Digital Pharmaceutical Marketing : A Review


Dhara Parekh*, Dr. Pankaj Kapupara, Dr. Ketan Shah

Department of Quality Assurance, School of Pharmacy, RK University, Kasturbadham, Rajkot -360 020 Gujarat

*Corresponding Author E-mail:



‘Digital’ has become an important part of the everyday life. All the sectors have been adapting to the digital era at a faster rate. However other than the website, the pharma industry has not quite been able to adopt digital marketing. In this era more pharmaceutical companies utilize social media sites or ecommerce sites as digital marketing platform. This enables online purchase of products by the customers. Some organisations are trying to understand the true value of digital while others are integrating it into the wider marketing strategy. However all the companies cannot sell products online as they manufacture prescription drugs, which cannot be sold online.

For example, Pfizer is active and responsive to the customers via social networking platforms. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were used to communicate with customers. Johnson and Johnson was one of the first companies to launch a YouTube channel. Quantum Pharmaceuticals and The Specials Lab, North East based pharmaceutical companies offer online ordering of special medicines promoting e-commerce and digital marketing.


KEYWORDS: Pharmaceutical marketing, digital marketing, digital marketing strategies, e-pharm, social media.




There are some businesses that are very innovative in terms of digital advancement, but lack of good case studies of digitalisation in the pharmaceutical sector limits the use[1] .Web marketing is not that well adapted by the Pharmaceutical sector. The cautious behaviour of the sector, which is combined with uncertain regulation, held back pharmaceuticals sector while marketers in finance, professional services, manufacturing and business services have raced ahead online[2].However, online professional and patient communities have developed to adapt increased usage of mobile, social media as well as online information by patients, healthcare professionals (HCP), key opinion leaders (KOL) and the larger medical fraternity have instigated pharmaceutical companies to invest and explore digital marketing strategies within industry guidelines[3] .


Types of digital marketing

1.    Search engine optimization:

When customers look for any health information they initially turn on to Google, Yahoo or MSN/Bing which are most used search engines. Healthcare information search is one of the most common online activities among internet users of all ages. SEO is an effective approach to reach these users. Search ranks are manipulated by using the search engine optimization strategies resulting in better search rank on Google or any other search engines.

Hence for organizations that utilise search engine optimization (SEO) strategies, it marks as an important opportunity to reach their target audiences. The organizations which cannot be located in search engines are losing out on a massive opportunity to reach the people target population[4]. Important aspects of search engine optimization are keyword usage in titles and URLs, internal links on your own website, backlinks from other websites, proper use of alt tags with images, and social network activity[5].


2.    Social Media Marketing[5]:

Search engines use activity on social media as a medium for marketing. Facebook shares, retweets over twitter and +1s on Google aid your position on the search engine results pages. Social media marketing enables direct connection of the company with its consumers. It improves the brand’s values and strengthen reputation of the organisation. The negative experiences in a public forum can be turned around by providing the updates from company website and encourage discussion.


3.    Pay Per Click Ads[5]:

If the company website isn’t having enough traffic, ads may be purchased on Google. Ads can also be purchased on other websites via the numerous ad networks directly. Pay-per-click, or PCC adds are depend on keyword that are used by searcher on Google. Ad analytics software lets the company determine the success rate of PPC campaigns. The company will only pay if anyone has clicked on the link of the add.


4.    Email Newsletters[6]:

ExactTarget released their 2012 Channel Preference Survey, which implied that email still remained the number one direct channel preferred by consumers for daily use for both personal and marketing communications. Also, the widespread use of smart phones and tablets allows its consumers to access the emails quickly. Also, the ExactTarget report showed that 77% of consumers prefer receiving permission-based marketing communications through email, compared to social channels (6%) and text messaging (5%). Email provides consumers the feeling of control and personalization in which they can opt into a relationship and then follow through by providing them with the information only which they wish to receive.


Current scenario and challenges:

The numbers of approximate internet users were 1405 million in Asia in the year 2014 followed by 582.4 million users in Europe and increasing day by day worldwide. This has given a major boost to the digital era in various sectors[7].


Digital Marketing in any sector is a more cost-effective and less time consuming method to communicate with customers compared to traditional marketing. Digital marketing allows pharmaceutical marketers to use data to create more strategic engagement with prescribers and physicians. However many companies are still not able to integrate digital into the wider business strategy[10]. The pharmaceutical sector faces many challenges in adopting the digital marketing strategies some of which are explained below.


1.    Inadequate company vision[11]:

Most of the companies lack a proper vision for implementation of the digital marketing solutions. The strategies are not clearly defined, agreed upon and shared internally. A strong management is required to confirm the vision, set out the objectives and monitor the pace of work. The identification of the field force and marketing champions promoting the digital pharma vision is usually not found in the companies.


2.    A lack of digital minds[10]:

The pharmaceutical sector lacks workforce that is skilful and wish to drive digital change. To establish digital marketing in the company, employees should have knowledge about the digital marketing, as well as the complexity of implementing digital in the pharmaceutical industry. Most of the companies lack the efficient workforce who understands the industry as well as the new digital marketplace simultaneously.


