Mobile marketing offers ROI for pharma firms

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Mobile devices are a promising medium for marketers. The majority of Americans own a cell phone, they carry them everywhere and the phones themselves provide increasingly rich media capabilities - graphics, video and wireless Web access. As a recent USA Today article noted, "With readers fleeing newspapers and TV viewers zapping past commercials, advertisers are turning to the one device consumers can't seem to escape: their cellphones."

Physicians are among the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of mobile devices, such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) and smartphones. These devices help physicians keep track of patient information and find quick answers to a wide variety of clinical questions ranging from "Does drug X interact with drug Y?" to "Is this lab test value abnormal?"

As a result, nearly 60 percent of physicians in the United States use a PDA to reference important clinical information, stay current on medical developments and manage schedules and contacts.

Pharmaceutical companies have achieved tremendous returns by using mobile marketing to reach busy physicians. As marketing professionals begin to leverage the power of this new medium, they can learn from the pharmaceutical industry, which has been at the forefront of mobile marketing for the past five years.

Early attempts at mobile marketing were met with resistance from physicians. The first pilot marketing programs were grainy, small-screen adaptations of pre-existing Web programs. Because of the small screen size and slow loading times, physicians found the sponsor's logos to be interruptive and annoying. To maintain usage, pharmaceutical marketers learned that their programs needed to be useful and interesting for physicians.

Luckily for pharmaceutical marketers, physicians are a highly educated group and usually in want of more education. In addition to the seven-plus years physicians spend in post-graduate training, most states require a minimum of 20 to 50 hours of accredited continuing medical education (CME) per year.

By sponsoring third-party accredited mobile CME courses, pharmaceutical companies offered physicians a convenient on-the-go way of earning their CME credits. Today, physicians can stay sharp in their specialty by simply reading articles and answering quizzes on their phones.

In a similar fashion, third-party clinical news services also became popular among physicians. By registering for news of interest in their specialty or geography, physicians could receive short synopses of clinical news to their phone and request full articles via e-mail, if interested.

In this way, physicians stay up-to-date on recent developments in their area and can better address any hot clinical news topics or questions with their patients. Sponsorship of these mobile news alert channels have became popular among pharmaceutical marketers. Indeed, 18 of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies have completed such programs.

Mobile computers have redefined the meaning of personalization. Cell phones are uniquely personal devices that, unlike TVs or computers, are rarely shared by their owners. For marketers, this provides new opportunities for personalized messaging and return on investment measurement.

In pharmaceuticals, personalized messaging has long been a core component of the successful selling of complex products.

For example, a drug advertisement in a specialized journal for interventional cardiologists has a different message than a similar advertisement in a nursing publication. In the same way, pharmaceutical sales representations are trained to "tune" their customer message based on a number of other customer variables including medical specialty, age, geography, competitive market share and relevant insurance plan coverage.

Since the pharmaceutical industry collects data on each prescription a physician writes, such targeting and customized messaging can be quite sophisticated.

For example, a physician who prefers competitor X for its safety may get a message about the safety of the product. A physician who prefers competitor Y for its easy dosing may get a message about dosing. Since much is known about each phone owner, mobile marketing allows for personalized messaging.

Marketing ROI has always been tricky to prove. With traditional broadcast media, marketers had to rely on rough circulation counts or third-party ratings surveys to measure the reach of their advertisements. The Internet improved upon this significantly by tracking which articles and advertisements were actually read, how many unique visitors saw each, and how many took action.

But the Web has typically fallen short in identifying who is actually viewing them. Most Web sites track relatively anonymous "unique visitor" counts.

Mobile marketing programs use many of the same activity metrics that online programs track - e-mail request rates, program completions. However, these devices require a fair amount of profile information and generally aren't shared between users. It's much easier to track promotional activity and link that to subsequent user behavior. For pharmaceutical marketers, this means they can link promotional activity directly to individual, physician-level prescription trends.

While mobile marketing has clearly worked for the unique dynamics of the pharmaceutical industry, the broader use of mobile marketing is still limited.

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