VC to pharma: Better get on board with digital health marketing

Julie Papanek

Marketing could be the next wave of innovation in digital health. Or it should be, says venture capital firm Canaan Partners' principal partner Julie Papanek.

"Before this, I worked in pharma for six years. When I left pharma, I realized how far behind they are in the marketing mix, in adopting new tools and in engaging with customers. And I mean all of them: patients, physicians, employers, caregivers, even retail pharmacies," she said. "Print is still the bulk of all spending."

Papanek specializes in pharma, digital health and consumer medical device investments at Canaan. She has an undergraduate degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale and an MBA from Stanford. VCs, like Papanek, have a unique vantage point--and the successful ones have a talent for picking up-and-comers, as well as trends, in their fields. That's why we asked her to weigh in with some thoughts and predictions for pharma in digital health.

While the bad news is that pharma has been sitting on the sidelines of digital health too long, the good news is that the game seems to be changing. That's driven internally by pharma companies who realize they need to adopt digital strategies, but also by innovative startup companies that are creating marketing solutions for them.

Papanek blamed old-style healthcare agencies in part, which "are frankly not the best at this stuff," for not enabling and encouraging pharma clients. It's akin to what happened 10 to 15 years ago in consumer marketing when traditional ad agencies dismissed digital marketing as a fad. Entrepreneurs started up digital ad agencies and started taking pieces of client business--and then entire accounts--before Madison Avenue finally reacted. Internet marketing is now a $55 billion annual business, still smaller than TV's $71 billion, but much larger than newspaper, magazine, radio and outdoor, according to PwC 2015 data. EMarketer estimates that healthcare and pharma spending on digital advertising will top $1.3 billion this year; the category ranks last in spending among all the categories eMarketer tracks.

Digital marketing to physicians in particular is an area of opportunity, as many doctors are "super users" of smartphones in both work and personal lives. "Doctors are constantly connecting on platforms and engaging on communication apps that pharma just isn't in. Figure out how to provide value to them and get into those communication channels. Become top of mind in those moments," Papanek said.

She reeled off some that are already doing it. Socrates Ai is medical liaison app for doctors and sales reps who have questions or need support on treatments and drug therapies. Iodine is a search engine for drug information founded by a Google engineer and a Wired editor.

In talking innovation in data, she mentioned Novartis' ($NVS) effort with Google ($GOOG) to track glucose levels through smart contact lenses and Roche's ($RHHBY) investment in the MySugr series of diabetes apps.

Speaking of apps, mobile is also required in this innovation game. "It's got to be mobile. Consumers have already chosen the platform, and the platform is their phone. And by the way, doctors have also chosen that same platform. Because they're consumers too," Papanek said.

Anything else? Well, now that you ask. She said pharma marketers should be thinking about helping patients with financial health literacy, possibly creating health advocates to help navigate the system. And think about good design and usability in creating apps because apps can be a source of valuable data, but only if the patient uses it.

Special Reports: Top 10 pharma companies in social media | Top 10 biggest advertisers in Big Pharma

Read more on