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Pharmaceutical digital marketing guide

What you will learn

This guide is for those new to pharma digital marketing. It answers the basic questions — What is digital marketing in a pharma context? What benefits does it bring? Which digital channels are appropriate for the life sciences? — and it also explains how to get started in the right way. Over the last decades, digital marketing in pharma has moved from a novelty to the primary way to engage healthcare professionals (HCPs). Therefore companies new to pharma digital marketing benefit from a great deal of experience and can draw upon proven strategies and tactics. There has never been a better time to act. So, whether you're just starting out or looking to get more value from your existing digital channels, keep reading. And do get in touch to learn more about our work.

Sections:

What is pharmaceutical digital marketing?
Understanding pharma digital marketing channels
In-depth guides to digital channels
Understanding pharma digital marketing platforms
The pharma ‘MarTech’ stack
Digital sales empowerment
Benefits of digital marketing in pharma
Development of digital marketing in pharma
Applying proven systems and techniques
Digital pharma marketing use cases
Data-driven marketing
How to get started

Example of pharma marketing content on different devices
Pharma digital marketing tools enable high-value dialogue with HCPs

What is digital pharma marketing?

Pharmaceutical digital marketing uses the potential of technology to educate audiences and promote products and services. In pharma, these audiences are primarily healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients, though investors and other stakeholders are also influential.

Digital marketing in pharma uses many digital techniques and channels familiar to other sectors, though often in ways specific to the life sciences. As a regulated industry, pharma must ensure full compliance in its digital communications and patient outreach. For example, it is common to create different web pages for particular audiences. Patients and their carers will get a page designed for their needs, while medical professionals will receive information relevant and appropriate for prescribers that only they can access.

Some digital channels and techniques are specific to pharma — often developed to support the high-quality scientific and medical dialogues that companies provide HCPs. For example, eDetailing (electronic detailing on a mobile device) enables pharma reps and medical science liaisons (MSLs) to deliver one-to-one presentations in HCP offices, pharmacies, hospitals and other points of care.

In this way, pharmaceutical digital marketing — while using similar digital technologies to other sectors — is highly specialised. It uses established digital channels in specific ways and has developed its own unique pharma digital marketing tools.

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Understanding pharma digital marketing channels

Pharma marketers now have access to numerous channels and digital marketing techniques to engage their audiences. These pharma digital marketing channels continue to expand in number and sophistication. For example, traditional face-to-face eDetailing can now occur online, creating a new channel: remote detailing. Another recently introduced opportunity is self-service detailing, enabling HCPs to get an on-demand eDetailing experience with the clever use of digital brand assistants powered by 'chatbot' technology.

Approved email

Rep-triggered emails, providing HCPs with relevant content from a known and trusted source

Brand websites

Websites that promote pharma products and enable HCPs to quickly research treatment issues

eDetailing

Digital presentations on mobile devices, enabling quality one-to-one dialogue with HCPs

Marketing emails

High-volume emails sent to multiple HCPs simultaneously for increased reach

Mobile apps

Providing medical education and valuable functionality to HCPs, patients or their caregivers

Organic search

Search engine optimised webpages, enabling HCPs and patients to find trusted content online

Webinars

Flexible and convenient online scientific and medical meetings for HCP education and training

Social media

Online engagement with HCPs and patients through professional and consumer social media platforms

Online advertising

Pay-per-click search and banner advertising in professional and consumer media and platforms

Popular pharma digital marketing channels

In-depth guides to digital pharma marketing

You can get more information on pharmaceutical digital marketing channels in our in-depth guides. These guides get you rapidly up to speed — explaining precisely what each channel is, how it works, and its benefits. The guides also provide detailed practical advice on implementation to get you started in the right way.

