In the pharmaceutical industry, digital marketing is mainly centred around the promotion of new drugs and treatments, as well as promoting the old ones. It is one field where there will always be continuous growth through investment in research and it is fundamental that the industry is able to reach out to both doctors and patients alike to maximum effect.

The way that companies in the pharmaceutical industry approach their digital marketing game is rapidly changing and to ensure they keep up with the competition, companies need to re-invent themselves. Would Madonna still be successful if she was doing the same thing as 30 years ago? Probably not, so why should any industry be different in an exponentially digital world.

Here are some of the key pharmaceutical themes going into 2019 and beyond:

Consumer demand for control

With a wealth of online information, patients are no longer passive recipients of directions from a healthcare professional (HCP). If anything, patients are coming to visit HCPs already having an opinion on how they need to be treated. Whether the patients are correct or not is a completely different debate, but the challenge now for pharma is in finding the right and compliant way to engage with this type of consumer.

To ensure they reach the right patients, pharmaceutical companies must explore online communities and forums, participate in research communities and aim to be part of social media. Customers expect technology to be able to respond to their deepest concerns and a 2018 survey (NTT Data) showed that 58% of US shoppers expect their healthcare customer service to be as good as that provided by Amazon.

A 2017 patient report (The Digital Journey to Wellness) provided a series of quantitative information, confirming that consumers want to control their own destiny when it comes to their health requirements. The below are the facts and figures about the consumer decision making process BEFORE booking a hospital appointment.

  • 77% of patients used search (Google)
  • 83% used hospital websites
  • 54% used health insurance companies
  • 50% used health information sites
  • 26% used consumer generated reviews

All this information combined means that patients are far more astute when it comes to their rights and making an informed decision about their needs.

An eye on Performance

Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies were in control of how and when they released information about their product performance, but digitisation has weakened their grip. There is a vast amount of information online and beyond that, consumers can openly share their opinions and reviews with others. This means that patients are becoming far less dependent on doctors to get advice about a product or service.

With all that in mind, having information available online is an integral part of any digital marketing strategy.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and Machine learning (ML)

These two terms are more than just buzzwords. The big technology players such as IBM and Apple have made significant inroads into the healthcare market and can truly disrupt it.

Using IoT technology such as wearables (Fitbit, Garmin) and data from health records, purchases, insurance premiums or claims, they can utilise AI and ML based platforms to deliver consumers a truly personalised experience. What this means is that instead of the consumer having to go looking for information, they can be presented with it proactively.

Pharma companies need to either start creating their own technology to compete with these companies or invest in third parties to maintain their place in the industry.

A priority task in 2019 for pharmaceutical marketers needs to be how they can mix digital marketing with AI and data. It is forecasted that progression of machine learning in particular will unlock user preferences that were not previously known, allowing marketers to provide the right information, to the right person at the right time more so than ever before.


Many industries are starting to use chatbots to replace traditional customer service centres. These are human-like online robots that can answer questions which previously required human interaction. As well as providing a 24/7 channel for customers, these bots can provide a huge cost saving without the need for physical resource. Great strides have been made in some industries and there has been some adoption within pharma. However, as Sara Siegel from Deloitte notes, bots will never have the ability to replace humans.

“Technology alone, such as the smartphone, is not a silver bullet for healthcare. Instead, success lies in the convergence of digital health and human interaction. It also relies on developing partnerships which harness technology, while providing trust-based, patient-centred care; and balances person-to-person engagement with the efficiencies provided by technology.”

Sara Siegel, Deloitte Partner, Healthcare Strategy and Consulting

Social Media

Social media is naturally a great way for pharmaceutical companies to reach out to potential customers and form deeper relationships. With the ability to target very specific people via the likes of Facebook ads, companies could deliver qualified content at exactly the right time.

It should be noted that pharma companies are regulated on social media and cannot simply just join a conversation. However, despite this, Tweets by pharmaceutical companies have increased by 530% since 2013 and the trend looks only set to grow as we move through 2019.

Keeping everyone ‘Appy

Pharmaceutical companies are moving further into the mobile world through the use of apps. There have been great successes over the last few years with Merck & Co. issuing a dual healthcare app for patients and providers that gives a huge database of information on conditions and diseases. The 5 star rated app got some great endorsements and helped the company connect with doctors and consumers.

Pfizer built a LivingWith healthcare app for cancer patients to connect directly with their doctors and support groups, which has now become part of a toolkit for many people living with cancer. In 2018, Janssen launched the first ever clinical trial via a smartphone App.

The key to app development is that it needs to be useful for the target audience and this is the key to digital marketing. Some of the most successful ones are providing access to doctors for virtually real-time monitoring, which is starting to generate a lot more trust, to a point where it is thought that around $31 billion in revenue will be generated by healthcare apps in 2020.

When pharma companies started to invest more in the app market in 2017, the big mistake was in not keeping the content up-to-date and not making it relevant to the right people. Something like 38 of apps were only made to promote a particular product without thinking about the end user. As more companies regain their focus, digital marketing needs to consider the right mobile development to stay up with the competition.

The resurgence of e-sampling

In an attempt to be “more Amazon”, pharmaceutical companies are using a permission based, concierge style marketing tactic known as e-sampling. This is the ability to allow HCPs to order and manage drug samples online, reducing the costs of a previously expensive sample distribution process. E-sampling is not a new form of marketing, but through the use and development of better e-sampling communities, there is an opportunity for the industry to improve their service more in line with what the consumers might be expecting.

A Digital journey

Patient centricity is the key to success but without understanding digital behaviour, it is unlikely that companies will be able to generate the right experience for their customers. The smarter companies realise that communication goes far beyond a consultation with an HCP and if anything, the majority of touch points are now digital based.

The future

To summarise all of this, the future of digital marketing in pharma relies on embracing technology for a coherent omnichannel approach. Well-informed consumers want content to suit them whenever they need it and as digital grows, so do the expectations. Digital marketing is going through an exciting period of change in the industry.