Pharma companies have become much more comfortable with the use of mobile in marketing, but with mobile use in general reaching an inflection point, the industry needs to keep pushing past the basics for patients and providers.


If you can’t bear to go half an hour without your cell phone, you’re not alone. As mobile has become an inextricable part of our lives, it is rapidly becoming the preferred window marketers in every industry will be trying to reach customers through. Even in the conservative pharma industry, mobile is part of most campaigns and many brand-supporting apps are being developed for the sales force, the physician, and the patient. But industry experts believe companies can become even more inventive in their usage of mobile, to the point of apps becoming a valid part of patient care instead of merely promotional. 

According to Graham Johnson, executive VP, product development at FCB Health, the use of mobile in all industries has reached an inflection point, reminding him of what happened almost a decade ago when broadbrand Internet access reached more than 50 percent of homes.

For Johnson, who was working for MTV at the time, the blossoming of broadband created a new opportunity. “All of a sudden, the idea of delivering video content to consumers essentially was possible,” he says. “It really changed our thinking and our overarching strategy, especially if you’re working at a company that is sitting on a mountain of video assets. It’s music to our ears, that essentially we could put [the content] out on any online space and see it get traction.”

For mobile, there are a number of inflection points, Johnson says. “This year, 2016 is actually going to be the first year where there will be a bigger ad spend in the mobile space than on the desktop side, which is a huge inflection point. We’re starting to see, for the majority of web properties for our clients, mobile traffic either equal or surpass desktop traffic. So we’re at this point today where it’s kind of 50-50 in terms of people accessing your content via a mobile device than from a desktop. And in general, that’s what we’re seeing across websites.”

Michael Spitz, VP strategy at Klick Health, says pharma is getting the mobile message and recognizes the importance of the medium. “If you look at it top line, according to eMarketer data, a quarter of the digital ad revenue spend in pharmaceuticals is on mobile,” Spitz says. “And when you take a look at the differential in terms of growth, year to year, pharmaceuticals actually top the list of all industries for growth in terms of mobile spend.”

According to David Windhausen, executive VP at Intouch Solutions, mobile gives pharma “an opportunity … to intersect truly with the triggers that form our habits.”

“Previously in marketing, and this is true in pharma marketing as well, it was really all about the big idea,” Windhausen says. “Everyone would go, “What’s the next big idea?” And what we have increasingly seen is that the next big idea is the sum of many small ideas. The thing, the coefficient that makes them work, is how connected they are to the data of engagement at a personal level with an individual. And when we think about the concept of mobile anymore, we don’t think about it as a single channel or device, in fact, it almost morphs into part of a holistic ecosystem that we’ve created that’s just one small component, in and of itself, may not have a whole lot of meaning. But when you put it in as one piece to an entire ecosystem that you’ve created to wrap that patient, now you’ve got something that’s truly amazing.”

Ideally, mobile can provide a way to connect the patient and physician to the healthcare system, ideally through the trajectory of the patient journey, Spitz says. The trick is being able to do so in a sustainable way that allows for pharma interaction.

Away from the desktop

In terms of other messaging that was typically accessed via desktop computers, mobile has come into its own. According to Johnson, about 65 percent of the time consumers are reading their e-mail on their phones. And for physicians, it’s about 80 percent.

“If you’re continuing to develop for a desktop experience, but that’s not where the majority of your consumers are, you’ve really missed the mark,” Johnson says.

Jacob Lustig, VP media innovation at Klick Health, agrees that the industry needs to shift its development focus away from the desktop environment, and points out recent data from Google shows mobile search comprises 50 percent or more of search activity. Spitz says for some of Klick’s clients, traffic engagement through mobile devices — smartphones and tablets — can be as high as 60 percent, and can run even higher for HCPs who are predominantly using Apple devices.

Keeping that high mobile usage in mind, “it behooves us and our clients to make sure that the backend experience, the content, really aligns together with that,” Lustig comments.

When it comes to developing content and apps for mobile, Lustig says companies need to consider a couple of factors.

“It really comes down to a couple of elements from the media perspective, does the right inventory exist that brands want to use, do they have the right topic of content, is there the right amount of data that they would use in desktop,” Lustig remarks. “The second thing it comes down to is the privacy policy. A lot of pharmaceutical companies have a privacy policy that just focuses on the cookie ecosystem from desktop and hasn’t really factored in elements like location or the resettable device ID, or any of those factors.” 

Lustig says pharma companies need to take the time to create a content development pathway and an infrastructure that is optimized to deliver the ideal mobile experience that fits how patients or HCPs are using mobile.

According to Spitz, “There is a delta between the engagement levels and expectations of the pharma audience, whether its HCPs, patients, or caregivers, and the mobile/digital assets we’re providing and creating, at least in terms of assets, and especially in digital assets and owned properties.” This delta includes privacy concerns and requirements in fair balance that can overwhelm the smaller real estate of the smartphone screen. 