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Get a full explanation of eDetailing and its multiple forms (face-to-face, online and on-demand) to enable quality dialogue with HCPs

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Discover how rep-triggered emails are more effective than standard marketing emails and result in far higher open rates

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Get the strategy for orchestrated channels and content for personalised engagement and a valued HCP customer experience

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Learn how to empower your sales force to engage HCPs online with the right presentation technologies and marketing strategies

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Understanding pharma digital marketing platforms

The good news is that companies new to pharma digital marketing benefit from proven technologies. Many excellent solutions are now available that meet pharma's specific needs for channels, content management and compliance. These ‘pharma marketing platforms’ enable you to manage your digital marketing content, ensure efficient reviews and MLR approval, build marketing assets, simplify localisation by affiliates, and track performance in the field.

Some systems specifically focus on digital sales enablement. Others have a more data-focused approach while providing excellent customer engagement channels. And Veeva Solutions’ popular platform aims to provide a total solution — covering everything from R&D to commercial. Before investing in a pharma marketing platform, you should consider your company’s long term needs. You should also ensure that you have support from an agency with the technical and content expertise to realise the full potential of a platform like Veeva.

While you could create one-off digital marketing assets, this isn't recommended. While it may seem like a shortcut, the asset will likely be difficult to update and problematic to scale later. For example, content created for a ‘hard coded’ eDetailer is effectively locked into that one asset. That means you cannot easily change the content later or transfer it to another channel. It can also make content localisation much harder. But if that same eDetailer was created with a leading pharma marketing platform and designed with HTML5 content standards, you maintain flexibility and have more options.

An enterprise-grade marketing platform will also please your IT department. Understandably, they want to minimise the number of pharma digital marketing solutions that a company uses and ensure that all investments provide long-term value. That is why IT professionals recommend proven systems designed to industry standards that are well-supported by the solutions provider.

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The pharma ‘MarTech’ stack

There are numerous technologies that make digital marketing in pharma easier or open new opportunities. And new solutions are being launched all the time. Because the number of options may feel bewildering, try to focus on solutions that meet your immediate requirements but can grow with your organisation over time. An experienced pharma agency can provide consultancy on what systems you need and help you make the right long-term decisions.

Digital asset management (DAM): A DAM organises shared assets and assists compliance by enabling content to be assigned to specific users with notes specifying use, ownership and approval status. Examples include Veeva Vault and Adobe Experience Manager.

Business intelligence (BI) system: BI tools enable you to analyse and visualise data. Examples include Tableau, Google Data Studio and Amazon QuickSight. With a good BI system, you can design 'custom dashboards' that precisely match your key performance indicators (KPIs).

Data management platform (DMP): DMP is another data management tool but focused on optimising online advertising spend by better identifying audiences. Examples include Adobe Audience Manager and Salesforce Audience Studio.

Customer data platform (CDP): CDPs collect customer data from multiple sources to build continuously updated user profiles for more personalised customer experiences. Examples include Exponea and Segment.

Machine learning (ML) tools: ML systems use artificial intelligence to analyse large data sets to identify trends, predict customer behaviour and make recommendations. Examples include Adobe Sensei, AWS Machine Learning Services and the Google AI Platform.

Content management system (CMS): CMS systems enable you to manage content across. Websites and other channels. For example, you can unify all your brand websites on a single platform. Examples include Adobe Experience Manager, Sitecore and Drupal.

Email automation: Modern systems integrate email into omnichannel marketing with customisation options and the ability to define customer behaviours that trigger specific emails. Examples include Vero, Marketo and Pardot.

Content authoring: Content authoring solutions make it easy to create and edit content. Capabilities vary, with some systems also providing content management features. A good example is Anthill’s own Activator solution which integrates seamlessly with Veeva Vault.

Pharma sales empowerment

Pharma marketing profiles and channels
Reps and MSLs can use pharma marketing technologies to deliver high-value HCP customer journeys

An important concept in pharma marketing is sales rep empowerment. This means supplying sales teams with the necessary resources to achieve their targets and goals. In practical terms, pharma sales empowerment means providing reps and MSLs with effective strategies, the right kind of content, and the tools necessary to engage HCPs effectively.

Sales empowerment is vital because rep and MSL engagement remains central to life science marketing strategies. In-person, one-to-one customer dialogues are a feature of pharma marketing. And for most companies, rep engagement is the primary communication channel with HCPs. Consequently, these meetings receive a high level of attention and resources — and are increasingly digital in nature.