3.    A digital catastrophe [10]:

Many pharmaceutical companies have started implementing digital channels and campaigns; however the marketers in this field are unable to execute an overall effective digital strategy. Increased data has resulted in difficult analysis and utilization of data in digital strategies has thus created a digital catastrophe. The pharmaceutical marketers should unify data across channels; utilize the data in real-time, refine digital strategies accordingly using their digital minds.


4.    Strict Regulations:

The issue of the regulations in each jurisdiction requires close examination prior to any digital campaigns being launched[11]. Life sciences marketing face stricter regulations when compared to other sectors. The pharmaceutical sector has to follow the FDA as well as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requirements from the privacy to the creative copy. In 1996, establishment of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protected the security and privacy of the health data. This act prevented the advertisers from misusing the health data online, protecting the privacy of the healthcare data. In 2010, FDA issued warning letter to a Novartis to pull back Facebook share, as the risk information about leukemia treatment drug Tasigna provided was inadequate[12]. With the search restrictions the pharmaceutical companies have been more careful about the investment and adoption of new digital marketing practices[13].


Companies who are able to integrate digital and the approval process with built-in compliance workflows can make digital work in real-time[10].


5.    Poorly maintained websites:

Biopharmaceutical manufacturers are slow to use social media. The old “Web 1.0” world is still followed by some of the pharmaceutical companies. Pharmaceutical sector has preferred one-way flow of information which has carefully screened, legally approved, and protected against outside interference. Such websites only push information lacking direct interaction with patients[14]. An out-of-date site with poor maintainance is worst than having no site at all. Efficient human resources must found to manage these interactions[15].


Survey on Digital Marketing:

1.    Survey conducted by COUCH[8]:

COUCH, an integrated digital marketing and creative healthcare communications agency conducted a survey of 119 companies in the pharmaceutical sector to analyse the challenges that the digital pharma would face in 2014. According to the survey,

1.    The 92% of respondents were not satisfied with their companies’ current digital technology implementation

2.    The  challenge faced by 83% of the respondents is to adopt digital technologies in their company

3.    Budget was identified by 75% of respondents as major challenge to incorporate digitalisation into their overall marketing strategy

4.    73% of respondents faced absence of digital strategy at workplace.14% of respondents measured their activities on  weekly to monthly basis.


Respondents also mentioned the major challenges they faced to incorporate the digital marketing.


Fig. 1: Survey conducted by COUCH about digital marketing challanges and issues[8]


Expertise, innovations and creativity can be resolved may ways. Some of which include outsourcing to agencies, using consultants, employ part-time staff till enough funds are available for full-timers or use freelance workers.


The survey also focussed on the main focus area for the year 2014 to improve digital marketing in the pharmaceutical sector.


Fig. 2: Focuses in digital pharma [8]


Almost 95% of the pharmaceutical companies understand the importance of the websites yet some of the companies do not have one. The value of the marketing activities can be understood by determining the return on investment you get after adapting this method. ETools for sales include many options, such as customer relationship management (CRM), e-detailing programs, lead nurturing applications that enables to track the prospect through the sales process. Mobile, is huge across retail industries but not used for marketing in the pharmaceutical sector. 50% of respondents recognized the need for it is huge but cannot determine its proper use.


2.    Survey conducted by com SCORE[9]:

comSCORE.Inc, a leader in measuring the digital world, conducted a survey on “Online Marketing Effectiveness Benchmarks for Pharmaceutical Industry”. Based on comScore’s survey data from 163 pharmaceutical studies, the results show that online direct to consumer (DTC) marketing continues to increase conversion among patients and prospects. It also shows that pharmaceutical online advertising has highest viewability rates of any industry. Across a study of billions of pharmaceutical advertising impressions spanning over 15 brands, 51 percent of the ads were viewable. Out of the ten industries comScore benchmarked, pharmaceutical advertising impressions had the highest viewability rates.


Fig. 3: Online Display Ad Viewability [9]

Strategies that can be implemented

Pharmaceutical companies have a huge opportunity to use their expertise healthcare reforms by altering their business model[16]. Pharmaceutical sector is an information-intensive industry. Healthcare’s business model has remained unaffected by the digital revolution until recently. Health is delivered traditionally till present as the industry lacks the usage of digital technologies[17]. The strict regulations, lack of proper digital strategies, etc. have been major barriers for adoption of digital marketing. The companies require to have a well defined strategy for implementation of digital marketing which most of them lack. Technology is not the only solution but it must be also used in the regular work process flow[18].


Following are the few strategies that the pharmaceutical companies can adopt in order to increase the opportunities in digital era.

1.    Collaborative business model[19]:

The pharmaceutical industry is quickly innovating despite its traditional barriers through collaboration with partners, stakeholders and beyond. The availability of digital technologies provides great potential for almost-limitless collaboration. The collaborators can efficiently and effectively research and develop new therapies. For example, Pfizer has adopted an innovative cloud-based clinical data platform, which enables participants to aggregate, analyses and visualize clinical trial patient data across studies and drug programs, supporting intelligent trial design, precision medicine, pharmacovigilance and regulatory enquiries.