When it comes to the tiny mobile leaderboard ads, just 320×50, Spitz says Klick Health has been “very strategic” in terms of using these spaces, primarily for unbranded promotion. “You can’t put 50 percent fair balance on these tiny ads, it forces us to be more strategic in how we invest and make recommendations on opportunities and environments where the larger ad sizes that we can really deliver the value proposition and the message alongside all the privacy and FDA fair balance requirements,” he says. 

Johnson points out that while it is difficult to take a concept that was developed for a desktop environment and translate it to a mobile one, the reverse is much easier. “If you start developing for the mobile space, and then you extend that idea to desktops, you’re presented with nothing but opportunities,” Johnson says. “Essentially if you’re starting with a smaller form factor, and then you extend out to desktop that has a larger monitor and perhaps a stronger processor, better video card, that kind of thing, you can kind of do a lot more. 

“But the traditional approach has been to start with the desktop and move into the mobile space, and when you do that, you’re presented with really nothing but challenges. The best way I’ve ever heard anybody summing that up is that it’s a lot easier to move from an apartment into a home, than the other way around.”

Bryan Hill, chief technology officer for Cadient, a Cognizant Company, points out that whatever is developed for pharma customers – whether HCPs or patients – needs to take into consideration that everyone these days is multitasking.

“Your patients, your healthcare providers, are not giving you 100 percent of their undivided attention,” he says. “You need to start thinking of things like ambient computing or voice-activated engagement experiences” such as Amazon Echo. With something like that, a customer is getting content they value, but in a different mechanism. 

There has been an evolution over the last two years where the industry has understood it needs to pay more attention to the mobile web experience, Hill says. Once Google determined that it would be weighting mobile search results based on a website’s mobile readiness, pharma companies have been pushed over the past year to optimize their mobile web presences.

Even with this push, however, many companies have failed to optimize a good portion of their sites. Responsive web design may have came out in 2009, but Hill estimates that of the top 169 healthcare professional websites, less than half of them are mobile optimized. “If you look at other industries, [responsive web design] is the de facto standard,” Hill says.

The expanded function of apps 

Synonymous with the use of mobile are apps, but for pharma – as well as other industries – apps cannot be the be-all, end-all strategy in the mobile arena. Experts say, however, that apps will still have an important role to play now and in the future.

One of the biggest hurdles in the use of apps is their adoption. Hill recalls the “mini-rush” of 2012 when pharma companies were clamoring for the development of specialized apps for their brands. “It was interesting because many pharmas had sort of avoided the whole mobile web, maybe concerned about connectivity issues, so they jumped to the more vanity solution of apps,” he says. “And what we saw among pharma, and even some of the insurers such as Aetna, people jumped on board, created their apps, and there just wasn’t the adoption that maybe they had hoped for.”

Sometimes the low adoption rate was because the service hoped to be provided by the app, such as lifestyle management, was dominated by non-pharma apps including the likes of NikePlus and MapMyFitness. 

“The bigger concern, I think, comes down to trust,” Hill told Med Ad News. “As a patient, as an HCP, if you think about apps, they are a very personal experience versus from how I’m engaging from a web perspective and that may be viewed as intrusive.”

Spitz points to a recent report from IMS Health, which says of the 169,000 health and wellness-related apps, 36 of them are downloaded about 50 percent of the time. “There’s a crisis in mobile health right now, specifically regarding the effectiveness of native apps,” according to Spitz.

When apps are downloaded and never used again, this usually has to do with content relevance, Spitz says. “How does this app figure into my day-to-day treatment cycle? How is this app relevant?”

Lustig says it’s important to determine what role the app will play in the patient journey. “Is the patient in the initial condition research and treatment, or are they on a treatment and this is an application for compliance and adherence to their regimen?” 

Windhausen says the appeal of using a new technology prompted many pharma companies initially to demand apps. “So they created a mobile app and it turns out it was pretty expensive to create, very time-consuming to maintain, and they haven’t produced the ROI in a visible way that the client can see,” he says. 

For Intouch, the customer’s disenchantment with apps has actually given the agency an opportunity to prove what apps could do. “This opens up a moment in time where we get to come in and say, ‘This was a great first start,’” Windhausen says. “With the push into things like integrated multichannel marketing, the idea of data-driven experience that personalizes engagement, these are all new opportunities that we’ve provided to reintroduce the concept to our clients in a way that they can now see they will have the opportunity to impact their target audiences in a much greater way, and at the same time, also be able to pull back through ROI. So now they’re ready to take a fresh new start at it.” 

According to Windhausen, no pharma company or any pharma brand will be able to create a single application that the consumer would use exclusively.

Instead, companies should develop apps that integrate into a “holistic ecosystem” of care, he says.

“If I am going to adopt something that you’ve given me, because I have a specific disease, I have a specific indication, I’m going to want that app or that method of working with my specific state to give me an indication that I am doing well, to be a road sign for me along the way,” Windhausen comments. “It should offer that bit of encouragement that says, ‘Hey, you want to keep going.’ So this ties into the whole behavioral economics of how people make decisions and us humans typically make them in a very irrational manner. They’re not based upon any hard-core facts, they’re just based upon our habit of what we do in life. And the only way to combat that is when we’re given constant reminders that we’re making progress by doing a different thing than we would be accustomed to, and then we’ll adopt that as our habit.”

