Big Pharma has apps up for grabs, but not many users are biting

Big Pharma has plenty of apps up for grabs, with companies like Sanofi ($SNY), Boehringer Ingelheim and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) rolling out flashy new products to pique consumers' interest. But as it turns out, not too many consumers are downloading them.

A new report from Research2Guidance (R2G) analyzed more than 725 apps from 11 drugmakers, and found that leading pharma companies each have 65 apps in the Apple and Google Play app stores on average, compared to 1 to 2 apps from the average health app publisher. But drugmakers with the most downloaded apps have only brought in 6.6 million downloads since 2008 and have less than 1 million active users, suggesting a few possible kinks in Big Pharma's approach.

Problem number one, the R2G report suggests, is that apps aren't appealing to the masses. Nearly half of pharma companies are only targeting local markets, distributing their apps in 3 or fewer countries. Drugmakers also tend to build their app portfolios around specific products, rather than tailoring their approaches to fit popular demand. The app market for health tracking, weight loss and fitness management is booming, and pharma companies that cash in on the trend could stand to benefit the most, the report says.

Then, there's the issue of style, as drugmakers struggle to form a cohesive brand for their apps. Companies do not use common style guides or cross-referencing, and often publish apps under different entities. Pharma giant Novartis ($NVS), for one, publishes its apps under 17 different entities, according to the R2G report. Drugmakers have the opportunity to release apps under a common, over-arching theme--but few are taking advantage of this strategy.

Still, some companies are playing the mobile health app game better than others. Big Pharma heavyweights fall into three categories, the report says: "niche," "first success" and "still trying." Niche players like Roche ($RHHBY) and Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) mostly use apps to bolster key products. They often target healthcare professionals, which accounts for a lower reach and smaller app portfolio. Merck ($MRK), on the other hand, is a "first success" performer, with a large app portfolio geared toward the masses. But 93% of Merck's app portfolio comes from three apps, R2G notes, possibly accounting for its standout performance in the study, but the report doesn't name the specific apps.

As for "still trying," the group stays true to its name: Companies like Bayer Healthcare and Novartis are rolling out apps that target a variety of users, but still record below-average downloads. Novartis, for example, brought in only 22% of its downloads from its top 3 apps.

In the meantime, pharma companies are working hard to develop consumer-friendly apps that appeal to diverse audiences. In May, J&J launched Track Your Health, a "gamified" app that allows users to monitor personal health and wellness data. In September, Sanofi rolled out a new app that teaches children how to manage their Type 1 Diabetes. The launch followed less than a year after the drug giant launched its last gaming effort, Monster Manor, which encourages players to test and record their blood glucose levels.

- read the R2G report (PDF)
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