"The objective is to learn more about customers [and] deliver value to them beyond what the pill offers," says David Reim, president of SimStar Internet Solutions, Princeton, N.J., which provides online initiatives for drug companies. "You can't affect the pill itself, but you can add value beyond the pill so the customer is loyal to the product."
Pharmaceutical companies can use the Web as a customer relationship management tool to personalize information for and develop an ongoing dialogue with consumers. The Web also allows for anonymity, permitting customers to feel more comfortable revealing personal information. E-CRM methods include news updates on Web sites, editorial features, chat rooms and e-mail communication.
Flu is one illness of choice for the e-CRM activity of Hoffmann-La Roche, marketer of Tamiflu. "Roche is trying to become a leader in influenza management," says Charles Alfaro, director of public affairs. "The Internet is an important part of that because it provides an immediate response regarding flu activity in an area."
FluStar.com, created by Surveillance Data, Plymouth Meeting, Pa., is Roche's Internet effort to achieve that goal. The site attempts to motivate people to seek treatment through education and communication. It offers flu information and e-mail alerts that notify people when their area is highly affected by the flu.
"People who have the flu have to recognize that they have the flu and then be motivated to seek treatment," Mr. Alfaro says.
"The success of FluStar will be measured by how much consumers and professionals rely on it to track the illness," he says. So far, the site gets an average of 11,000 visits a day during flu season.
The time seems ripe for such online CRM efforts. An increasing number of consumers are going to the Web for health information.
A study by analytical e-CRM provider Cyber Dialogue Health Practice, New York, predicts 88.5 million adults will use the Internet to find health information and communicate with health providers by 2005.
The Internet also is the most cost-effective channel for creating consumer demand for Rx drugs, according to Cyber Dialogue. In the first half of 2000, Cyber Dialogue says, it cost pharmaceutical companies an estimated $54 per single specific drug request driven by the Internet, compared with $152 driven by TV and $318 driven by print advertising.
E-mail "is extremely effective because the people who are in communication with you have already decided that they are interested in what you have to say. And you can send them information that is relevant," adds Jane Parker, president of worldwide advertising at Grey Healthcare Group, a unit of Grey Global Group, New York.
One problem with e-CRM is that there are no large networks of names on the Internet, says Bob Ehrlich, CEO of Rx Insight, a direct-to-consumer consultancy. "There are companies that are trying to aggregate names, but they are in the early stages," he says, adding there are about 50,000 sites with some names. "The question for drug companies is, `How do I do something with all these small lists?' "
Mr. Ehrlich adds that once the customer is reached, the next issue is how to determine that CRM actually works.
"I haven't seen anything that says talking to people on a regular basis pays back, other than anecdotal data," he says. "It probably works, but there is no study that says if I talk to someone three times a month, it keeps people on the drug this much longer."
The technology itself can be a hurdle to an industry that has only recently started communicating directly with consumers.
"The pharmaceutical industry has only been marketing to the consumer for the last three or four years," says Linda Holliday, president of Medical Broadcasting Co., Philadelphia. "They've never been in that direct response mode, and now you throw all this technology at them and you see confusion."
Protocol Driven Healthcare, Bernardsville, N.J., in conjunction with Dendrite International soon will start offering guidelines for setting up patient support sites for particular diseases, says Jennifer Jolley, Protocol president-chief operating officer. Pharmaceutical marketers could sponsor such sites.
"The goal is to educate a patient and encourage them to remain compliant with their doctor," Ms. Jolley says. To do so, the sites will include interactive diaries, educational tools, news, message boards, chat events and expert advice.
Karen Warth, a partner at Insight Interactive Group, an interactive marketing agency in Wilmington, Del., points out these e-CRM tools eventually lead back to the drug and the doctor.
"I can tell you that you need this drug, but ultimately you have to talk to the doctor," she says. "Only your doctor really knows."