Pharma eMarketing: A Level Playing Field or a Killing Field? OpEd by John Mack

In June 1998, I started the PHARMA-MKTING online discussion group to “promote the discussion of emerging interactive strategies in the marketing of pharmaceuticals.” Since then, there has not been much increase in the percent of the pharma industry’s marketing budget spent on ePromotion. Numbers from the fourth quarter of 2003 indicate that pharma ePromotion may even be losing traction (see “eDetailing Strategies for a Higher Physician Response” in this issue).

So why is pharma so conservative when it comes to using technology for marketing purposes? Focusing on ROI is a red herring. I don’t think it’s about money at all! Not directly, anyway. It could just be that using technology-especially the Internet-may have risks that, in many cases, outweigh the benefits. I am not talking about risks to a product manager’s career, which is a valid concern, but risks to the industry itself.

Take ePrescribing as an example. As this month’s articles point out, there are some good reasons why the pharma industry may not be very gung ho about this technology or at least why it is prudent for the industry to take a “wait and see” attitude.

As with many other Internet and digital technologies, ePrescribing has the potential to change the status quo. That is, it can “level the playing field” and empower the “small guy” as much as the “big guy.” The Internet, for example, has empowered patients by giving them unprecedented access to medical information, thereby altering the balance of power between patients and physicians.

Similarly, ePrescribing can alter the balance of power between managed care and pharma at the point of care. Quite simply, managed care organizations can move drugs quickly on and off formularies and instantly enforce these decisions through ePrescribing applications. Physicians may have issues with formularies, but according to a Harris Interactive survey, 45 percent of physicians using ePrescribing said that it has a major impact on their compliance with formularies. Thus, managed care can leverage the technology to put more pressure on pharmacos to lower drug prices.

To be sure, pharma can also take advantage of ePrescribing to push marketing messages out to physicians at the point of care, which is an enticing benefit (see “ePrescribing: What Role Should Pharma Play?” in this issue).

Speaking of war and his doctrine for waging it, General Colin Powell once said in an interview, “I’m on the street corner, I got my gun, I got my blade, I’ma kick yo’ ass.” Pharma has its own Powell Doctrine when it comes to the drug marketplace. On the street that pharma roams, however, sales reps are their guns and DTC ads are their blades. A pharma company can win its war by increasing these things, not by stepping out onto the digital “level playing field,” which may become a killing field.

Vol. 3, No.6: June 2004
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