Skip to NavigationSkip to content

Digital Marketing R&D - Using an old method to understand the present and help predict the future of Digital marketing…

Published date: 


By Adam Thornton - Digital Media Manager, Medical Media Services

It’s been well documented that the pharma industry’s assimilation into the digital age of marketing hasn’t been as rapid as those working in other sectors.  There are many reasons given for this resistance to embrace the digital age properly; the main offender being the fact that the open, information exchange ethos of the internet is at complete loggerheads with the closed, restricted access world of the pharmaceutical industry.  This won’t be news to most people but although this is widely acknowledged, only minor dents have been made in removing this barrier.  However, it is possible to meet the historic business needs of the pharmaceutical industry, whilst also going some way to solving some of the re-occurring problems we all face now and help us look to the future.  

Testing the waters…

 A recent study conducted by the Chartered Institute of Marketing into the attitudes of marketers using social media found that nearly 30% of them were just experimenting with the medium.  Some of you might shiver for fear of wasted advertising revenue but I believe this is forward thinking at its best.  

As with anything, the only constant with digital marketing is change.  Let’s start living in the here and now and start experimenting with our efforts in this medium to improve results, customer interactions and ROI for our clients.

R&D of old…

If we look back to the 1950s we can chart the beginning of a massive explosion in the number of medical products that became available; all of which can be attributed to their company’s Research and Development programmes.  At the start, due to advances in manufacturing and the understanding of human biology, these efforts produced ground breaking results.  As the years moved on and pharma companies became ever hungrier for the next block buster to add to their portfolio the funds increased and the results became a little more ‘hit and miss’. 

There is nothing wrong with ‘hit and miss’ though.  If it wasn’t for a group of scientists in Kent failing to produce a worthy drug for angina (a miss) in the early 1990’s we wouldn’t have Viagra (a massive hit).  

Let’s promote the working ways of the Pharma research scientists of old and reapply them to help solve the problems we face when using digital mediums in the HCP market today.  As we move away from the golden age of product research and development it’s time to enter a new one; Digital Marketing Research and Development.

Trying to predict the future….

More of the organisations that we deal with as an agency have now started to take a more responsible approach to using digital marketing and have begun looking a lot closer at the ROI that our campaigns deliver.  This was music to my ears to begin with but then the rosy light of the prospect of working with enlightened marketers began to fade.  More and more I am being asked to demonstrate the success of a digital advertising campaign and provide a full break down of ROI….before the campaign has even started or a creative has been developed.  This largely involves using data from old campaigns and forecasted click through rates from 12 month old data.

It’s safe to say that the industry has now moved on from simply scanning a print advert into a computer and calling it a ‘digital banner’ and that, on the whole, things have become a little more sophisticated.  However, we are still being approached to place adverts with no call to action on them or drive traffic to an App that has been developed without actually asking the audience if they wanted it in the first place.  When these things inevitably fail to achieve the success that was promised during the initial creative meeting, the media channels used for promotion often find themselves in the firing line.

The pressure is on for pharma marketers to demonstrate the ROI of all of the activities that they use for the advancement of their brands, and digital marketing is no different.  However it’s clear that they will front the money for Apps, websites, microsites, digital adverts, etc. without really looking at what their customer base actually can and will use or indeed want.  In doing this they place themselves under more pressure as they’ve then got to make this paid-for-up-front asset work in a potentially uninterested environment.  

Of course there are success stories out there with well-developed digital assets quite literally changing the way that doctors work and interact with their patients.  However the elements that lead to successes aren’t shared within organisations and it’s the same story with the failed attempts.

Digital Marketing R&D; the crystal ball we’re all after?

 If an organisation were to adopt an ‘R&D’ approach to its digital marketing it would be able to build up a fuller picture of what currently works in the HCP digital world.  Of course there would be failures along the way but pharma companies are well versed in ‘R&D’ and will therefore realise that every ‘miss’ is stride toward digital advertising nirvana.

There is of course a lot of data that shows what kind of digital advertising is the most effective when trying to reach out to certain demographics, including physicians.  However data for the audiences our clients look to target specifically are few and far between.  Also it’s worth remembering that looking at data of this kind only allows you to measure the past and not help you in the present.

As a media planning and buying agency we are constantly trying to improve the live data we have around different target audiences to ensure we’re best placed to advise on how to access a particular group.  This has involved investing in spend, circulation and reach data.  However, in order to make further strides into harnessing more potential from digital marketing for both our clients and other agencies we’ll need help from the industry.

This concept shouldn’t be completely alien to the organisations we deal with.  If you want to bring a new drug to market you’re probably looking at spending somewhere in the region of £500 million.  It’s a lot, but remember this price includes all of the dead ends and false hopes (or ‘misses’) that you had along the way.  

It would of course be reckless to suggest wilfully accepting losses from advertising but if we instead suggest to our clients that the following tactics can be employed, we can ensure that digital marketing R&D is adopted and that the results can form best practice for all concerned:

  • Display Advertising – instead of developing one banner or one skyscraper, develop multiple advert formats to understand what your target audience are attracted to.  This can be taken one step further, you should also alternate different calls to action in an effort to understand what will drive viewers to click onto your advert in a live setting
  • Website Development – this is a little trickier; firstly we’re going to have to drop the ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ approach, because they won’t come!  Research the lay of the land before the objectives of building a website are even put down on paper.  
  • Although the research into digital might not be as comprehensive as with print, some of the findings would have halted the development of failed projects before they started.  Knowing that 75% of Geriatricians, for example, find medical websites “extremely useful” and that the majority of Urologists don’t would help you decide which drugs in your portfolio to build a website for.  
  • Investing in a ‘dashboard’ will help you monitor a site’s usage on a day-to-day basis and, better yet, help you predict the future allowing you to become more proactive.
  • Global, continental and local campaigns – As organisations begin to move from local to regional advertising brand managers are finding that they have to collaborate with their colleagues across the channel and deliver integrated marketing campaigns.  
  • As a media planning agency we have been involved in this process and found that the one-size-fits-all approach means that success is found in some countries but not others.  This is undoubtedly an area that needs some research and development.  
  • Through setting aside budget at the start of global campaigns, creative, messages and resources can be altered to ensure they appeal to local markets whilst still allowing for control from one central, organisational point.
  • Sharing Experience – Many digital providers will target individual brand teams as opposed to looking at the organisation as a whole.  Let’s face it, this will produce quicker wins and is going to get you a higher conversion rate.  However, in the long run you’ll find that this approach becomes more and more time consuming as you’re having to start from scratch every single time.

If we can tease our brand managers and marketers out from their silos and encourage them to share their digital marketing research and development results across their organisations it will 1, increase awareness of all of the innovative work we do, and 2, improve the standards in digital marketing as a whole.

The key to unlocking success in this medium is to understand that digital marketing works only in the present; the internet is not something you put away on a shelf, it’s constantly renewing itself.  Looking to the past will only really help you understand what worked then, not now.

Digital Marketing R&D recognises this and allows us to not only learn the lessons of the past, but monitor the 'now' thus helping us to shape up for the future.  

As advertising guru John Hegarty observes, ‘we have moved from a culture of ‘do and learn’ to a culture of ‘learn and do’.  Let's encourage the Pharma world to do the same.

For further infomation contact Adam on or see




Mission Statement is a leading portal for the pharmaceutical industry, providing industry professionals with pharma news, pharma events, pharma service company listings and pharma jobs,
Site content is produced by our editorial team exclusively for and our industry newspaper Pharmafocus. Service company profiles and listings are taken from our pharmaceutical industry directory, Pharmafile, and presented in a unique Find and Compare format to ensure the most relevant matches