The drug has spawned the FaceFacts site (www.facefacts.com) dedicated to acne information. Hoffman-La Roche identifies itself as the site sponsor and has purchased keyword banners for FaceFacts on major search engines, though it never mentions Accutane there.
Instead, the site sends the not-so-subtle message that teens should see a doctor when acne doesn't respond to over-the-counter treatments, even offering an e-mail link to a dermatologist.
SHIFT TO WEB ADVERTISING
FaceFacts' low-key, targeted approach is one example of how drug companies quickly are becoming more sophisticated in direct-to-consumer marketing on the Internet, using unbranded sites and developing more indirect appeals.
"The shift is going from large investments in Web sites to investments in online advertising and, more importantly, big third-party sponsorships of" non-profit sites, says Meg Walsh, managing director of Healthtech Communications, New York, which handles interactive media for Hoffman-La Roche and Schering-Plough Corp.
She estimates the overall media mix -- including direct mail and trade advertising -- for most major drugs now includes $1 million to $2 million annually for interactive media and third-party sponsorships.
PRODUCT SITES REMAIN
Most companies are spending another $500,000 to $1.5 million annually to maintain drug-specific satellite sites or corporate sites but those funds generally are coming from promotion funds rather than media, Ms. Walsh says.
Product sites won't be going away, since they're a must for direct-to-consumer TV advertising under Food & Drug Administration guidelines that require full disclosure of drug performance and side effects on such sites. Non-branded sites -- like DTC advertising in other media -- won't work for all products, especially if the category is highly competitive.
Ms. Walsh expects an even greater shift away from branded sites in the future, with more devoted strictly to bare-bones disclosure information and most interactive marketing through sponsorships and banner ads.
TRAFFIC HAS DISAPPOINTED
Only the most experienced prescription drug marketers are branching beyond their own Web sites, says Debora Falk, VP-marketing for Mediconsult.com (www.mediconsult.com), a medical information site. She estimates only one in five drug brands are doing banner and other forms of Web advertising, but believes there were none a year ago.
The reason: traffic has been disappointing, she says. A Mediconsult.com user survey found 60% of users visit five or fewer health sites monthly.
"If I'm visiting five sites a month, they're not likely to be company sites," Ms. Falk says.
That's also forcing companies to investigate alternate avenues to get their message out on the Internet or drive traffic to their sites.
Though drug advertising is still relatively rare on the Internet, it can be very effective, says Anna Zornosa, senior VP-advertising sales and affiliate development of PointCast.
During four months of a five-month allergy-season run of 30-second spots on the push service for Pfizer's Zyrtec allergy medication last year, Pfizer had the highest click-through rate of any PointCast advertiser. The ads also helped push Pfizer to No. 2 in corporate brand awareness among PointCast users, Ms. Zornosa says.
THIRD-PARTY SPONSORSHIPS GROW
"The fastest-growing element of interactive marketing is third-party sponsorships," says Ms. Walsh, estimating such deals now account for about 40% of interactive budgets for drug companies, compared with about 25% for keyword buys and 30% to 35% for banner advertising on other commercial sites.
Third-party sponsorships offer access to ready-made content that may be more credible than a company's own satellite site, Ms. Walsh says. "That site is going to spend its own money on driving traffic there."
Johnson & Johnson's Ortho division's prescription Renova wrinkle cream, sponsored an October '97 Web conference from Better Health (www.betterhealth.com), a health channel on iVillage.com. iVillage -- which breaks out info on various diseases in its health area -- also carries a branded sponsorship from Astra Merck's Prilosec stomach remedy and numerous unbranded efforts, including Glaxo Wellcome's anti-smoking pill Zyban and Merck & Co.'s cholesterol treatment Zocor.
For its Posicor hypertension medication, Hoffman-La Roche sponsors InteliHealth (www.intelihealth.org), a medical information site from Johns Hopkins University.
Though medical sites may be a good place to present a drug company's message, they aren't necessarily the best way to get consumers' attention, Ms. Falk says.
For instance, she might suggest a pull-down risk-assessment survey on a stock quote site for a heart medication."
"It's most important to build a relationship around what that product can provide, telling people where this product fits and where it doesn't," says Ms. Falk. "That's something for the patient to work out with the physician or the pharmacist, but the company also can help."