Cord cutters are dropping TV in record numbers. Should pharma ad buyers panic?

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Consumers are turning off traditional TV, and Imre Health's Kirsty Whelan sees “a big potential for the pharma TV advertising bubble to start to, if not burst, to slowly leak over time."

Record numbers of people are “cutting the cord,” according to new data released last week by researcher eMarketer. The term is industry-speak for the shift away from the traditional TV set in the living room—but by any name, it's not good news for pharma marketers, whose go-to media buy is traditional TV.

Big pharma ad plans generally skew heavily towards TV. Buys there subsume upwards of 60% of their total budgeted media outlay. EMarketers estimated there will be 22.2 million cord-cutters this year, an increase of more than 30% over last year. Meanwhile, another group, cord-nevers—young people who have never had traditional pay TV service—will grow to 34.4 million this year.

Those figures pale compared with the 196 million adults who will watch pay TV this year—but that group is shrinking while the others grow.

If millennials, generation Xers and even baby boomers are moving to more digital online content like Netflix, YouTube and Hulu, how can pharma marketers continue to reach them with their treatment messages?

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At social and digital agency Imre Health, pharma clients have been talking about the cord-cutting issue for more than a year. Jurgen Castro, senior director of digital strategy, recently penned a blog post advising pharma marketers to pay attention to the phenomenon.

Kirsty Whelan, who is strategy VP at Imre Health, talked more about it in a recent interview with FiercePharma. “There is a big potential for the pharma TV advertising bubble to start to, if not burst, to slowly leak over time," Whelan said. "So we have to figure out how to future-proof. How do we talk with and engage with patients and consumers if that audience becomes increasingly harder to reach by traditional cable television?”

Of course, the cord-cutting news isn’t all dire for pharma. Many of the shifters are young, and as eMarketer noted, “older viewers are keeping TV alive. The number of U.S. TV viewers 55 and over will continue to rise, while it continues to fall for every other age group.” So, theoretically, pharma treatments that target those older audiences can continue to reach them via TV—for now.

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As Whelan said, evaluating campaigns and making plans should be top of mind, however. Not only is the trend accelerating, but pharma’s involvement with those millennials is also deeper than it may seem at first glance.

“Yes, the older generations are going to be the slowest to cord-cut, but what we’re really trying to do with the brands that we work with is encourage them to think about future proofing … millennials are the caregivers of today and perhaps the patients of tomorrow," she noted. "It’s imperative that we think about understanding our audience, their media consumption, behavior and habits and try to right-size our media strategies to engage with them over time.”

And TV doesn’t disappear in that right-sizing, as she calls it. It just takes on a different role as one touchpoint in the portfolio of engagement tactics.

There is also a bonus in the move away from traditional TV ad models, and that's the opportunity to tell better stories. Thirty-second ads—with half that time spent ticking off the FDA's required list of risks—can’t engage and inform, and ultimately help patients in the same way interactive digital and social programs can, Whelan said.