Pharma’s Stuck in Web’s Waiting Room

The pharmaceutical industry is new to advertising — it was only in the 1990s that it began widely marketing directly to consumers on TV — but it’s even farther behind when it comes to the Web. Despite people turning online in droves to find medical information, pharma marketers are hamstrung by federal regulations, and frustration is setting in.
The would-be recipients of a deluge of pharma marketing dollars complain the Food and Drug Administration is dragging its feet on providing guidelines on how drug companies can advertise online, particularly in social media. These sites claim that after convening on these issues in 2009, the FDA has been disturbingly silent on this issue, which has caused brands to resist embracing the medium.
“Every other high consideration category [like pharma] is advertising on the Web,” said Richy Glassberg, COO MedHelp.org. “Pharma is online, but not to the extent it could be. The Internet is really a failure for pharma ads.”
According to eMarketer, pharma dollars are expected to climb 13 percent in 2011 to a little north of a $1 billion. That’s hardly terrible, but that’s paltry for a category that spent around $26 billion in 2010. Plus, more than ever, social media offers an ideal forum for many seeking help or commiserating on conditions and other health-related issues.
A longstanding challenge within the pharma category is that it’s just not easy to translate those elaborate sets of disclaimers drug brands are required to attach to their ads on the Web: six warnings about side effects fit nicely in a magazine ad or 60-second spot, not so much in a banner.
But an even more pressing issue — and one that many say has frozen dollars in the category — is social media. According to the current federal standards, drug brands are obligated to respond to each and every comment a user makes about one of its products, whether within a community forum, along side an add on or a social site. And with so many content sites now infused with social functionality, the problem has become exacerbated, say industry veterans.
As a result, many content sites, like Webmd.com, silo their communities, and seem to steer ads away from them. Similarly, some brands like Pfizer chose to disable comments on its Facebook page, inherently a less vibrant, less social experiece.
This issue is of such importance that in the past two months executives from both Pfizer and Merck met with Facebook to explore whether those brands might be able to monitor comments before they are posted on the site — something Facebook officials are not crazy about, per sources
According to Glassburg, the FDA had promised some sort of revised official guidelines on advertising in social media for pharma brands by Q1 of this year after about 100 companies met in Washington D.C. in 2009. But he’s still waiting.
“These days, the entire Web is social media,” he said. “Without some common sense rules, we’re operating in a vaccuum here.”
Officials at the FDA  were unavailable for comment. But in a statement, the agency claimed to be on top of these issues and nearing the issuance of some clear-cut guidelines.
“Policy and guidance development for promotion of FDA-regulated medical products using the Internet and social media tools are among our highest priorities,” said the FDA statement. “Despite our limited resources and increasing workload, we remain committed to this area in terms of both time and human resources. It is difficult to provide a timeframe for the issuance of our guidances due to the extensive work and review process.”
Among the issues the FDA is looking to tackle are the space limitations imposed on Web ads,how drug advertisers must handle misinformation, and just how responsible they are for what users post online about products.
“We are developing multiple draft guidances to address these topics to benefit industry and the public by ensuring that these draft guidances are meaningful and well thought out when they are issued,” concluded the FDA’s statement.
Until those guidances are indeed issued, the industry has to do some guessing, according to Raj Amin CEO of HealthiNation, whcih doesn’t exactly encourage big spending.
“Right now, the guidelines aren’t fully understood,” said Amin. “That leads every legal expert [advising pharma brands] to error on the side of caution. That ends up tying the hands of most publishers and brands. The last thing a billion-dollar drug wants is a let from the FDA saying that this banner we found is in the wrong place.”
Wouldn’t Web video answer some of these concerns, since so many pharma brands run on TV? Well, for one thing, 60-second, disclaimer-laden spots are not ideal for many Web video environments, noted Amin.
Plus, nearly every Web video player is different — so accompanying banner ads don’t always satisfy pharma brands’ disclaimer needs.
But the biggest drawback to pharma advertising is the social factor, which increasingly pops its head up everywhere, requiring brands to watch everything a user utters about their drug. “It’s just an unfair standard,” Amin said.
Not everyone agrees with these dire assessments. According to Bruce Grant, Digitas Health’s svp strategic services, this sector of the digital ad world needs to quit complaining and stop waiting for the feds to hold their hands.
“Pharma is about three-to-five years behind the rest of the online ad world,” said Grant. “It looks a lot like 2006.”
That means brands are using tactics like display ads and promotional Web sites — tactics where they control the message. The problem, according to Grant, is that this category lends itself as much as any to conversation, something pharma brands are by nature averse to.
“The influence from peer and professional conversations is more powerful in this category,” said Grant. “These brands need to become appropriate participants.”
But blaming the FDA, said Grant, is a cop out.
“They provide a convenient scapegoat. Other industries, like, say, mutual funds, are as regulated as any. And they’re online.”
Some pharma brands just simply need to become more comfortable with risk, argued Grant. And some may just never get there. “With the complicated messages they have, some pharma products maybe can’t appropriately advertise in this medium,” said Grant. “For example, will anybody in pharma ever be able to advertise on Twitter? I don’t think so.”
Rather than wait around for the government to get clearer and brands to become bolder, Digitas and several other big players in the industry recently banded together to form The Digital Health Coalition, which is headed by Mark Bard, formerly of the health and pharma research organization Manhattan Research. Besides Digitas, the group includes Google, Merck, HealthCentral, AstraZeneca and others.
As Grant put it, “2011 is really a make or break year for pharma on the Web. Either sit out or take steps.”

 

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