Pharma embraces digital, or at least gives it a high five

A recurring theme at conferences, speeches and in the media in 2015 has been Big Pharma's lack of digital savviness. Some of that is undeserved broad-brushing. But it's true that Big Pharma, by and large, has been slow to adopt digital technologies, especially when it comes to marketing. There are reasons, most often cited as regulatory hurdles, privacy issues or internal legal wranglings, but the time for watchful waiting is over.

The good news is that some progressive pharma companies have already embarked and more are lined up. Companies hooking up with tech companies include Sanofi ($SNY) and Novartis' ($NVS) Alcon brand, which each aligned with Google ($GOOG) for diabetes and eye health technology, respectively.

In digital marketing, some pharma companies are figuring out how to incorporate data-enabled advertising, and Salesforce software and analytics into both B2B and consumer marketing efforts. Others are going bolder with digital advertising campaigns. Novartis' "Hey MS Take This!" campaign for its multiple sclerosis drug Gilenya employs patients as online advocates and engages them on its Facebook page, which encourages community and information sharing.

eMarketer estimates that pharma and healthcare will spend $2.55 billion on online and mobile advertising by 2020, up from $1.64 billion this year. It expects U.S. "healthcare and pharma marketers to invest 56% of their digital advertising dollars on ads that are meant to drive a direct response, and 44% on ads that have a branding-based objective" this year, eMarketer added.

Of course, there are advantages to pharma's slower start in digital, noted Peter Niemi, a partner at MDC Advertising, on MediaMath's blog: "While the pharma market has been slower to adopt new digital marketing tools, it has had the positive result of being able to learn from the advances made in other industries."

- see eMarketer story
- read Niemi's column