For Pharma, All Of This Has Happened Before

SO SAY WE ALL

As someone who grew up with the internet and made it my career I can tell you, the era we’re in right now looks and smells oddly familiar. How? Well ‘back in my day’ the Internet was just a thing. Conceptual. New. No one understood it but everyone was talking about it. Consumers played with it. Brands tried to use it. The media talked about it endlessly. Like with most new things, objectives for success were often poorly defined, but money, gobs and gobs of money were thrown at it.

Strategies evolved that more or less correlated to success. People got smarter. The tools got cheaper and easier to use while the barriers to working the on net got smaller and easier to manage.

Inside of pharma, regulators and brand managers alike struggled to define how to use the internet properly. Adoption happened slowly. Things seemed risky. Hands were wrung, and decisions delayed until others took the lead.

More case studies were needed.

Soon everyone was an internet ‘expert’ and the scrum began. Every agency, freelancer, and Johnny-come-lately tried to get digital work. Innovation was sought at the expense of meaningful results. Things had to be new. They had to be shiny. And they had to have lots and lots of Flash.

Prices fell. The talent pool swelled. Expertise was defined by what you’d just launched. The noise level rose. Soon it became hard to tell what was great from what was working. Flashy was the new good.

Now, reread the previous paragraphs and replace the word ‘internet’ with the words ‘social media’ or ‘mobile’.  All of this has happened before.

Then, terrible things happened. The economy tanked. 9/11 occurred. The dot–conomy imploded. All those people dreaming of their internet riches and piles of stock options e-lost all their virtual iDollars and ended up in thepoorhouse.com.

The party was over.

Strangely, I see the lessons of that era not informing the decisions of today. Social and mobile are too new and undefined. They’re too different. There’s no agreed upon measurement plans. Sound familiar? It should. All of this has happened before.

What I find most astonishing about this is that the very people who seem so flummoxed about how emerging tech can be applied to real business challenges are the very same people who should know better. They lived through the pain, and they fought the battles and struggled to be relevant. Yet here we are again. Square one. Part of the challenge comes from the constant influx of talent into the industry. Your run-of-the-mill agency person under the age of 30 didn’t experience that period of time in marketing, and most brand managers don’t stay in a marketing position long enough to impart the hard-learned experiences of that time onto others. The cycle ends up repeating.

The same regulatory and legal concerns that challenged the adoption of the internet are playing themselves out all over again in the mobility driven age. Remember when the biggest concern about creating a website was whether showing images of packaging would somehow lead to fraud or a rise in fake content? It may seem quaint now, but the fear was very real and very, very time consuming to negotiate. That very same conversation happens when discussing a Pinterest program.

So where does that leave us? Looking back at the past it occurs to me that 4 key lessons emerge. These may seem like “um, duh” tips, but I assure you, they are often ignored, usually at the expense of some really great ideas.

1. Have a defined objective
The seduction of new tools and technologies are that they generate opportunities to create some really “wow” stuff. That’s all well and good, but often the tried and true works better. Have an objective. Stick to the plan. Generating buzz can be a perfect objective for some programs but is definitely not a one size fits all outcome. Chase the shiny object only if it gets you somewhere. After all, it would be far more valuable to have 10,000 highly targeted, highly engaged patients than 100 early-adopters that will never use your product.

2. Understand your audience
Your audience wants value. They want you to fill a need. If they’ve raised their hand by expressing a need, give them something in return. People in social channels want content and experiences that are useful and in some way shape or form educational or interesting. How you write for social is going to be fundamentally different than how you write for a website. Content will need to live, evolve, and grow over time. The same thing goes for mobile. Giving users yet another app that duplicates what 700 others already do is a waste of time. Success comes from thoroughly understanding how your brand can solve a problem for it’s customers. If you think of social and mobile channels only in terms of what you want from users, you will fail.

3. Think value, not cost
Too often, brands focus on the price tag of a program without taking results into consideration. If an app cost $50,000  but only has 10 users, was it a bargain? How about if it costs $500,000 and has 100,000? The tendency to do this comes from not taking into account the ROI or cost-benefit analysis for any given program. If you only focus on projects solely from a cost viewpoint, chances are you’ll get what you pay for.

4. Think, don’t feel
The proximity bias dictates that for the most part, people will go with what they know. I’ve seen brand after brand push money into failing programs simply because they are familiar and “seem” to work. Take a look at how much money get’s spent on display ads in pharma. What’s the click through rate? .2%? How many websites does your brand have? Do you redesign them every six months but leave the content the same? Why? Amazon hasn’t changed its interface in 7 years, but it does reinvigorate it’s content all the time. Other programs, especially in social and mobile may be able deliver far better results for far less money. Challenge assumptions. Push innovation. Demand value. Hard metrics are your friend.

Much like the late 90’s the industry is going through tremendous technological changes. It’s an exciting time, but is fraught with challenges, opportunities, and adventures. The lessons of the past should inform the decisions of today and not be forgotten. Mistakes should be learned from and strategies adjusted.

After all, all of this has happened before.

 

9 Responses to “For Pharma, All Of This Has Happened Before”

  1. Joe Cardillo July 18, 2013 at 10:04 am #

    Spot on Bill. In fact, this cycle and the lessons you mention could easily be applied to a number of industries.

    Truthfully, I have a hard time staying positive, because watching the same people make the same mistakes over and over is fairly depressing. The value of knowing who your brand / company is, what you mean to your customers, etc… is as strong as it’s always been, even before The Internet.

  2. Breanne Thomlison July 18, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    Well put. I am going through this experience right now with the +30 crowd, so even they aren’t remembering these shifts/ups/downs. I agree with Joe, sometimes it’s hard to stay positive, because too often people are “feeling” versus “thinking”. I even see this trend happening faster in the financial industry.

  3. Debbie Donovan July 18, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    Well done. Never before has medical marketing had the measurement tools at our disposal. We are crazy not to learn from the social media lessons from the big consumer brands and apply them (in my case) to medical devices, pharmaceuticals and other healthcare products and services.

  4. joe July 19, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    Typo in 10th paragraph

  5. David Cherry July 31, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

    Lovely article, Bill – and spot on. Will be reposting. Thanks!

  6. Annie August 15, 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    Your article nailed it. People see a shiny new medium and suddenly forget the basics.

    Social media, apps, mobile – these are all merely tactics. They do not replace a solid strategy with measurable objectives. If you’re not using digital tactics to reach a marketing objective, you’re just playing around.

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