Bringing performance marketing into pharma

Performance-io / March 25, 2020

This piece featuring our CEO Matt was originally published by Pharmaphorum and is reposted by

Where does nearly every single one of your audiences go when they need information? They Google it.

As Matt Lowe, CEO of, the industry’s first specialist online performance agency, notes, “this is a universal behaviour for all of your audiences – healthcare professionals, pharmacists, carers, nurses, patients, and payers”.

But Lowe says that for most organisations, their performance and search engine optimisation (SEO) marketing strategy is a “barren desert”.

“Before we launched, I hadn’t come across one company in any market that had a congruent, well thought-out, SEO strategy,” he says.

A bald man is typing something on his laptop

“For an industry that spends billions on digital, soft skills and in call quality to routinely ignore the first step in every single customer’s user journey is nothing short of bizarre. There’s a real risk that as an industry we spend millions on creating campaigns with great creative that nobody ever sees.”

Lowe began his career working across a range of commercial sectors in pharma, for companies such as Sanofi and Grünenthal, and winning awards for his integration of data-led marketing and digital solutions applied to the marketing mix for drug launches.

It was this success that led to him being approached to head up digital operations globally for a mid-sized network agency, and the transition to agency life enabled him to get more exposure to the solutions being offered from creative, communications, med ed and digital agencies.

Someone is working on his laptop

“In pharma I got a bit disenfranchised by decision-by-committee” he says. “Often digital is just a box-ticking exercise – companies get a website, a Facebook page, an app, tick these off and move on. I noticed that this wasn’t just in pharma, but agencies often become an echo chamber for clients, adding more things to the shopping list, without these recommendations being determined or measured by data”.

Seeing this shortfall inspired him to launch the industry’s first specialist SEO agency, Search Unlimited in 2015. Two years later, once the group had been sold, Lowe set up – whose goal, he says, is to “redefine performance in healthcare”.

“People talk a lot about new technologies and their impact on healthcare. Machine learning, artificial intelligence, IoT – all developments that are helping the industry address the way we provision solutions. But for me it’s the everyday skills and disciplines that are missing from the core competency framework in pharma.”

Lowe feels that as marketing and communications converge through technology, it is understanding the mechanisms of the web, the opportunities and data it yields that will provide the area of competitive advantage pharma companies seek.

An image of a search bar and a magnifying glass
Some people are having coffee and checking analytics on a tablet

That said, Lowe draws a distinction between “SEO” and the kind of end-to-end ‘online performance marketing’ that specialises in.

“We hear and see a number of scenarios where communications or creative agencies have done a ‘social listening exercise’, followed a quirky acronym process or done ‘some SEO’. For us that’s not performance.”

SEO is one of a multitude of disciplines in performance marketing that in turn is affected by a plethora of factors (such as content, frequency, links, metadata and mark-up data) and is predicated by the foundations on which it sits.

Performance marketing strategies

When working on performance marketing strategies, cleans and analyses vast data sets including information on search behaviours, semantic search queries, video, imaging, news, social media, attribution modelling and click streams, to get a forensic understanding of audience needs before anything is built.

“Step one is to gain a firm understanding of audience needs (user intent), the competitive landscape, where to play and perhaps more importantly where to avoid. I often give the example that if you are launching a running shoe in the UK and you target the word ‘running shoe’, after one year you wouldn’t have made a chip on the bonnet of the Nikes or the Reeboks of this world. Understanding the keywords to avoid is important, so you don’t blow your budget trying to win with the words ‘cancer’ or ‘diabetes’, which no pharma companies are going to do any time soon in any market outside the US (where they still don’t index).”

Understanding the landscape enables to map out the optimal foundations for a brand to thrive online. This is done by optimising and structuring the website information architecture to ensure Google’s crawling software indexes the whole site

An abstract icon of big data

“We then develop data-driven site maps, with an optimal domain strategy, URL hierarchy, taxonomy, which in essence becomes an empirical content plan. The success of all subsequent PR, social media and online content is ultimately predicated by these foundations and a quick look at nearly all sites in pharma today shows this isn’t considered.”

Step two is to work with development partners to ensure online performance aspects are considered through build and shortcuts aren’t taken that compromise performance.

“No assumptions should be made that development teams specialise in these disciplines,” says Lowe, “and through our work with a broad spectrum of superb development teams this has been our experience. You need to work in harmony with UX and Dev teams to balance online performance elements, load times, plugins and content and all with the end user in mind!”

Step three is working with clients on an ongoing basis to iterate as part of a ‘permanent beta’ approach and develop content based on a constant loop of data and feedback of how users have arrived at your site and how they have used it.

An old woman is working on her laptops

Measuring success and ongoing performance

Performance marketing is an incredibly active process in a landscape that is constantly evolving. Just last month Google rolled out significant changes to how videos are indexed and presented in search results, launching its ‘in this video’ key moments, and in 2018 Google made over 3,000 changes to its system.

