"Pharmaceutical companies’ advertising and marketing tactics are rapidly changing directions and channels, influenced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) — as well as changes in consumer behavior and attitudes toward health care," says Lisa E. Phillips, senior analyst and author of the new report "Pharmaceuticals Online: Direct-to-Patient Becomes a Reality." "The result is a shift in focus from ‘direct-to-consumer’ to ‘direct-to-patient,’ from mass marketing to relationship marketing."
eMarketer projects that pharmaceutical companies’ Internet spending will increase almost 25% this year, to $780 million, as marketers shift to more targeted opportunities on the Internet.
For nearly 32 million Americans, the Internet is the first place they turn to for health care information. In fact, over the past 12 months alone, close to 100 million Americans used the Internet to find health information.
"Instead of merely advertising blockbuster drugs, the industry is beginning to chase the ‘long tail,’" says Ms. Phillips, "and the Internet is the best channel to target and reach consumers with specific conditions and questions about treatment."
Health-focused portals are poised to become the next big vertical market online. The current leader, WebMD, has been joined by EverydayHealth.com and the rebranded HealthCentral Network. Waiting in the wings is Revolution, a consumer health site backed by former AOL founder Steve Case. Every major portal — Google, Yahoo!, AOL and MSN — offers page after page of consumer health information, and the Web is filling up with smaller sites targeted to special health interests.
Pharmaceutical sites are changing, too.
"Gone are the days of landing pages full of dry medical text. Pharmaceutical marketers are giving their sites the look and feel of social niche networks," says Ms. Phillips. "Now potential users find self-assessment checklists, support networks and more drug information. Visitors who register can post comments, and share suggestions and stories about their own experiences."
Pharmaceutical companies are moving beyond branded drug sites to building online communities centered on diabetes, weight loss, smoking cessation and other conditions. They realize that people who search for health-related information online are looking for more than just pages full of potential side effects and drug interactions.
Of course, there can be bad reactions to drug pitches online.
"Word-of-mouth marketing, sponsoring blogs and producing podcasts are all potential minefields if not handled with discretion," warns Ms. Phillips. "After nearly a decade of ‘pushing’ drug messages to the public, pharmaceutical marketers must learn to listen to consumer comments without overreacting, while keeping within FDA and PhRMA guidelines."