NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Big Pharma is lumbering into the digital realm, using a growing chunk of its $4.7 billion DTC dollars to reach patients and prescribers on blogs, Twitter and YouTube.
What might be considered a yawn-worthy move into new and social media is nothing short of a revolution for the highly regulated pharmaceutical industry, and the mobilization is happening everywhere: Johnson & Johnson keeps a respected and popular blog; Novartis, Boehringer Ingelheim and AstraZeneca all use Twitter to deliver news about their respective companies; and most recently, Sanofi-Aventis and AstraZeneca each launched branded YouTube channels to reach certain patient groups.
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"Digital [marketing] seems to be becoming much more a central part of the overall strategy," said Mary Ann Belliveau, Google's managing director of Health Vertical, who said she has noticed an increase in the digital space in the second half of 2008.
Why they were cautious
Still, consumers have been using social media for years, so why the delay for pharmaceutical companies? "They're late to the game because no one wants to get a warning letter," said Mark Senak, senior VP at Fleishman Hillard and author of the blog, Eye on FDA. Last month, in fact, the FDA issued pre-emptive untitled letters to nearly every major player in the industry to stop them from placing misleading ads on search engines such as Google and Yahoo.
The letters sent in April underscore the fact that there are no published guidelines for online pharmaceutical advertising put forth by the Food and Drug Administration or the Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications. What exist are general regulations that apply across platforms for advertising to be "accurate, nonmisleading, and present a fair balance of risk and benefit information about the drug," said the FDA.
"People are still figuring out how we employ new media, which is such a completely new paradigm," Mr. Senak said. "What [pharmaceutical companies] are doing now is experimenting."
To further illustrate the complexities of a digital world without clear DTC guidelines, it took AstraZeneca more than eight months of meetings with a team of 15 to 20 company experts from the regulatory, legal, compliance, corporate, and brand management departments before it put up a YouTube channel for its asthma drug Symbicort. "The social-media space is very much a gray area," said Dana Settembrino, senior brand communications manager for the drug. "In that sense it makes it challenging."
On the channel, AstraZeneca invites asthma sufferers to submit videos about their positive experiences with Symbicort and essentially create their own advertisements for the drug. In the three months since the site has been live, AstraZeneca has received a handful of submissions and over 53,000 page views -- perhaps a paltry number for YouTube, but it's the first such initiative for Big Pharma.
To the YouTubes
Digitas Health and Cadient Group were instrumental in coordinating the effort, said Ms. Settembrino. AstraZeneca initially tested the waters on YouTube last summer to defend Prilosec and Nexium, two drugs that had been criticized for their safety in the June 2008 edition of Men's Health. In that nearly five-minute video, Astra-Zeneca's executive director of clinical development spoke directly to the camera about the drug's proven safety record as supported by the FDA. "AZ has really tried to take the lead through the YouTube channel," Ms. Settembrino said. "[It is] a priority to better understand how we can engage patients in this space and lead the industry."
She said that as consumers have shifted media consumption online, the company realized its promotional outreach needed to change. "Having a presence in this space allows us to reach these patients and provide education in the format that they're looking for," Ms. Settembrino said. "We need to change with them."
Jim Joseph, managing director at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, said that many of his pharmaceutical clients are eager to get online even if they know it requires a leap of faith. For example, the return on investment can be difficult to determine from the outset.
Mr. Joseph said an integrated TV and web campaign he developed for Sanofi-Aventis' sleep drug Ambien CR -- in which 15-second TV teasers directed viewers to an unbranded microsite (silenceyourrooster.com) with games and social-media elements -- succeeded beyond his agency's expectations. In the first three days the site attracted 1 million hits and a 2% clickthrough rate to the branded site, ambiencr.com. Saatchi & Saatchi had anticipated only 250,000 hits in the first week and a 0.5% click-through rate.)
"We're seeing our clients more and more receptive to us saying let's come up with an integrated program with digital components," he said. "And in some cases, clients are asking us."
The agency is also using the web to establish a dialogue with multiple sclerosis sufferers for a drug that won't even be available until next year. Saatchi is working with Acorda Therapeutics on a drug that improves walking mobility for patients with the disease, and last year it tested the waters with a user-generated unbranded community site, iwalkbecause.org, and then ramped it up this year. Mr. Joseph estimates that there are only 300,000 people who suffer from MS in the U.S., and that it is a small community that searches "ferociously" for information online.
"They're constantly looking for more information to help them cope with the disease," he said, adding that friends and relatives of people with MS are active, too. In fact, many raise awareness and funds to treat MS in community walks, called Walk MS, across the country coordinated by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Saatchi's website enables walk participants to upload videos and photos from the walks, and share reasons for walking. "Rather than advertise to these people," Mr. Joseph said. "We opted to join the community."
When it comes to internet marketing, "You have to think differently about your activities. You have to engage them, you have to partner with them on their agenda," said Dorothy Wetzel, the former consumer marketing chief at Pfizer who is the co-founder of Extrovertic, an independent healthcare marketing shop. "You have to develop talk-worthy programs, think about customer experience as the new way to use acquisition, and create a digital megaphone."
Loreen Babcock, CEO of Omnicom Group's Unit 7, a relationship- marketing agency, said the pharmaceutical industry not only needs to embrace new media and social networking because of their relevance, but also as a chance to rebuild trust between consumers and an industry that quite often ranks with oil companies and big tobacco on the popularity scale.
"Look, there's probably not an industry that could use and embrace the transparency and authenticity of social media right now more than pharmaceuticals," Ms. Babcock said.
GSK ahead of the rest on webThe true forerunner of digital pharmaceutical marketing might just be GlaxoSmithKline.
The video, which is still up today although the drug has since faded out to due to generic availability, has drawn more than 236,000 views on YouTube. It made a splash in the industry, leading GSK to open its own YouTube channel, GSKvision in August 2008. That branded channel has gone on to attract nearly 9,000 channel views to date.