Many companies have now switched from paper detailers to electronic eDetailing. These eDetailing presentations, displayed on mobile devices, enable reps to provide a better experience for HCPs. Graphics, animations and video bring the story to life. And the clever use of interactivity turns a previously passive experience into an active and engaged one.

Today, eDetailing is just one of many digital channels that enable reps and MSLs to engage with HCPs. Remote detailing (online eDetailing) is increasingly common and has proven popular with HCPs looking for more flexibility in scheduling meetings. And rep-triggered email or approved email enables customer teams to personalise the email channel and increase its value. Coming from a trusted source, approved email open rates are much higher than standard marketing emails.1 These additional digital channels are expected to continue growing in popularity, with HCPs seeking to engage more through live remote, phone detailing, webinars, e-meetings and email.2

Another essential aspect of digital sales empowerment is ongoing skill development and online coaching to improve rep performance. In contrast to traditional sales training, modern systems encourage short, daily engagements. ‘Bite sized’ education integrates training into people’s daily routine and keeps lessons top-of-mind. And techniques such as ‘gamification’ further raise engagement, enabling customer teams to track their progress.

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Benefits of digital marketing in pharma

Data-driven marketing: Switching to digital sales aids and other digital channels improves customer understanding. The interactivity of eDetailers, for example, continually produces customer insights. With the right data-capture strategy, it's possible to see how HCPs understand a disease, its impact on their patients, and current treatment options. This data can then be used in an aggregate way to inform overall marketing strategies and medical education initiatives. The data can also be used on an individual basis. By understanding each HCP's knowledge level, a rep can provide information and support where it is most needed.

Tailored communication: Powered by customer data, companies can switch from ‘one message for all’ to more tailored marketing. Customer profiling — combined with new channels and more flexible digital content — enable companies to address individual needs better. For example, rep-triggered ‘approved email’ allows reps to select messages based on both their personal customer knowledge and business intelligence systems. This intelligent use of data results in increasingly relevant and effective communication. HCPs have been calling for more personalised communication. This is now increasingly happening.

ROI: The old marketing adage that ‘I know that something is working, but I don’t know what’ is slowly being retired. Because digital communications produce data, marketers better understand marketing spend effectiveness. Content performance can even be tracked in real-time. For example, you can see the open rates of marketing emails. You know which parts of an eDetailing presentation get the most attention and which slides are ignored. And you can monitor how HCPs are searching brand websites. This information informs decision making. You can see where materials need improvement, which messages are working, and which channels produce the best results for your target audience.

Marketing reach: Pharma is special in its ability to speak directly to customers through regular meetings. Done right, it can produce excellent results. But not all HCPs want to engage this way. Pharma digital marketing channels provide alternatives that can meet different preferences. Marketing emails, approved email, self-service detailing, webinars, apps, and remote detailing all provide alternative forms and levels of engagement. Used in the right way, these enable more HCPs to enter into dialogue than was previously possible. Such digital channels are also often cheaper than in-person detailing visits, which further increases potential audience size because you can scale up your marketing activities. HCPs that were previously unreachable due to financial constraints can now be better supported.

Compliance: Essential in pharmaceutical marketing, digital technologies have enabled marketers to operate at speed while maintaining strict compliance. The flexibility of digital content means that it is easier to update and (with the right marketing platform) publish to all markets. Digital content is also trackable, which helps ensure that out-of-date materials are not circulating. For example, it is possible to highlight specific eDetailing slides that require immediate updating, push content updates out to affiliates, or even withdraw materials if the situation requires it. These controls — and the speed with which changes can be made — improve compliance and provide peace of mind.

Customer experience: Ultimately, how your customers perceive you and your brands is what matters. This perception is shaped by the experience that you provide. Digital communications transform this experience fundamentally. Your marketing is more targeted, and your content more relevant. You can match channels to HCP preferences. And the content that delivers the experience is more engaging — pulling audiences into your story in a memorable and behaviour-changing way.

