In an Ad Age story (“Marketers Wrestle with Hard-to-Control” Web Content“) doubt is cast upon the wisdom of advertising on blogs because such consumer-controlled Internet venues “cannot be controlled.” The corollary, of course, is that non-consumer-controlled venues CAN be controlled! (More on that below.)

Pharmaceutical companies and marketers are control freaks of the most extreme sort. Some advertising consultants to the industry have even suggest that it may be time for pharma to punish egregious media offenders — e.g., CBS’s 60 Minutes news magazine — by cutting back on their advertising. I have argued that such tactics are foolhardy (see, for example, “Separation of Church and State“).

The industry, it seems, actually is cutting back on its TV DTC advertising (see “Alternatives to DTC, Part 1” and “Pull Back from DTC on TV?“). This probably has more to do with reigning in DTC budgets than punishing pharma-bashing TV networks.

Most experts seem to think that Pharma will shift ad spending from TV to the Web. A survey of industry executives — the “2004 DTC Industry Checkup” (see “DTC in 2005: Old Dogs, New Tricks?“) — concluded:

“The majority [of experienced industry marketing executives] will dramatically decrease spend on mass media in 2005, turning instead to e-marketing and other patient relationship media.”

Such a shift makes sense on many levels. For one thing, consumers are turning away from TV and going to the Internet more and more for credible health information. According to a poll sponsored by the Medical Broadcasting Company, 42% of respondents state online health information trustworthy compared to 16% for “offline”’ media like TV, newspapers, radio and magazines (see “INTERNET OVERWHELMINGLY VIEWED AS MOST TRUSTWORTHY MEDIUM FOR HEALTH INFORMATION ACCORDING TO NEW CONSUMER SURVEY“).

By focusing more on Internet marketing, the pharma industry can help solve two of its most vexing problems: a decrease in return on investment (ROI) and lack of credibility. That’s because ROI for TV DTC is declining and TV DTC has had a negative impact on pharma’s reputation and credibility. Compared to TV, therefore, the Internet looks like pharma marketing Shangri-La.

However, the pharmaceutical industry must be careful about using the Internet for marketing. It comes with a whole new set of problems. There is the issue of control that I mentioned above. Paraphrasing the immortal words of Jack Nicholson in the movie “A Few Good Men”: “You want control? YOU CAN’T HAVE CONTROL!!!”

I mean, if you thought you had control over TV — you really don’t — you will have even less control over Internet venues. So, forget control.

Control over maverick Internet sites is an old issue anyway. Way back in 1997, I founded the non-profit Internet Healthcare Coalition and led the development of the e-Health Code of Ethics in 2000 to address this very issue. Not only is it important for pharmaceutical marketers to trust the Internet, it is also important that consumers trust Internet health Web sites. I am happy to hear, therefore, that the Internet has so much credibility these days with health consumers.

In the field of Internet marketing, the single most important thing to remember is Privacy, Privacy, Privacy.

Effective Internet marketing entails using interactivity and personalization and these require collecting and using personal information. E-mail is the most sensitive area and there are stringent federal laws that must be obeyed (see, for example, “What You Need to Know About the New ‘CAN-SPAM’ Law” and “E-mail Marketing Best Practices for Pharma“).

Privacy issues may stymie pharma marketers use of the Internet and could be the next big Wall Street Journal front page pharma story. Pharma companies need to be VERY careful here, especially with regard to the agencies and consultants they use to run their Internet marketing campaigns.

If pharma unleashes its agencies upon the Internet, I have this bit of advice: MAKE SURE THEY ARE PRIVACY CERTIFIED and have the appropriate safeguards, policies, procedures, and TRAINING in place to handle sensitive consumer data. (AD: See “Privacy Assessment Services for Pharma Vendors” offered by VirSci Corporation).

Because, if you thought TV DTC put your you-know-what through a wringer, wait until you become the focus of Internet backlash! (In fact, you don’t have to wait: see “The FTC-Lilly Consent Decree: What it Means for PHARMA Vendors and Partners“).