firms.

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