Development of digital marketing in pharma

Pharma digital marketing has evolved over the decades. Initially, pharma companies introduced websites in the 'dot-com era’ just like other sectors. Companies then slowly expanded their web presence from corporate sites, to brand websites, and to disease and treatment information hubs or ‘portals’. For many companies, the next innovation was eDetailing, which began the process of digitising sales content. eDetailing was then joined by other channels: marketing emails to increase reach, rep-triggered approved email for better-targeted content, and remote detailing for more flexibility in face-to-face engagements. And now, the latest 'self-service' systems allow HCPs to access information on demand while maintaining the value of a rep-guided experience.

This digital adoption process occurred gradually. New channels were tested in pilot programmes and — if they proved their worth — were later rolled out to brand teams and affiliates. Because things were implemented in a piecemeal way, not everything was fully connected and optimised. Instead, one channel was created and then supplemented by the next. Consequently, companies and their agency partners that led the process of establishing digital marketing in pharma are now focusing on optimising these channels and pursuing synergies to generate more value. Companies are increasingly switching from a multichannel strategy to an omnichannel approach that connects and orchestrates digital channels for improved customer experience.

The current focus on omnichannel engagement is changing how digital content is created and managed. By definition, customer-centric marketing demands more content than providing the same message for everyone. That strains internal processes such as MLR approval. To solve these problems, content excellence programmes are being implemented. By rethinking internal practices and introducing procedures designed for the digital age, companies can work more efficiently. For example, modular content works like 'Lego bricks' — enabling the same content elements to be used to build many different digital assets. Modular content also reduces MLR workload because content is approved once but used multiple times.

The result is that forward-thinking pharma companies are now well-positioned to maximise the potential of digital marketing in pharma. They have the channels in place to reach HCPs effectively. They have experience with digital content and understand what works. And now they are unlocking more value by introducing systems and practices that make pharma digital marketing easier and faster.

A quote about pharma marketing

Proven systems and techniques

Companies in pharma are at very different levels of digital proficiency. Those that took the initiative and embraced digital communications have been reaping the rewards for many years. And early movers kept moving — refining their capabilities and expanding their digital reach. Consequently, forward-thinking companies are now pulling further ahead in their content management infrastructure and abilities.

But being a second-mover also has advantages. Companies new to pharma digital marketing benefit from the lessons that have already been learned and can set up procedures correctly from day one. For example, you can design your digital content management procedures to meet today’s best practices and implement modular content immediately. And you can establish your brand websites on a common platform to make content updating easier and faster. While many companies may only implement the pharma digital marketing basics initially, getting these systems and procedures in place makes it easy to expand later.

You also benefit from the strategic work done by pharma digital marketing pioneers. Over the last decade, a great deal of experience has been gained. We know what works in different situations and which channels to select to best meet your objectives. This expertise enables you to target your marketing spend for maximum returns. For example, if sales rep empowerment is your goal, there are now established channels to achieve this. Or you may want to reach HCPs who are currently not in dialogue with your company. Again there are proven digital marketing strategies that build engagement with those groups.

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Pharma digital marketing use cases

Digital communications, as all marketers know, is not an end in itself. All tactics should express a strategy to achieve a specific objective. You can apply digital technologies to all aspects of pharmaceutical marketing — from key opinion leader programmes to patient engagement — which now have established use cases and best practices.

Use cases are helpful to direct your thinking, especially if you are new to pharmaceutical digital marketing. The sheer number of options for a digital strategy can be bewildering. And it can even slow the uptake of digital communications in an organisation when there isn't an obvious place to start. Understanding potential use cases enable you to match what other companies are doing to your specific needs and establish clear marketing goals.

