Viral marketing and pharmaceutical industry

Viral marketing: is the pharmaceutical industry too late?

Every day experts and specialists, often self-proclaimed, publish notes, articles and other posts on the web highlighting the reluctance of, or the delay in, the pharmaceutical industry’s use of digital marketing and promotion. These comments are usually superficial and underline the ignorance of their authors about the world of pharma and its highly specific promotional cycles. It is also unusual to find any practical recommendations about what it would be possible and desirable to do in this domain.

Using the famous viral marketing as an example, it is possible to list ideas for the pharmaceutical industry and, further, for all the healthcare industries, including in vitro diagnostics, medical devices, medical imaging and veterinary industry.


Viral marketing, YouTube and commercial success

The dogma of number of views, number of “likes” or downloads

In terms of viral marketing in the pharmaceutical field, as in all others, the champions and other evangelists of social networks focus almost exclusively on the number of interactions or other commitments: “likes”, views or downloads.

A video viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube will thus be considered a great success, and widely described as such, but you can search for hours on the web, you will never find a hint of any correlation between this “metric” and a tangible commercial translation: market share, revenues, new customers, etc.


Do not mix up innovation and success

This is very well explained by Pharmaguy on his blog and in particular about a K-Mart viral campaign on YouTube, viewed over 10 million times (April, 2015). The campaign is clearly innovative but clearly not successful there because the financial situation of K-Mart has only deteriorated since then. The first lesson is that a campaign on YouTube with one million views may be innovative, but not automatically a success.


What could the benefit be of a viral campaign on social networks?

At best this could maintain or develop the image and reputation of a company.

With great enthusiasm and probably subconsciously, some people will say that a viral campaign can change the image of a corporation. This is possible, but it will take a lot of time and probably more than a single campaign on social networks or elsewhere.

Conversely, a “successful” viral campaign is certainly the most effective and probably the most cost-effective way to raise awareness of a new product, a new concept or a new brand. There is one important element: to ensure that the target audience of this new product is the same as that which contributes to virality by disseminating the news on social networks.

Take, for example, a laboratory marketing a new and highly innovative blood thinner. If over 90% of the target population is aged over 60 years, considering that at least 60% of this age group regularly uses social networks (US figures), is it nevertheless a given that they are the internet users contributing to virality on social networks by sharing and spreading an article, photo or a video? Probably not.

The “social marketing” gurus, always prone to giving lessons to the pharmaceutical industry, do not talk about this topic because they have no figures or data, and above all because they are not seriously planning to evaluate the suitability of promotional tactics on the one hand, and target audiences on the other hand.

Patients, healthcare professionals and the general public

The “clients” of the pharmaceutical industry, and more generally of all healthcare industries, are not part of the general public from a marketing standpoint. These “clients” could be the patients and their families, but this concept is highly questionable, though often hammered home by too many self-professed experts. Reading on the analysis of the institutional websites of the 12 largest pharmaceutical companies is recommended.

Health professionals, including those who prescribe medicine in the front row, are unambiguously the preferential audience of these industries, so here is an interesting idea: designing a viral campaign targeting specifically health professionals.

Is this possible? It is possible with difficulty, because of the dilution of this population on general public social networks like Facebook or Twitter. It is possible, however, using media such as YouTube and promoting multi-channel link-sharing between professionals through social networks, emails, newsletters, blogs, etc.

It is necessary to be careful, because a video on YouTube is accessible to everyone, and it can be difficult to create an attractive message for professionals that is still acceptable to the layman.


The first “pharma” viral campaign; an awkward success

With over 300,000 views on YouTube, the 2011 Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) campaign is clearly a “success“, the first and so far the only one in this category.

The problem is that the video, once online, was almost immediately withdrawn by BI. Its very innovative tone, probably very expensive, visibly frightened the “top management” once it was online. The talent of the British TV presenter Ray Cokes was probably not involved; but the pitch of the clip and the very attractive character of the ubiquitous laboratory technicians obviously led to the immediate decision for withdrawal.