“It’s ultimately about understanding all of the moving parts that impact performance, from SEO and highly targeted paid media campaigns (for non-HCP sites), to email optimisation, social media optimisation, events and congress sign-ups, which are so often overlooked in pharma,” says Lowe.

“When working with clients, they often say ‘our media agency or creative agency have done some SEO for us’ and we find they have done a bit of paid media, or used a simple plug-in. That is not performance marketing. Conversions are non-existent and it doesn’t align with any plan. This isn’t helping healthcare to be more patient centric!”

What can help is getting clients into the top organic positions for non-branded keywords (dynamic opportunities) on Google.

Someone is checking the analytics on the tablet with his fingers

“No one clicks on paid ads at the top of a search results page anymore (on average less than 5% of clicks are on paid ads on Google),” Lowe says. “I’m not that interested in paid media. We do it for a number of clients because it has a role in acquisition and indexing for non-branded keywords, but mostly people only care about organic results. Our job is to get our clients into those top positions. If we do that, then they are clearly an authority (Google’s engine is far more powerful at determining relevance than any agency index!) and a valued resource.”

Someone is checking something on his phone

Another goal is to get the company’s information to appear on the first page of the search results as a ‘featured snippet’ – search results that appear at the top of a results page giving additional information from a website, often in the form of bullet points and an image.

“They are tremendously valuable for clients and their audiences. There’s around a 114% increase in click-through rate for keywords that appear in featured snippets. For the clients and campaigns we’ve worked on this year, we’ve delivered over 100 of these, seeing a huge impact for clients’ campaigns and sales where relevant. If you get a featured snippet, it gets indexed twice on Google – once as a featured snippet and then once in the search engine result below.

“I feel this is an incredibly exciting time for pharma and healthcare. We’ve seen the bar raised in the past few years in pharma with creative more akin to the consumer space, and I feel we’re now driving this with online performance.”

Patient Impact

Lowe says that having a good performance marketing strategy can have a profound impact on sales and understanding audience needs; moreover it’s about saving lives through earlier diagnosis, alleviating anxiety for patients, and helping healthcare professionals by using the vast data sets that pharma sits on to provide a source of useful information at the time it’s needed most.

“I have always thought it a privilege to work in pharma and healthcare, but I can’t help feel there is a tremendous waste of money on campaigns no one sees and limited use of the functionality that CRM and CLM offer consumer brands. We should be aiming to save and help as many lives as possible by providing balanced information in people’s hands at the time they need it most”.

Looking to the future, Lowe says he would like to see the broader industry embrace performance marketing and raise the bar in this space, and is proud that is leading from the front as an industry first.

A woman is working on her laptop

“I would like us to be recognised as the gold standard in performance marketing in pharma and healthcare. We’d like to continue to work with progressive partners/leaders across the marcoms mix, to ensure their campaigns reach and help as many people as possible. This involves going on a journey together and not always doing what has been done before.”

Despite the fact that pharma is still finding its way with online performance marketing and SEO, Lowe says that companies have come a long way since he started in this space.

“In 2015 we were the very first to launch a specialist SEO solution, and when I was taking it into clients there was definitely some technical hand holding required and odd looks at ‘the strange digital guy’! The odd looks haven’t entirely disappeared in some circles, but 2 years later when we launched (2017), there was more awareness that online performance isn’t just a slide at the end of the pitch where we talk about measurement. Online performance is the thread that runs from the very beginning when you’re defining the ecosystem, the audience’s behaviours, through to build, through to conversions, and then back into content. People understand that now, they know it’s important.”

Nevertheless, Lowe says he often still needs to convince people that this needs to be prioritised as part of the spending within the product-related costs.

“I know companies often still see this as innovative, but the first search engines were launched in 1996 and there were no real performance or SEO strategies in pharma even as late as 2015. This is starting to change.

A man with glasses is working on his laptop

“It’s good to see. I think that’s a product of diminishing access to healthcare professionals. Most people now know that even doctors will look on Google, either within a consultation or in between.”

“SEO and online performance marketing are finally here to stay and can’t be something you do a ‘bit of’ or ‘some’. We are seeing more and more integrated agencies trying to craft solutions in this space, but Lowe’s advice is “do it properly with a focused performance agency or don’t do it at all, and if you need more info than that, Google it…”

performance-io's logo in white

Get in Touch

Get your 30 minute consultation

If you have any questions about us, or want to reach us, please do not hesitate to contact us or send us an email.


The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Your message has been sent, thank you.

Let's redefine SEO & performance in healthcare

Book a

Subscribe to

Subscribe to newsletter


The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Our website uses cookies to ensure you to get the best experience on our website. Please accept of our Cookie Policy