Because ideally apps will be part of an ecosystem of care, Windhausen says there has to be thought given to how the moments of engagement that created with mobile interact with everything else that the consumer has already decided to opt to make part of their treatment plan. 

Some ways pharma apps can be more successful is by collecting data in a way that is not intrusive to the patient as well as collect data from devices that are not a smartphone, such as a Fitbit or other wearable, Windhausen says.

The territory ahead

Hill sees opportunities for pharma in other areas of mobile beyond search, apps, and mobile optimized websites. “Let’s call is 100 percent of people use text and messaging on their phone,” he says. “Everybody’s texting, everybody is using some sort of messaging app, whether it’s Facebook or Skype. We’re using these tools and you’re seeing other businesses engage, whether it’s through advertising or more content marketing experiences.”

These environments make good places to use promotional tactics because they are “more in the flow of the way people behave,” Hill says. “It’s not an interruption, per se, and you’re not trying to draw [the user] away to another property that A, they don’t recognize, or B, no time to go explore and learn what the value proposition is for them.”

Windhausen believes that the big opportunity for pharma in mobile on the HCP side is cluing them in how apps can fit into “the holistic ecosystem they’re creating to wrap around the patients.”

 As the healthcare marketplace moves to an outcomes-based approach, physicians are going to be interested in prescribing things to patients that provide the best outcomes. Apps that help patients track progress and encourage them to stick to a regimen can become a vital part of care. 

“When we’ve created something that then can respond back to the healthcare professional that the treatment plans that they have put in place for the patient, which not only includes the prescription but a set of other tools that they have either clued patients into or in some cases perhaps prescribed in the future, those things put together are creating a better outcome for the patient,” Windhausen says. 

According to Hill, pharma and healthcare companies need to learn how to redevelop content so that it works within the messaging environment.

Most pharma companies already have a great deal of already-developed content, but there is a combination of attitude and technology barriers preventing the redevelopment of this content for a mobile messaging environment, Hill says. 

“There is a lack of digital marketing expertise within many pharma organizations, particularly the larger organizations,” he says. “From a technology perspective, you’re looking at legacy platforms that are just unable to meet the demands or expectations of customer experiences today.” 

An old legacy web content management platform, for example, is not able to facilitate content that is mobile-ready. This means companies have to build a new solution or seek additional investment, Hill says. 

According to Lustig, companies often ask for video messaging for mobile devices. This is a mistake. “The problem is the attention span is even less on a mobile device … [companies] are used to doing videos for TV and for desktop, but it’s really fitting a square peg into a round hole,” he says.

Ten years ago, companies were focused on creating the “Taj Mahal of brand.coms,” Spitz told Med Ad News. “Thirty, 40 pages of content, tools and resources … the indicator of success for a was its breadth and multidimensionality.”

With mobile, there are only seconds to engage the user, and the calls to action need to be immediate, he adds. “The toughest thing to educate our pharma clients about is the immediacy of that content,” Spitz says. “Today we need content that’s immediate, actionable, and at the same time conveys the brand differentiation and messaging that we really want it to do.”

Often, when legal and regulatory people at pharma companies are reviewing digital marketing programs, they are still coming at it from a desktop experience and are giving feedback based on that. “That needs to change, it needs to start with mobile,” Hill says. “There needs to be some education involved with the legal/regulatory teams.” These teams need systems in which they will be able to test how the messaging looks across all different devices as well as being able to provide feedback.

The main obstacle to change in general is lack of collaboration, especially when it comes to content, Hill says. “There is tons of good content around, but who owns it and how do they share it? There may be some good interactive content within the clinical/R&D side that you could potentially leverage on the commercial side, but marketing isn’t aware of it. They don’t even have the opportunity to take it modify it, and adapt it to a particular screen size, device size, what have you.” 

But the ingrained pharma attitudes are starting to change, according to Johnson. “I can tell you that I’ve heard from no less than four or five big pharma companies that essentially their company mandate is to become the leader in the digital space within the next two to three years,” he says. “That is such a common goal, across so many of these organizations, I would say organizations by and large seem to be getting it. You’ll find pockets of resistance working with brand managers here and there, but again it’s very difficult to, if your audience is underindexing on mobile devices, it doesn’t mean you can ignore it. And I think that message is loud and clear.”

Johnson points to the increasing popularity within pharma of the concept of the customer journey and journey mapping. “One of the things that we’re starting to see a lot of these days is there is a practice called service design, which is fairly commonplace in the hospitality industry, hospitals also use it a lot, but it’s looking at that customer’s experience across the customer journey, at various touchpoints, be they digital or print or broadcast, or physical spaces, and how all these touchpoints interact together, and we’re starting to see people … creating experiences that resonate across different channels … in a much more intelligent and refined manner than I’ve seen in previous years,” he says.