The clip is still available on-line, however. This is food for thought indeed, because once something is published on the web, it is very difficult to erase your mistakes!


The situation is hilarious when it is known that there have been 300,000 views via this unofficial link. Unlike the senior management of the pharmaceutical company, the public appreciated the innovation!

The US management Boehringer Ingelheim is obviously struggling with new communication technologies: you can read some comments on the fanciful statements about Big Data from Jeff Huth, senior Vice President of Managed Markets for Boehringer Ingelheim (US) here in the chapter “Big data and cliché”.


Viral marketing and healthcare industries: an impossible union?

Although it is possible from both a technical and a regulatory standpoint viral marketing for healthcare industries probably does not make sense because the benefits and impact are uncertain and may be completely absent.

  • The phenomenon of propagation on social networks results from the interaction of a great numbers of not selected individuals, whereas such campaigns should focus on well-defined groups, patients or health professionals.
  • There is also a threshold effect which triggers the cascade, a couple of friends and acquaintances is not enough, and audience and popularity on the web are difficult if not impossible to buy.
  • The overlap between the targets of a pharma campaign and the viral relays, the social media users who will spread the message, is tiny if it even exists.

There are examples, still few at the moment, of successful web programs, but here we leave the world of viral marketing and other buzzwords to merely discuss classical marketing, and ask a few simple questions about the campaign:

  • What is the target?
  • What are the goals?
  • What about implementation?
  • Which monitoring plans will be used?


A new anticoagulant is not a new soft drink

This seems trivial at first glance, but it is still overlooked by the champions of the intensive use of social networks. It is enough, however, to definitively exclude the use of these new communication techniques for a product that is thoroughly controlled and supervised, precisely because these promotional techniques are not controllable once posted on the web, as they spread autonomously. It is almost impossible to reverse a wrong decision, as seen in the case of Boehringer Ingelheim.


Web marketing and corporate communications for the healthcare industry

Conversely when dealing with corporate communications, there are virtually no regulatory constraints, and thus it is legitimate to consider the use of these web and social networks techniques in order to influence the image of the lab.

Again, this may be a risky game given the width of the gap between:

  • the values claimed by pharma labs (and expected by the public),
  • the mechanism of a succesful campaign on social networks (viral or not).

Humor and derision are the dominant themes of viral campaigns, followed by disasters and compassion. It seems difficult or even impossible to “promote” a company operating in the healthcare field on this basis. This list excludes glamour or even the sexual evocations that remain dominant on the web.


Unbranded marketing, still a neglected option

Unbranded marketing stands for indirect promotion of a product or a company by, for example, communicating on the disease rather than the treatment or the drug . This is an area where healthcare industries, including pharmaceuticals, are investing steadily, often with mixed success.

The article on these dedicated websites or web portals is recommended.

There are (almost) no regulatory constraints as it is the case for drugs or medical devices. A sponsor can even remain in the background and not promote its image directly, as the goal of such unbranded campaigns is to raise awareness of a disease or a particular therapeutic approach.

It is also possible to identify some topics with a great potential for a “viral” campaigns such as erectile dysfunction or benign prostatic hypertrophy. Some vaccinations are also good candidates.

This is thus an area where healthcare industries can clearly innovate. The question of success remains uncertain as the overlap between the target populations and those that contribute to spreading the message is still speculative.


Are some pharmaceutical marketing techniques the future of promotion on the web?

Today, there are countless gurus, experts and other specialists who speak learnedly of what the pharmaceutical industry does or not in the field of the internet and digital promotion. Most do not even know the meaning of marketing approval, SPC*, or a clinical trial. At best, they share an experience, successful or not in consumer marketing which they believe authorizes them to talk about segmentation, message and strategy.

*Summary of Product Characteristics

And this is the problem, segmentation for consumer goods has nothing in common with segmentation or stratification for drugs and medical devices. It is the same word, but these are very different concepts. In one case you set the population segment to which you want to target and promote your products, while in the case of drugs or medical devices, the target population is set once you receive marketing approval!