Product launches

Empower reps with digital sales empowerment tools to maximise the high HCP interest in new products and treatment options

Lifecycle management

Extend the product lifecycle with a digital strategy and channels that maintain HCP support for your product for the long term

Patient education

Enable patients to get the most from their treatments and support their caregivers with clear and easily available information

Sales rep empowerment

Equip reps and MSLs with the digital tools, content and training that enables them to raise their customer service performance

Customer experience

Apply an omnichannel strategy to your digital marketing and deliver a customer experience that is relevant and highly engaging

Conferences

Improve ROI on medical conferences with digital communications that increase HCP engagement before and after the event

Clinical education

Provide a complete treatment solution with training sessions, on-demand educational content, and guided e-learning tools

Pre-launch

Establish a brand presence in a new disease area or engage HCPs to generate customer insights to inform launch plans

Key account management

Design high-value face-to-face communication for key accounts and mass communication channels for lower priority targets

Common pharma digital marketing use cases

Data-driven marketing

One of the major benefits of digital marketing in pharma is increasing data availability and quality. If digital content is designed in the right way, you can confirm that the message was delivered, the extent to which your audience agrees, and whether they will take action. In other words, it can act as a confirmation of your marketing effectiveness and provide insights on what and how you should communicate in the future.

Most companies start seeking ‘descriptive’ data. They want to know which messages were seen by which HCPs and at what times. For companies new to digital marketing, this descriptive data is often revelatory. It is not uncommon, for example, to discover that an important key message is not being delivered to HCPs as expected.

Descriptive data — “what happened?” — is essential for analytics. Once we know what is happening in the marketplace, we can start to identify and solve problems. In other words, descriptive data is necessary to take us to the next step: ‘diagnostic’. At this stage, we have the capabilities to ask questions about why something is occurring and, most importantly, how to make improvements. For example, if the data shows that a specific eDetailing slide is being shown by reps but isn’t performing, the content can be changed to make the message more powerful and then tested in the market again.

Most pharma companies that have digitised their marketing are now working with data in this diagnostic way. At Anthill, we simply call this modern marketing — sales and marketing collaboration built around the customer, driven by data insights on HCP behaviour, and agile in execution. It is what we believe all companies should be doing to generate better marketing results and build long-term relationships with HCPs. But this kind of data isn’t the end of the story.

More will be possible as the amount of data increases and analytics capabilities improve. 'Predictive analytics' is already being introduced. For example, it is possible to use predictive models in pharma digital marketing solutions to determine what kind of content should be shown to an individual to best match their likely interests. And even 'prescriptive modelling’ is being considered. This uses AI and ‘big data’ analytics for scenario planning and identifying opportunities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Evolution of pharmaceutical data and analytics: how to make a right decision
Evolution of pharma data and analytics

How to get started

How to begin your pharma digital marketing journey will depend on your organisation, your budget, and — most importantly — what you want to achieve. But there are some general principles and best practices that nearly always apply. These practices will enable you to meet your immediate objectives faster and make it easier to scale your marketing activity later. As a new entrant into digital marketing in pharma, you benefit from accumulated experience and can apply best practices from day one. In other words, your journey will be shorter because the path is clearer. The result is that you can quickly realise the benefits that digital technologies provide.

Clarify your objectives: While many companies desire to ‘be more digital’, it pays to have specific goals. A well-defined objective enables you to set clear KPIs and demonstrate the value of digital marketing in pharma. For example, it is easier to show ‘an 8% increase in marketing reach’ than ‘reimagine how a company engages with its customers via a digital transformation process’. This isn't to say those big goals aren't valuable (they are). Instead, breaking down a big vision into tangible and concrete objectives demonstrates proof of concept, builds support, and provides momentum for future change.

Focus on the customer: While digital marketing must bring tangible benefits to your company, don't lose sight of the customer. If your primary objective is helping the customer, you will likely benefit more in the long term. You will gain trust, increase your value, improve access, and build your brand. The best pharma digital marketers have an almost obsessive focus on the customer. They work to understand what customers need, how HCPs find information online, through which channels they prefer to engage, and what delights them. A great digital agency will be able to provide these insights and advise on how to exceed HCP expectations.

Use a marketing platform: It’s a good idea to establish your marketing technology (MarTech) infrastructure first. There are many excellent pharma-specific options — including solutions from Veeva Systems and IQVIA — that enable you to build channels, manage and approve content, and track content performance. And there are also enterprise-grade solutions, such as Adobe Experience Manager, that are popular both in the life sciences and other sectors. In addition, consider boosting your platform's efficiency and speed with a content authoring tool such as Anthill’s Activator. Getting your MarTech stack in place first makes digital marketing in pharma much easier and provides a foundation from which you can scale your activities. While we always recommend starting small, the right setup is strongly recommended.

