Awareness isn't enough: Pharma needs to focus on action campaigns

May is the most crowded disease awareness month of the year, but a recent paper published in the American Journal of Public Health suggests it's mostly for naught. While "awareness days" do spread the word about a particular condition, the events seem to have little effect on public health.

The paper made a big splash, and in the ensuing media coverage--including interviews with the authors--the debate eventually settled into a consensus: Awareness needs to become action. Think specific plans and goals, versus the often-vague value of a single day of reposting messages and wearing ribbons.

And that's an action plan for pharma, too. For drugmakers that sponsor and support disease awareness initiatives, that means setting clear-cut goals, crafting marketing with those goals in mind, and putting measurement analytics in place to maximize value, said Joanna Derma, VP of client services at Intouch Solutions.

There's some value in simple awareness--that is, making people aware of an entire disease category, especially if you sell the leading drugs in that category. But it's still just a start. Pharma-sponsored campaigns can serve as lead generators, drive people to doctors for diagnosis, address the needs of patients already living with the disease and build connections between pharma and patients, she said.

"Disease awareness is the bridge across that gap of trust between patients and manufacturers," Derma said. "… The needs of the patient are really golden, and understanding what they're telling you is so important. Then when the time for branded conversation comes, you can really customize the message to them."

Today, many awareness campaigns are already lead generators. It's an effective way to build email databases of potential patients in a way that pharma advertising can't. As Derma pointed out, people are much more willing to give out their email addresses to an awareness-raising campaign than they are to a pharma company.

And there are case studies and evidence that specific awareness campaigns have driven more people to see their doctors. For instance, in a U.K. smoking-cessation campaign, 3,000 extra patients were tested and 700 were found to have lung cancer. The Go Red for Women campaign built around women's heart disease and risks says that through its education more than one-third of women have lost weight and 50% increased exercise.

Even though pharma doesn't publicize the results of its proprietary sponsorships, as the industry continues to move beyond selling pills to marketing packages of products and services that improve patient outcomes, disease awareness campaigns will likely still be an important part of communications.

One of the keys, however, in this evolving and tighter market is return--showing higher-ups that you've delivered, that is. That means tracking and tweaking along the way.

"The measurement plan upfront is very important and make sure you stick to it. And make sure you optimize as you go," Derma said, adding that digital communications make that easier. "Digital is where people are finding information, where people are intersecting with brands and where results are trackable."

- see the AJPH article
- get the awareness days calendar

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