Number’s up

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When it comes to serving health marketers, data is becoming a big player – with only mild side effects.

A recent Pew Internet study indicated that 59% of adult web users have searched for health information online. Over a third have turned to the Internet in an attempt to diagnosis a condition by searching for symptoms, and physicians report that more consumers than ever are arriving at their offi ces informed about their conditions. Google also reports that pregnancy, diabetes and fl u were among the most frequently searched symptoms in 2013.

The increase in popularity of health-related websites could be a windfall for marketers of health-related consumer products – even amid unique challenges, such as regulations and consumer sensitivity. While outright bans on direct-to-consumer advertising for pharmaceuticals exist worldwide (with the exception of New Zealand and the United States), the data that sites collect is very valuable to pharma brands. Additionally, selling over-the-counter medication, diff erentiating food products based on nutrition, and promoting the latest dieting trends are still big advertising business.

Data-driven marketing has the potential for great success in these arenas, but require careful execution in a sensitive privacy and regulatory space.

No Shortage of Data

It’s worth noting that sensitivity does not seem to curb collection. The most popular sites across the web deploy an average of 97 distinct online marketing technologies, which range from social sharing tools to scripts that segment user behaviour.

Healthcare sites are much more active on average, deploying over 140 per domain during the month of December. The top 10 deployed 251 technologies each – which indicates a very aggressive strategy toward supporting original health analysis and segmenting users for later ad matching. This is not without risk for these sites – each tool can slow the speed at which the page loads and the longer a page takes, the less likely the user will stay to browse.

The most important side-effect to address for health sites, however, is data governance. Scripts placed on pages frequently bring other scripts along with them, meaning data about users on a particular site may be shared with third and fourth parties without the site’s knowledge or compensation. This is more than just a business risk, as regulatory bodies all over the world weigh in with guidelines for disclosing the collection of user data. It’s especially important to follow disclosure protocols for health-related data, as users routinely show greater sensitivity for this type of activity than shopping, social or general search habits.

Over-the-counter Advertising

For non-prescription medicines and other general health services, marketers can approach this data in a straight-forward way. By tracking users who read about medications or symptoms from those sites to other places on the web, advertisers can deliver messages about their products to users they know are interested.

Consider the tracking technologies deployed on the sites for leading over-the-counter pain relievers. There are no actual advertisements on these sites themselves, so tools included here are for audience analytics, social sharing and segmenting users for later ad delivery.

Online marketing strategies vary among the top brands. Aleve’s digital marketing team is deploying on five tech tools – though all of these are designed to help target advertisements or measure the effectiveness of existing advertisements.

Tylenol’s site includes 17 marketing technologies, but these include social sharing tools from Facebook and Twitter, as well as site measurement technology from Google Analytics. It’s an interesting contrast with the numbers found for sites in the health category (illustrated in the table above) – there is obviously only a small relative overlap between the tools deployed on the brand sites and the data attribution tools used by sites where they may wish to engage users. These brands may be unaware of the potential untapped audience or, perhaps, have identified other more successful avenues for reaching their intended audience. It’s also possible that the targeted sites are engaging with more partners than necessary, reaching out for audience data that isn’t there. In practice, the reasons for the wide difference are probably comprised of all of these factors.

Data, Indirectly

One advantage of data-driven marketing is that it is not limited to particular interpretations. If a car manufacturer has reason to believe, for example, that a particular model is popular among

golfers then data about users who browse for golf equipment can be used to market cars. Similarly, there are opportunities for pharmaceutical companies to use consumer-level data without violating rules that prohibit direct-to-consumer communication. Data about web users can inform campaigns toward physicians in similar ways as direct campaigns. For example, the regional interest for the search term “flu symptoms” in the United Kingdom shows a few dense areas of interest. Makers of prescription drugs related to influenza, and common complications of the virus, could focus eff orts to deliver samples and information on physicians in Bournemouth and Belfast, where the user interest is at its peak.

In this way, user data can inform campaigns without marketing directly to those users – and geography is just one dimension. Analysis of activity around certain conditions could show trends that include times of the year, gender and age concentrations, or related symptoms or conditions – allowing marketers to focus on physicians at particular times or with particular specialties.

Technological forecasts indicate that practice of data collection and information sharing will continue to grow in 2014. As wearable tech and smart appliances further the concept of a “quantified life”, healthcare and pharmaceutical marketers have new opportunities to understand their audience in a unique and robust way. Working with consumer privacy concerns and under specific regulations, healthcare advertising can fully benefit from a new world of data-driven marketing science.


Andy Kahl has worked in the online technology industry for over 10 years and works as Director of Data Analysis at Evidon.