I want to use this first performance.io (PIO) blog to reflect on pharmaceutical marketing, to convey my excitement about the opportunities that exist for pharma, but also to share my frustrations of what I see happening as pharma fumbles with the bra strap of digital and direct to consumer engagement. Granted, it’s n=1, but at PIO we get to see behind the curtain of a number of the world’s leading pharma companies, and work with a range of progressive consumer brands, so we are well placed to see what is happening, and maybe more importantly what isn’t.

Let’s start by throwing in a grenade or two and reflect on ‘direct to consumer’. I’ve worked in big and small pharma across a range of commercial sectors including sales, learning and development and pharmaceutical marketing. I then made the tricky transition to the agency world heading up digital operations for a medium size network agency, before launching two industry firsts, both focused on engaging consumers and driving results through data.

Matt Lowe at Lions Health event

Presenting on the need to new disciplines and approaches in pharma at Cannes Lion.

The culmination of this was the launch of performance.io (PIO) earlier this year. As an agency our ‘raison d’être’ is to ‘redefine performance in healthcare’ for an industry currently giving itself props for being ‘patient-centric’! If you were to show the attempts to Google or Amazon they would first have a good laugh and then set about making it happen.


Pharma lacks an online presence – and it’s jeopardising their efforts to be patient-centric!

I don’t doubt for one second that everyone in pharma is trying to be patient-centric, but it only takes a fraction of a second (the time it takes to look up information on Google) to see that pharma has no online presence (outside of brand mentions – hint, that is not performance) in the exact place every single one of all of its audiences starts their search for information.

Woman looking through glass and text

Let’s dwell on this for a minute! For an industry that spends hundreds of millions on in-call-quality (ICQ) and soft skills for its ‘sales representatives’ (surely an out-dated and inappropriate title in this day and age, but that’s another blog all together) to routinely ignore the first step in every single one of its audiences’ user journeys is nothing short of bizarre/ vulgar.

And I heard again this week ‘we can’t do that because of compliance’, this is nonsense and we’ve seen these excuses blown out of the water before when pharma thought the world would end with social media engagement. It didn’t, pharma just became more relevant through trial and error.

So why don’t pharma companies engage or research via search engines? Even if the decision is made not to drive performance for an ecosystem (just odd), then the data and insights that the world’s most intuitive user survey tool (Google) yields will give a far better idea of audiences, their needs, user intent, user queries and content requirements than traditional methods.


What pharmaceutical marketing should learn from consumer brand marketing

If pharma is to be patient-centric, then it needs to wake up to the skills and disciplines that consumer brands use to manipulate this landscape, to win.

A clear example of this deficit is ‘metrics and KPIs’. In the plethora of pitch requests that I’ve both put out to tender (guilty as charged) and received over the past 6 years in agency life, how many ‘patient activation’ or direct to consumer (the consumer can be a patient, pharmacist, nurse, carer – we behave consistently online) programmes have domain authority or quality score as a core metric? None.

Ranking number one on page one of Google (I repeat – not for your brand name – you should always win in this or pack up and go home!) is an indication that you’re an authority in a given area. No tool that an agency or company develop will be better at determining relevance than Google’s engines. And every increase in score comes with thousands of new engagement opportunities that in turn feed you data which helps drive more relevance. It should be a cycle of efficiency and not a tick box exercise.


If you want your site to be seen, it needs to be built on data, not on a simple client brief

And this highlights a broader lack of understanding of how search permeates every campaign across all faculties that deal with direct to consumer marketing (clinical trial recruitment, comms/ PR, marketing, sales, recruitment etc.). So often we see sitemaps (often built by the incumbent PR or creative agency) that aren’t built around data determining how a brand can win, where to play, where to avoid, who currently dominates, but on what the client brief says. This sounds insane, and it is. If you are going to have a site that dwells on page 8 of Google, then pay £300 for the site and ensure it ticks the compliance boxes.

architecture of site map

What effective site maps should look like: The architecture of a site map needs to be built on empirical insights with a category – pillar approach in mind, NOT simply on a client brief.

If you really want to be ‘user- and patient-centric’ to reap the significant commercial rewards that dominating the ‘go to’ platforms across universal search, video, images, news, social, comes with then you need to engage a performance specialist at the very beginning. To determine domain strategy based on data, build hierarchies that map realistic target wins, to align your comms and social media with these targets and drive LPO (landing page optimisation) and CRO (conversion rate optimisation) alongside the acronym that most won’t need to look up, your SEO (one part of end-to-end performance).

How many pharma companies have the skills in-house to brief their agency partners properly and hold them to account with their plans regarding performance? How many agencies in health have these skills at the highest level? A quick look across the search landscape suggests very few.


Performance marketing offers pharma the competitive advantage it needs to excel today

That’s a lot of grenades, so rant over. Onto the good stuff. There is SO much potential for change that is not that complex, regardless of how difficult old school global brand templates often make it. Since being a drug representative 16 years ago, I have always been incredibly proud of working in an industry that provides solutions that save lives. I can’t recall a more exciting time to work in healthcare and pharma. I feel that performance marketing is the market access of the early naughties. Back then pharma was a chest bashing battle for airtime at the company conference between the typically male sales director and the typically male marketing director. Then Market Access came along. Initially fobbed off with a few full-time employees it went on in a few years to become the predominant foundation to launch.

Not since then has there been such a big opportunity for a step change in competitive advantage, giving brands and companies the opportunity to drive engagement, market share and subsequently sales by adopting a savvy performance strategy and SEO plan. In my humble opinion, it shouldn’t come from your PR or creative agency. That’s like asking your plumber to rewire your house because he’s a builder! Staying ahead in online performance marketing in this day and age is complex.

Doctor advising patient

From mapping out the correct data-driven domain approach, to full stack optimisation elements, SEO and advanced attribution modelling, app store optimisation, email, social, critical digital PR, deterministic cross platform ad serving all with landing page optimisation set up to drive CRO, much of this may sound like a new language and in pharma it is.

But it shouldn’t be. Most likely you wouldn’t get a marketing job at Expedia, Moneysupermarket, or Nike if you didn’t understand these disciplines. So why are they so alien to Pharma, we’re not selling holidays, we’re trying to save and improve lives! Pharma finds itself in the middle of large global behemoths with technology in their fabric, all with designs on the lucrative healthcare market, and agile new providers changing the landscape such as Cera Care and Medopad, redesigning the way healthcare is provisioned.

With the brand planning process well under way, I do believe that the companies and brands that recruit the right talent, learn the right skills, find the right guides and partners (agencies) to challenge the way things have always been done, to understand the search and performance landscape will be the companies that develop a competitive and commercial advantage and unlock the key to immense riches!