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Branded websites are the most effective form of pharmaceutical marketing, and are highly effective at generating new patient starts and refills, according to a study by comScore, Inc.

The third-annual “Online Marketing Effectiveness Benchmarks for the Pharmaceutical Industry” study,? found that exposure to online media, including a pharma brand’s website and online ads, resulted in a significant positive lift on product awareness and favorability.

The study evaluated the impact of various online marketing activities – including banner ads, rich media, search marketing, and visits to a brand website – on a pharmaceutical brand’s awareness, favorability and sales results among both patients and prospects.

Branded Websites Increase Refill Rates

Existing patients who visited a brand’s website increase their refill rate nearly 25 percentage points, compared with those who did not visit the site, comScore found. Patients who were new to a treatment increased an incremental 11.9 percentage points higher than the control. Exposure and interaction with rich media advertisements also improved refill rate among existing patients with a 14.0-point lift vs. the control group.

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comScore suggested that pharma brand websites are most effective because they provide visitors with information on the conditions, treatment options and the drugs themselves, and? also are “one of the few environments where a brand can build a dynamic and recurring relationship with its patients,” said John Mangano, VP of comScore marketing solutions.

However, Mangano pointed out that a brand website is only one critical piece of an effective, integrated marketing campaign, which might typically include online display ads, search marketing and offline marketing, working in unison.

Online Ads Boost Awareness and Favorability

In addition to boosting refill rates, the study also found that online advertising and branded websites had a significant positive impact on awareness and favorability among patients and prospects.

For prospects, exposure-only to an ad increased both aided and unaided brand awareness, with increases of 4.1 and 4.2 percentage points, respectively. An even more dramatic lift was observed with websites. Prospects exhibited an 18.0-percentage point lift in favorability after visiting a branded website, while patients reported a 17.2-percentage point lift.

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Pharma Remains Skittish

Despite these survey results that demonstrate the positive effects of branded websites and advertising, MarketingVOX reports that pharmaceutical companies are struggling to reconcile online marketing techniques with a stepped-up oversight campaign by the Food and Drug Administration’s Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications (DDMAC), which is specifically targeting such activities.

In response to brand-specific warnings this past spring from the FDA, pharma companies have taken a step back from several online strategies until they they can be sure they are compliant with administration regulations. Related figures from comScore show that – in response to March 2009 warning letters sent by the FDA, several pharma firms? removed their sponsored link ads for the identified brands – as well as many other brands not specifically mentioned in the letters.

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In addition, sponsored ads by pharma companies declined significantly immediately following the letters, dropping 59% from 10.5 million during the week ended March 29 , to 4.3 million during the week ended April 5. Declines in sponsored link exposures continued over the next several months, plummeting 84% overall from March to June.

Unbranded web sites – those that give information on a condition but do not endorse a brand drug – declined 35% from March to June to slightly more than one million exposures. Vanity URLs, which generically describe a health condition and then redirect to a specific brand drug’s website, declined 11% in June to 3.2 million average exposures vs. March.

About the study: The study, performed in conjunction with pharmaceutical marketing consultancy Evolution Road, LLC, is designed to help pharmaceutical marketers better assess the success of their online marketing activities. The study was based on comScore’s one-million person US panel, for which online activity is passively observed, and survey data collected throughout the past several years.

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