Another source of confusion for the readers is vocabulary, starting with the totally loose use of the term “strategy”. Online courses from the Google Academy, for example, use the term “strategy” extensively to describe what are, at best, “objectives” or “tactics”.

Some authors, however, such as Rich Howarth regularly publish clear, concise and accurate articles on the topic of strategy; his blog is available here.


Segmentation and stratification, the passport to effective marketing

If there is one area in which pharmaceutical industry marketing has always excelled, it is in its ability to identify and precisely define segments, or homogeneous groups.

It must be acknowledged that the lack of flexibility in several components of the marketing mix, starting with price, lead to great sophistication in segmentation.

There is another domain where the pharmaceutical industry, and all industries running clinical trials, have unique know-how, and this is in the definition, based on objective criteria, of populations or cohorts eligible for treatment.

Accordingly, the concepts of inclusion or exclusion criteria fit well with the process of identifying a target population on the net. There would be much to gain by adapting these concepts in the context of digital promotional campaigns. It would also be very effective to adapt the statistical methods perfectly mastered by healthcare industries for clinical evaluation to the world of the web.

The pharmaceutical industry must not have a complex about the arrogance of the champions of the “full digital” or “full social networks”: the vocabulary used, which makes extensive use of pompous words, often hides serious weaknesses and deficiencies.

In the world of promotion on social networks, basic marketing concepts are often ignored or inappropriately used, targets rarely defined or based on inappropriate settings – irrelevant metrics – and analysis is often superficial, without method and rigor. This is why the champions of social networks are so often mocked by web analytics experts; they know the data, and can accurately assess the real impact of these campaigns on social networks, viral or not.


If digital success was already there?

There was already successful digital campaigns, of course, but it remains discreet and invisible for most of the social networks “gurus” and the vast majority of pharma marketers.

Can we indeed imagine a company communicating its campaigns with originality, revealing valuable information to potential competitors?

It is true that some executives regularly fall into the traps laid in these conferences organized to gratify their ego by soliciting them as speakers, but still ask them to pay their travel expenses or registration fees…

No leader will accept seeing a competitive hard-earned advantage disclosed to satisfy the ambition of a team member; it would be a serious mistake, probably calling for sanctions.


Forget, for a while, viral marketing

There are undeniable successes, but it remains necessary to properly and accurately define the criteria for measuring them; which is rarely that suggested by the social network specialists, whose analyses are often limited to a single metric without context, perspective, or benchmarking.

Sanofi TV on YouTube is an example, with videos totaling over 100,000 views with a video explaining the role of insulin attaining 356,000 views. Of course the scores of some clips are much more modest, sometimes with only a few hundred views, you cannot always succeed.

Finally, Sanofi demonstrates that it is possible to efficiently communicate on social networks with over 580,000 views of its corporate clip!

There are multiple examples of the largely untapped potential of educational communication for the general public.

Health is regularly cited as the topic generating the most searches on the web, and the web giants, starting with Google and Apple, initiate multiple initiatives in this domain. Some websites, such as Doctissimo in France, claim more than 25 million visits per month, despite a content that is not always rigorous, outdated graphics and intrusive advertisements that often disrupt navigation on the site, even if improvements have recently been observed here.

Healthcare industries, including pharmaceutical companies, hold assets and untapped resources, allowing them to naturally position themselves as references in the field of health education and pedagogy. Some have begun to successfully to follow this path, and it remains for them to transform these first steps and define a style compatible with the traditional values and image of the healthcare companies.


In conclusion

  • The use of the trendy web tactics such viral campaigns is unsuitable for healthcare industries.
  • Social network experts and champions are often unaware of the codes and constraints of the healthcare industries and their comments are rarely substantiated.
  • The promotion of a drug or medical device on social networks is risky if not impossible due to regulatory limitations and the dilution of the targets.
  • It is possible and probably worth integrating social networks into projects aiming to educate the general public or smaller targets. YouTube has undeniably the greatest potential here.
  • The analytical dimension of these digital programs is often overlooked for this type of initiative while analysis plans must be developed in parallel with programs; without analytics it is impossible to correct and adjust the content of these digital campaigns.