Health Care Trends With a Social Media Twist
Who are you going to listen to when it comes to medicines—your peers or the companies that actually make the drugs?
Market research shows that the sick are relying more on the recommendations of fellow patients, and less on the reputations of
companies and endorsers, in deciding whether to seek treatment and what
drugs to ask for, say pharmaceutical companies and their consultants.
Several drug makers are seeking to tap into the growing importance of so-called
peer-influence marketing. They are making use of more patient
testimonials and savvier use of the Internet, including sponsoring
information about diseases on medical Web sites. GlaxoSmithKline PLC
and Sanofi-Aventis SA are among the major drug makers that have run ads
featuring patients' stories.
numbers are still small. Ads for eight of the top 50 selling drugs
feature the tales of real users talking about their positive
experiences taking the medicines, rather than celebrities or
voice-overs, according to an analysis by Gaurav Kapoor of the New
England Consulting Group.
But drug makers are focusing these efforts on some key health concerns such as smoking cessation, where the
support of peers seems most effective. Pfizer
Inc. last year turned to patient stories in print and TV ads for
smoking-cessation therapy Chantix. In the ads, patients tell the
stories of their struggles with their conditions and the impact of the
medicines. Patients have "liked the authenticity—to really connect
their experiences with what they have heard from others," said Jim
Sage, a Pfizer marketing official.
"The role of the peer is important because it really provides a positive example," Mr. Sage said. "Oftentimes people preach to smokers"
about the need to quit, he said. But after years without success,
smokers need to know that doing so is possible and worth the effort
before trying again, he said.
Pfizer found many of the patients in its ads through thank-you notes they submitted, Mr. Sage said. Before putting the patients in ads,
Pfizer made sure that the patients took Chantix and that the use was
appropriate. Pfizer pays the patients according to the Screen Actors
Guild's wage scale. A SAG spokeswoman said its nonprofessional rate is
$592.20 a day during filming plus residual payments that vary depending
on how often an ad runs.
The growth of peer-influence marketing comes as drug makers face tighter regulation of some more common forms of marketing, particularly
celebrity endorsements. In 2008, ads for Pfizer's popular statin
Lipitor were attacked as misleading because they played up the fact
that Robert Jarvik, inventor of an artificial heart, was a physician,
even though he did not practice. Pfizer subsequently dropped the
campaign because of the "distraction."
Also, the industry's reputation has suffered after years of bad publicity stemming from drug withdrawals and conflicts of interest. As
a result, some drug makers are looking for a voice other than their own
to sell their products, says Keith Vance, a marketing consultant for
drug makers who has helped develop patient-testimonial ads.
Pharmaceutical companies spent $4.3 billion on advertising during the first nine months of last year,
according to the latest data from Kantar Media, an ad-tracking firm.
The spending was down 1.3% from the year-earlier period. It could drop
further over the long term, drug marketers say, after blockbuster
products lose patent protection and companies start selling more
medicines targeted to smaller patient populations.
Web advertising could benefit from those changes, since the medium is suited for more narrowly targeted selling than print or television.
Drug makers spent $282 million on Internet display ads during the first
nine months of this year, Kantar Media said. But the Food and Drug
Administration has sent letters to several companies warning that
certain Web ads were false and misleading, and that has deterred many
firms from spending more heavily. Unlike with TV and print ads, the
rules for drug advertising on the Web are not clearly spelled out,
including, for instance, how companies should furnish sufficient
information about the risks a drug presents.
Until the FDA develops Web ad guidelines, many drug makers are trying to capitalize on the Internet in other ways. For example,
companies have sponsored general information about diseases on medical
Web sites. Drug marketers also review chat rooms, message boards and
networking sites for help shaping the messages of traditional ads.
"When people go to the Internet, they are looking for not only pure information, but people's experience with the product," says Mr. Vance.