2.    Business partners[18]:

Digital strategies include partnering with companies which address complimentary aspects of a given disease. For example companies marketing anticoagulants for atrial fibrillation should partner with medical device companies identifying these patients with remote cardiac monitoring. Introducing a digital marketing tool is not difficult. The companies must not only introduce but they must also adopt them. 


3.    Introduce mobile apps[18]:

The long wait of the pharmaceutical companies ended when the FDA released the guidance of mobile medical apps. Apps delivered in via mobile phones in a go helps better understanding of patients regading their diagnoses and medications prior to discharge. Complete details of any medication can be mentioned in the apps which allows better direct to consumer marketing. Pharmaceutical companies would be gain more profit if they partner with companies which can deliver the apps in a context of patient management including symptoms and medications, not specifically disease management.


4.    Sharing data for population studies[18]:

Large data collected overtime tends to be useless unless good analysis is performed on it. The results associated with data should be brought out. The combination of point of care content, mobile and analytics will be what truly changes healthcare in digital.


5.    Create a new organisational structure for digital marketing[11]:

Appoint an e-marketing strategy manager, e-marketing product manager, digital marketing committee, etc. which can help to drive innovation on the digital marketing of the company and build digital strategies.


6.    Ensure IT support[11]:

Adequate IT support is needed in order to provide solution to any digital marketing issues.


7.    Patient and Health Care Provider (HCP) services[19] :

As patients and HCPs are using more technologies day by day, they also expect pharmaceutical companies to provide technology-based services that can help patients monitor and manage their health. These services can also significantly contribute to the research and development into new treatments. It also connects stakeholders across the broader healthcare ecosystem to support the delivery of treatment and provide evidence of results. Digitally-enabled patient services, such as apps or online platforms or educational resources that link to a broader set of services which aids patients and HCPs deal with health issues should be used.


Future scopes:

The pharmaceutical companies will in future highly adapt to digitalisation and develop extensive connectivity, data analysis and collaboration. Digital shall soon become the backbone of pharmaceutical industry, provided they develop proper marketing strategies and implement them. The patients and health care teams would provide the communication platform for brands. The traditional one way relationship in our healthcare system will soon change to two way relationship exclusively with help of digitalization on this sector[20]. Mobile marketing, social media and other forms of digital marketing will lead to creation of valuable channels enabling patients to exchange information.



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2.     Digital Strategy Consulting. Web strategies for pharma brands. Available from: URL: documents/DIR_Pharmaceutical-marketing-strategies.pdf


3.     Tata Consultancy Services. Integrated Digital Marketing- The Key to Understanding Customer. Available from: URL:

4.     HSW Solutions. Search Engine Optimization. Available from: URL:

5.     THP Creative Group. Types of Digital Marketing. Available from: URL:

6.     ExactTarget. 2012 Channel Preference Survey. Available from: URL:

7.     Miniwatts Marketing Group. Internet World Stats. Available from: URL:

8.     COUCH. Digital Pharma: Is There Reason to Worry? Available from: URL:

9.     ComSCORE. New Pharma Digital Marketing Benchmarks Show that Online Pharmaceutical Marketing Continues to Drive Brand Awareness, Favorability and Conversions. Available from: URL:

10.   Hilary Goetz. Is digital marketing doing more harm than good for Pharma? Available from: URL:

11.   L.E.K Consulting Executive Insights. Unlocking Digital Marketing Opportunities For Pharmaceuticals Sector: Avoiding Common Pitfalls Of Digital Marketing Implementations. Available from: URL: Pharmaceuticals_Sector_-_Avoiding_the_Pitfalls_of_Digital_ Marketing_Implementation.pdf

12.   “Pharmaceutical Marketing – Advertising Age”, October 17 2011

13.   CONTEXTWEB. Pharmaceutical Digital Marketing: Go Beyond Traditional Marketing. Available from: URL:

14.   Elizabeth.E.Gerrard. Social Media and Postmarketing Drug Safety.

15.    Brian O’Riordan. 6 challenges facing pharma communications. Available from: URL: /165038/pharma-communications-challenges

16.   Strategy & Digital Health A way for Pharma companies to be more relevant in healthcare. Available from: URL:

17.   ATKearney. Time for Pharma to dive into digital. Available from: URL: documents/10192/5636407/ Time+for+Pharma+to+Dive+into+Digital.pdf/e410a434-6b5c-4e20-9ed1-42359e784d92

18.   David Leescher. Five Imperatives for Pharma’s Digital Health Strategy. Available from: URL:   

19.   Sunil Rao .Expert View: How can pharmaceutical companies adapt to the digital era? Available from: URL:

20.   David Ormesher.Get Ahead Of The Current Shift In Pharma Marketing By Promoting Patient Outcomes. Available from: URL: GetAheadOfTheCurrentShiftInPharmaMarketing ByPromotingPatientOutcomes





Received on 08.12.2015          Modified on 24.12.2015

Accepted on 30.12.2015        © RJPT All right reserved

Research J. Pharm. and Tech. 9(1): Jan., 2016; Page 108-112

DOI: 10.5958/0974-360X.2016.00017.2