Marketing advice for pharma: Get on the digital train or get run over

Google's Ryan Olohan

At a recent Ogilvy CommonHealth marketing summit, Google's ($GOOG) national industry director of healthcare, Ryan Olohan, compared the digital disruption in the pharma industry to a large, slow-moving train. He pointed to other industries where brands like Kodak, Blockbuster and Blackberry ($BBRY) either stood by watching or moved too late and were, in essence, run over by the digital locomotive that plowed through their sectors. Will the same thing happen in pharma?

Ritesh Patel, executive vice president and chief digital officer at Ogilvy CommonHealth and the conference organizer, said that depends on the company.

Progressive pharma thinkers have begun to embrace the digital challenge and are not only thinking about what they need to do to change, but also piloting programs to get there, he said. Others who give into fear and uncertainty and "stick their heads in the sand" will not fare as well.

Novartis ($NVS), Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Janssen, Merck ($MRK), Pfizer ($PFE), Sanofi ($SNY) and Boehringer Ingelheim are among those working to build digital strengths, Patel said, in particular by building communities.

Engaging and creating patient communities is an effective way for pharma to approach digital, he said.

Ogilvy CommonHealth chief digital officer

Novartis' branded Facebook page for its inhaled cystic fibrosis drug Tobi podhaler, for example, launched two years ago to provide information about the then-new way to take the drug--tobramycin, an antibiotic--and encourage patients to connect with one another. Patel, who worked on the project, said the page was "critical" in getting patients to understand and use the new delivery mechanism. Today the site has more than 88,000 fans.

While building the Tobi site, the biggest pushback came from within the company, he said. Medical and regulatory legal teams "went ape" at first. But once the marketing team explained how it would all work, including outlining the standard operating procedure for mitigating adverse effects and staying compliant, the legal teams agreed and green-lighted the project.

"It's not too different from someone calling a call center and saying, 'I took your medicine and all my hair fell out, what should I do?' There is a standard procedure for dealing with adverse effects there, why can't they do that online?" Patel said. "There is a tendency at some of the incumbent companies to opt out with the excuse 'my legal team won't let me.' But the proof is out there that if you do educate the lawyers, they'll get on board."

Novartis' Gleevec for blood cancer and Gilenya for multiple sclerosis are two other drugs that had similar social media and digital marketing successes by adopting community approaches.

Patel advised pharma companies to create patient ambassadors within their organizations. Patient ambassadors act similarly to community managers at consumer marketing companies; they engage with patients via social listening in communities, forums and other direct interactions.

What's the alternative for pharma? The danger is that without digital advances, companies simply become pill manufacturers.

Already, outsider tech companies have begun taking up the slack where pharma has not yet ventured or delivered. In app development, for example, a study by research2guidance last year found that traditional healthcare players--including pharma--have published the largest number of mHealth apps, but their reach is far below the average number of downloads.

And more competition is on the way. Patel pointed to heavyweight VC firms in Silicon Valley, like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Andreessen Horowitz, that have said more recently they are focusing on healthcare investments.

Google's Olohan said just a little movement won't be enough. Kodak and Blockbuster and others thought incrementally and that was their problem. Pharma needs to think about changing at 10 times the normal rate and becoming truly disruptive, he said.

"When you're thinking about digital, are you looking at the train and thinking incrementally or are you going 10x?" Olohan asked.

- see the Ogilvy CommonHealth marketing summit tagboard

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