Involve other departments early: Life science companies are large, complicated organisations with multiple stakeholders and connected workflows. To ensure that a digital marketing project runs smoothly, it pays to consider the broader organisation. Even a simple eDetailer will necessarily involve MLR for content approval, IT for the technical solution, reps and MSLs for training. To build support for your initiative, and address potential problems early, a simple change management programme can work wonders — ultimately ensuring that you can focus on HCPs rather than unexpected internal issues.

Be systematic: As your digital marketing activities grow, content handing and approval procedures become more important. Forward-thinking pharma companies know that ever-increasing amounts of digital content strain internal processes and slow time-to-market. And they are changing their approaches through content excellence programmes. There’s no reason that you cannot apply these content best practices to your pharma digital marketing activities from day one. Modular content, for example, can be used to build your very first digital channel — making future content updates easier and faster to implement. Similarly, building brand websites on a common platform reduces costs, activates your web presence, and makes affiliates' localisation and content updates easier.

Focus on one or two channels: Concentrating your efforts can pay dividends. Rather than trying to implement multiple channels simultaneously, you can start with one or two channels and build from there. Keeping things simple enables you to launch with the best content possible and the proper internal focus. For example, you can ensure that reps and MSLs are fully trained on new pharma sales empowerment tools, understand the benefits, and embrace the opportunities.

Leverage your content: It can be a good idea to start with a 'content heavy' channel. For many companies, this will be eDetailing. An eDetailing presentation often tells the full story of your product — with mini-stories conveyed on each slide. This makes it possible to divide up this content later and apply it to other channels. For example, eDetailing content can be used in rep-triggered approved emails. It can also be turned into a self-service system that enables HCPs to access the content on-demand.

Prioritise data from the start: While attention is rightly paid to ensuring that digital marketing brings your product messages to life — the outward communication — the customer response is just as important. Yes, creative should be engaging, but it should also be working to confirm message effectiveness, uncover HCP knowledge levels, and highlight customer needs. That requires content designed for effective data capture — with interactivity at the right moments to enable HCPs to tell you what they think and need — without being intrusive. Great creative will deliver a powerful message, confirm effectiveness, and tell you the next steps on the customer journey.

Plan to be agile: One of the major benefits of digital marketing in pharma is flexibility. With the right digital technologies in place, you can ‘push out’ content updates in response to customer needs as they reveal themselves in your data. While this responsiveness isn’t new — marketing has always sought to respond to data — the speed at which this is now possible is different. Rather than yearly or quarterly content updates, you can now refine your marketing continually. Making this standard practice requires a mindset shift in organisations new to digital marketing. Therefore, plan to work in an agile way from the outset — building regular content updates into your activity plans.

How do you want Anthill to help?

While we still talk about ‘digital pharma marketing’, we will probably just say 'pharma marketing' in the future. Companies that haven’t yet embraced digital also know this. And they fully appreciate that competitors who have implemented digital communications are operating with advantages in marketing reach and customer experience. What holds people back are usually more practical concerns about how best to get started. What should we do first? How do we get the best return on the investment? How do we avoid making mistakes?

Anthill Agency was created to solve these problems. Early on, we recognised the potential of digital communications to transform how pharma companies engage with HCPs. And we have partnered with companies — big and small — to enable them to switch to digital pharma marketing. If you want to learn about our experience and hear cases that match your situation, please get in touch.

  • Help me get started with the right digital strategy for my brands

  • Provide advice on the technology platform and optimise the setup

  • Create engaging content that focuses HCPs’ attention

  • Help me design processes that speed content creation and approval

  • Ensure that data capture is properly set up in my digital assets

  • Build internal support and train customer teams on digital tools

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REFERENCES

1. Veeva white paper – Guide to Digital HCP Engagement
2. Reuter’s report – Beyond COVID-19: Life sciences reimagined, 2020