Pharma continues to lag behind the consumer space in the use of mobile marketing technologies, but the steady advance of consumer tech giants Google and Amazon into the healthcare space means that the industry will have to adapt the tools of AI, voice and chatbots into their marketing, just as their consumer brethren already have.


When it comes to the future of mobile marketing in pharma, just look at the consumer space. While one of the big presentations at Digital Pharma East in Philadelphia concerned a company’s surprisingly successful Facebook initiative to get women to talk about the sexual and other discomforts of menopause, consumer counterparts are forging ahead with the use of AI and chatbots. The tech-forward people in pharma and healthcare, however, are in the process of gently persuading skittish clients about the benefits of these technologies while working with them to reduce the risks.

David Kopp

According to HubSpot’s “Ultimate List of Marketing Statistics for 2018” (, the number of voice queries increased 3,400 percent between 2008 and 2017. In 2015, 19 percent of people used Siri at least daily, and 37 percent used Siri, 23 percent used Microsoft’s Cortana and 19 percent used Amazon’s Alexa at least monthly. In 2016, 20 percent of search queries on Google’s mobile app and on Android devices were voice searches. Even more significantly, two-thirds of people who use digital voice assistants, such as Amazon Echo or Google Home, use their smartphones less often.

By 2020, 30 percent of all web searches will be done without the use of a screen, according to Gartner.

David Kopp, the CEO of Healthline, a media company that provides health information and apps and websites that connect patients into disease-specific communities, says the number of mobile users has increased dramatically.

“We see about 77 percent of our traffic on our website is on a mobile device, whether a smartphone, which is 71 percent, or a tablet, which is 6 percent,” Kopp told Med Ad News. “We’re over the three-quarter mark for mobile engagement, and I think that’s very reflective of society in general.”

For health marketers, that increase in mobile usage is “a meaningfully different point.”

Sean Hartigan

“When you get over the three-quarter point, it’s not just the majority of your traffic is mobile and the majority of your digital marketing needs to be thought of as mobile, it’s that your campaign will be made or broken on the back of mobile performance,” Kopp says.

Pharma is already using AI in its digital ad buying, says Sean Hartigan, senior VP, strategic planning, at the digital agency Intouch Solutions.

David Sakadelis

“We’re actually using AI right now, seamlessly behind the scenes to actually buy ad space and ads that intercept people while they’re on their smart phones., so it’s no different than when they’re on their desktop,” Hartigan told Med Ad News. “Most of the data we’re seeing collected in the world today when it comes to marketing happens on a smart phone, it’s the largest chunk of data that we get from people. And in pharma, it’s no different. While people are searching for a disease state, or drug names, or doctors’ names, or hospital names – whatever it might be, we’re intercepting them with advertising that is timely because we have these robots in the background sifting through search words very quickly and buying and selling, sort of an AI auction house, to deliver mobile messages that matter in that moment.”

David Sakadelis – VP, group director, head of technology at digital agency Heartbeat – says looking outside of the industry, mobile is going beyond the “pull model” in which the user is looking at a screen, going to a destination site, digging for information. But with technologies such as artificial intelligence, and machine learning, and voice and chat, the model is becoming more of a “push” one, where information that’s contextually relevant to the user is becoming more accessible and pushed to them, rather than having to go and search for information.

“A lot of that has to do with the data and data analytics that folks are applying to behaviors online and access to content, and the connections that are starting to form through mobile technologies, whether internet of things devices, health devices,” Sakadelis says. “I see a lot of that driving toward this notion on less reliance on screens, and more intelligent systems that are going to connect me to the content, people, and services that make more sense for me as an individual, with less reliance on having to dig for information through screens and mobile services like phones. “

Hartigan remembers that only five years ago, all the talk was about “mobile first, and big data.”

“And we all talked about it like it was two separate things. But it really is all connected to that customer experience,” he says.

It was apparent to everyone, according to Hartigan, “that people live on their smart phones – that’s doctors, that’s patients, that’s payers, everybody lives on their phone – and data is coming in on those phones from all over the place, and it’s huge data.”

The question is what could be done with the data. “For us in pharma, the trick is everybody wants to get that information and make sense of it, and the AI can help us do that,” Hartigan says. “But for every client I’ve worked with in the last decade, or in the last five years, Ive heard the term analysis paralysis. So mobile is huge, and that’s a trend, but it’s a bigger picture story than just mobile. It’s what we’re learning from mobile experiences, and applying it everywhere in our ecosystem, because that’s the goal. Get them, talk to them in a way that matters, learn what you can do to move them, and then apply it everywhere.

“If mobile is where we live, then we can apply everything that we learn from mobile to the experience as people are moving through our channels.”

According to Hartigan, “the sexy part about mobile going forward is being more surgical with what we’re learning and prescriptive back in speed to market, back to these people as they’re engaging with us on mobile.”

“We’ve gotten good at pushing content to people on mobile, when we want it, and usually it’s about what we want to talk about,” he says. “For us, we haven’t solved the problem of being Amazon-like, or Spotify-like, or Netflix-like. We’re still getting into that, and the reason why we’re still having problems is on the back end, logistically, it’s that cross-functional team who has to come together and make it happen. And it’s hard, but it’s a goal.”

The goal in mobile marketing should be “timely, relevant interventions based on customer and user interactions in places like their smart phone where it matters.”

“That should be our North Star, the Amazonification of the world,” Hartigan says. “If we buy drapes, they’re showing us area rugs and roller shades. That sounds fantastic, but in pharma, it’s harder because we don’t have a bajillion items to buy. It’s got to me more sensitive and the information is more finite.”

Although the consumer space has been looking hard at augmented reality and virtual reality mobile uses outside of gaming, Sakadelis believes that these technologies, which can be bulky and cumbersome and expensive, have some way to go before they can be widely used and accepted.

“I think that’s a little further out because there’s no really practical case for some of these AR headsets,” he says. “I just don’t think that folk want to walk around with something like this on their faces. And even in the application of AR in mobile devices, where you’re holding up a phone, it doesn’t feel like a natural way to interact with data and technology. I think we’ll get there. I wear glasses, when my glasses have a visual system built in where I can layer on content onto the real world, I think that is a realistic replacement to mobile devices, I just don’t think we’re there yet, and I don’t think we’ll be there for several years.”

Ultimately, according to Hartigan, the question to ask about any technology is, does it meet the end goal?

“The reason why some pharma marketers don’t jump on this stuff is because at the end of the day, does it meet their strategic imperatives? The brand goals? Will it create a meaningful experience and/or will it answer a certain performance metric?” he says. “I think people still have to be true to what they plan to do and then look at the technology for mobile and say, that’s cool but it’s not really appropriate for us.”

According to Sakadelis, when considering mobile initiatives and new technology, pharma needs to think how it can enhance the relationship between the physicians and the patients. “And where does the sales force fit into all this? The sales force they’re getting less and less time with docs, they’re been relying on mobile devices, using a screen to present. But they’re going to have to engage with docs in different ways too.”

For everyone – inside and outside of pharma – voice-enabled technologies and AI will play a even larger role in our lives, Sakadelis believes.

“Ultimately, I think we’re all have sort of our own personal assistants who are trained based on the data and our preferences that we feed it, to know what I’m all about what my schedule is, the type of content that I care about,” he says. “And I think within time, our assistants will talk with each other to help manage our schedules. I think it will get a little weird when we get there, but that’s where I think we’re heading.


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