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Pharmaceutical Content Marketing: How to Cure What Ails You

pharmaceutical-content-marketingDo you have trouble communicating the benefits your business provides in terms that the government will allow and that consumers can relate to? Have you experienced problems with public perception that hinder your ability to earn trust and foster greater support in the marketplace? Do you feel constrained in your ability to creatively communicate meaningful stories due to the complex and highly regulated nature of your products and processes?

If you commonly experience the symptoms described, you may be suffering from a condition called “being a pharmaceutical industry marketer.” Thankfully, content marketing can help you address and overcome these issues – and you don’t even have to talk to your primary care physician to get started.

Pharma’s complex marketing landscape

The pharmaceutical industry faces all of the standard concerns that typically impact modern content marketers – including the need to differentiate in a competitive marketplace, questions about how to align results with business goals, and uncertainty about the best ways to attract and retain the attention of the right target audience at the right moment.

Yet, additional layers of complexity are at play for pharma and life science marketers given the unique considerations that come with caring for people with illnesses or injuries and communicating about life-saving therapies and technologies manufactured by their companies. Not to mention that there’s no room for factual errors or marketing missteps in an industry where human lives can hang in the balance.

Regulations and accountability: One of the biggest challenges is that pharmaceutical marketers operate in a highly regulated industry monitored not only for product safety and efficacy but also labeling and messaging practices. Content needs to be precise, credible, well vetted, and go through strict validation and approval processes. This makes it exponentially more challenging to efficiently source, produce, and publish meaningful, useful stories than most other industries.

In regulated industry, #content needs to be precise, credible, vetted, validated, & approved, says @joderama Click To Tweet

Consumer privacy and information sensitivity: Unlike companies that market less-regulated products and programs that promote better health and wellness (like fitness devices, nutrition supplements, or diet and exercise programs), pharmaceutical companies are focused on treating and managing illnesses with FDA-approved products. This comes with an added responsibility to communicate messages consistent with their FDA-approved indication.

Pharma marketers also must transcend the social stigmas that surround certain health conditions. People are protective when it comes to disclosing details of their personal health, and may even be reluctant to engage in conversations with fellow sufferers, let alone drug companies – especially when they are affected by a rare or misunderstood disorder. When communicating with their target, marketers need to exercise greater caution and sensitivity when it comes to finding the right stories to tell – and the right way to tell them.

Pharma marketers need to exercise greater sensitivity when it comes to finding right stories to tell. @joderama Click To Tweet

B2C messaging in a B2B world: An additional complication for pharma and life science companies is that their sales processes are more B2B than B2C: While their products are used by consumers in need of medical treatment, companies are legally prohibited from selling directly to the patients themselves. Licensed health-care professionals determine what types of treatments will be best for their patients.

Creative limitations: Both regulatory-compliance issues and the indirect nature of pharmaceutical messaging can make it more difficult for content marketers in this space to explore new creative territories or embrace open platforms like social media. While they may understand the need to be “where the audience is,” they also live in fear that the uncontrolled nature of the channel might give their detractors free reign for public criticism, bringing issues to light before the company is prepared to respond to them. And no company in any industry wants to find itself dealing with a communication crisis without warning (Am I right, United Airlines?).

Reputation issues: Finally, there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room: public perception. Pharmaceutical companies have a pressing need to overcome the perception that they have little regard for human suffering when there are profits to be made. While this reputation may have been based on some legitimate concerns and has been highlighted in some well-publicized stories of executive greed and questionable ethics (think “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli and Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos) – there are other sides to the story that don’t get the same level of attention, and content marketers are often challenged by how to bring them to light.

According to government estimates, 845,000 people work in the pharmaceutical industry in the United States. Yet the high-profile antics of any industry will get the most attention from the media. Shkreli and Holmes have become poster children for drug-pricing increases and shady practices, but the reality is that they only represent a very small percentage of drugs and health services providers in the United States.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding around how treatments are developed and how the complexity of the process factors into the information the public picks up on. Pharma is a big business, but it’s also a business built on a need to care for people who are sick or injured. “It takes a lot of skill to increase understanding of the business side without losing sight of why these companies take on those risks to do what they do,” says Buddy Scalera, senior director of content strategy at The Medicines Company. For example, it takes on average about 12 years to bring a drug from a lab to the local pharmacy. (If you are curious about the full process, Pfizer has a YouTube channel with useful information about drug development.)

Diagnosis and content-based treatment

While the above concerns are certainly not inconsequential, Buddy believes content marketing holds a tremendous potential to chip away at the divides that exist between the business and its audiences – along with plenty of opportunities to creatively connect in impactful, measurable ways.

