INTERACTIVE: MEDIA & MARKETING: DRUG COMPANIES BOOST ONLINE MEDIA BUYING: ROCHE WILL SPEND $1 MILLION-PLUS

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After pouring millions of dollars into building their own Web sites, pharmaceutical companies are starting to support other, better-trafficked sites as online drug branding matures.

Now awaiting Food & Drug Administration approval for obesity drug Xenical, Roche Laboratories is taking a different approach online than it did about 18 months ago for its dermatology brand Acutain. For that leading drug, Roche developed non-branded information sites -- one for teens (www.facefacts.com) and another for adults (www.derm-infonet.com).

Roche will spend $1 million-plus advertising prescription Xenical on established health-related sites such as Time Inc.'s and America Online's Thrive (www.thriveonline.com), Medscape (www.medscape.com) and Onhealth.com (www.onhealth.com). Under FDA requirements, Web sites need to supply detailed side-effect information, so Roche will develop a supporting site for Xenical, but on a smaller scale.

FEWER MILLION-DOLLAR SITES

"A few years ago, building multimillion-dollar sites and maintaining them was the way to go, but pharmaceutical companies don't want to build those anymore," said Tom Hepler, lead analyst for business information systems at Roche. "Now we're more interested in going to [other] content-rich sites."

Roche's strategy is consistent with an approach proposed by Jupiter Communications last week (AA, Jan. 12), in which marketers of indirectly sold goods are advised to spend more money on online ads than on expensive Web sites.

In another sign of the shift to more online media planning and buying, pharmaceutical companies Roche and Schering-Plough Corp. each recently hired HealthTech Communications, New York, a unit of Lowe Healthcare, as interactive agency of record. Combined billings are more than $2 million.

Meg Walsh, managing director at HealthTech, said that in the future, "Web sites are going to be more like shells for ad campaigns."

However, as more companies advertise online, getting space on some sites, such as major news brands CNN and MSNBC, is becoming competitive and commanding high rates, said Mr. Hepler. MSNBC confirmed that its health-related area is popular with advertisers, although it declined to discuss ad rates.

Lou LaGrange, director of online media planning for North America at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, said he has seen "exponential growth" in the number of healthcare sites. However, he said, "A lot of these pharmaceutical sites are very dry and don't get people to come back."

DYNAMIC, MEASURABLE CAMPAIGNS

Though no figures are compiled on the healthcare category's ad spending, several industry observers estimate that it contributes a modest 2% to 5% of all online advertising. Over-the-counter drugs currently comprise a very small portion of that percentage.

Though the FDA hasn't spelled out many restrictions for online marketing of prescription drugs, one area companies are avoiding is chat rooms. Marketers steer clear of them because of concerns about misinformation and discussions of unintended uses for drugs.

Some expect online spending in the category could increase substantially as competition heats up in direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising and, because under new FDA requirements, all prescription drug ads on TV must be supported by an online effort.

"Once [Internet] publishers and clients come up with dynamic and measurable campaigns online, the category will be more significant," said Gina Garrubbo, exec VP at Women.com and a board member at the Internet Advertising Bureau. "Because of the depth of information it needs, pharmaceutical has the potential to be the third- or fourth-biggest category, after computers, financial and automotive."

Nonetheless, others believe that high CPMs and a limited number of relevant sites will keep online healthcare advertising down.

"Drug companies have not committed a lot of dollars online yet," said Chris Charron, an analyst at Forrester Research. "In general, sponsorships are gaining a lot of ground but advertising on these sites is still very targeted and expensive."

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