#Contentmarketing can chip away at the divide between the pharma business & its audiences, says @BuddyScalera Click To Tweet

“Health is incredibly personal, so people are looking for information that they may not want to discuss with family and friends,” says Buddy. “We can create content that goes beyond basic data and actually makes sense of a diagnosis – for both patients and their caregivers.”

Being diagnosed with a serious health condition is scary. People commonly turn to Google to learn more about a disorder that affects them; so content marketers have a responsibility to provide useful information across multiple languages and cultures. That means developing core content, and then repurposing it across multiple channels, for different reading levels and different stages of a user’s informational journey.

“You can’t assume that every patient is recently diagnosed,” says Buddy. “Many patients will require treatment for the rest of their lives, so they become very well informed about their condition. You can create deep, high-quality content that addresses their ongoing patient-education and patient-support needs.”

What does it take to achieve a healthy outcome when creating content in this space? Here are some ideas and examples:

Focus on real-life scenarios, not oblique terms: The simple route is often best when communicating about complex health-care issues. Buddy points out that pharmaceutical marketers can tell powerful stories by focusing on how their companies’ efforts impact the lives of the people affected by the illnesses they treat rather than on the treatments themselves.

Example: Transforming Parkinson’s disease – IBM and Pfizer are collaborating to build a new Internet of Things system that measures indicators of patient health and quality of life in real time. As this video Pfizer shares on its Facebook page explains, insights derived from the data they gather can help doctors tailor treatments for patients with Parkinson’s disease and address their symptoms more effectively.

Shift your content focus: Another observation Buddy shares is that many pharma companies concentrate on acquisition (top of the funnel marketing), while failing to spend enough time on retention efforts that might help existing patients better address their health-care needs on an ongoing basis. As he sees it, it’s critical for both patients and prescribing physicians to be kept well informed about available treatment options – particularly when it comes to medications that treat chronic illnesses or are prescribed for long-term use, which can give rise to questions such as what happens when multiple medications need to be taken simultaneously or when drugs start to work differently over time.

Fortunately, creating a clear user journey map can help with this. By outlining the path existing patients might take throughout the course of their treatment, pharma companies can get a more cohesive view of the potential barriers to long-term use. And, by applying this information to storytelling efforts, content marketers can better communicate the benefits of remaining compliant with their treatments while emphasizing their concern for the patient’s real-life experiences.

Example: IBD unmasked – Mild-mannered scientist and IBD sufferer Ian has no problem fighting off the bad guys who invade his lab, looking to destroy important forensic evidence. But when it comes to opening up to fellow scientist and love interest Emily about his chronic inflammatory bowel disease and its symptoms, he needs a little backup to broach the conversation. Luckily, Ian’s story can help others who suffer from this condition to find their own inner super-strength, thanks to this custom-created comic, developed by Takeda Pharmaceuticals and Marvel Custom Solutions. With Ian’s colorful champion Samarium by his side, the stigmas associated with IBD no longer stand in his way. The idea is to get people to stay on treatment, make positive health modifications, and continue on with life (even if you are secretly a superhero).

Illustration - Samarium superhero copy

Don’t be afraid to tackle the taboos: Social media presents an ideal opportunity for pharma marketers to help patients overcome the stigmas associated with personal health issues, while dispelling the myth that facilitating open, honest discussions on these issues is too risky an endeavor for this industry to take on. In truth, plenty of campaigns prove that “pharma can’t do social media” is an incorrect assumption – even when it comes to hot-button issues like women’s health and family planning.

“Pharma can’t do #socialmedia” is an incorrect assumption, says @BuddyScalera. Click To Tweet

Example: #ActuallySheCan – Best known as the maker of Botox, pharmaceutical company Allergan targeted millennial women with the #ActuallySheCan content marketing campaign for Lo Loestrin Fe birth control pills. A play on the popular phrase “I can’t even,” used to express speechlessness, #ActuallySheCan was designed to empower millennial women to “participate and talk to each other, and in a language that’s really meaningful for them.” Starring an illustrated character named Violet, the campaign’s pop-culture references should be familiar to any millennial with an Instagram account, as avocado toast, the perfect selfie, online dating apps, and emojis all make an appearance.

actually she can


By focusing on real-life scenarios, not pharma treatments; shifting your content focus to encompass reader retention; and going after what some assume as taboo topics, pharma content marketers can overcome some of the challenges their industry presents and be a go-to resource for their target audiences.

Want more insights, ideas, and examples on how pharmaceutical companies can leverage content marketing to their best advantage? Register to attend the Life Sciences and Pharma Lab at Content Marketing World 2017. Use promo code BLOG100 to get $100 off registration.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute