People, patients, or assets? Why your pharma marketing strategy may not work

Light bulb question mark sketch

First published on PharmaLive.
By: Pam Caputo, Associate VP, Media & Engagement

Are you focusing on people, patients, or assets?

Yes, there is a right answer, but it’s surprising how few people get it right today. Too many times, pharma marketers start by first worrying about what they can or can’t say about a drug that is on label and what they can promote. Start by looking to understand what patients need and want.

Thinking like a consumer marketer allows you to discover patients’ mindsets, how they operate daily, and how they move through their lives. This approach can bring a higher level of empathy and authenticity that attracts patients rather than having to chase them. Following these suggestions can help create a patient-centric media strategy that will appeal to your target audience, so they can make better decisions to improve their care and quality of life.

Begin Researching Major Patient Pain Points
Patients are people who have a pain that you want to help take away. Instead of leading with the drug and its benefits on paper, address problems people with a disease have in a way that leads them to consider the drug.

For a moment, take a step away from the regulatory issues, and ask bigger, more important questions when first creating your strategy:

  • “Why does anyone need this therapy?”
  • “What problem does it solve for people?”
  • “What pain points can we fix for people?”

These questions remove self-imposed barriers about labels and permissions, which can limit thinking and take the creative “wind out of your sails” at a time when you need to learn deeply about patients and their ecosystems. Limitations can result in one-dimensional tactics, such as only advertising in clinical journals.

Here are suggestions that will provide your programs depth and authenticity.

Hijack Medical Download Sessions
When you have a medical expert talking about how a drug metabolizes in the bloodstream or the relative complications of macular edema in people with type 2 diabetes, ask questions that help you discover how people current live with their disease:

  • “What are their daily lives like?”
  • “Are they embarrassed by this disease?”
  • “Is there a high level of patient awareness/advocacy?”
  • “Does this group of people go out regularly, or are they stuck at home?”
  • “Can they walk, or do they need special equipment?” 
  • “Do they watch a lot of TV?”
  • “What comorbidities might they have?”
  • “How many specialist appointments do they have monthly? How many times do they go to the doctor?”
  • “Is this group of people financially sound? Do they have insurance or is that a barrier?”
  • “Where in the U.S. do they live?”
  • “What other drugs might they take to manage other symptoms?”

These questions can lead to new ways of reaching your target audiences through their daily routines and struggles.

Create Programs Directly from Patients’ Answers
For one rare genetic disease, we found this group of people lacked a centralized place for content about their disease, as well as a support community. By listening to these patients and how they needed to be their own experts, we created a space where this group came together and connected with each other, which is what they were missing and wanted.

We also developed programs for people to engage in activities that allowed them to feel normal, rather than hampered by their conditions. Specific programs we created from this new level of understanding included:

  • Sponsoring a peanut-free night at the baseball park (pre-pandemic), so that people whose families have life-threatening peanut allergies could enjoy “America’s Favorite Pastime.”
  • Finding and placing specific ads in mobile apps that helped people learn which cities are wheelchair accessible for people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Go Where Patients Are; Don’t Assume They Will Come to You

People live online now more than ever, so your goal is to cut through the 5,000 ads they see daily. Whether a doctor, a patient or a consumer, people wake up, talk to their Google Home or Alexa, check news on their phones, go to work, make Zoom calls, and so on. It’s vital to find ways to tap into the full experience of a patient’s, physician’s, or nurse’s day and meet them where they are. The online world has created the need to have virtual “hallway conversations” to get our audiences’ attention and catch them with important information when it’s convenient for them.

For example, we recently conducted research for a treatment for diabetic macular edema, which involves regular eye injections. People with this condition have impaired vision, but many also live with type 2 diabetes, so they are managing much more than just their eyesight. The treatment involves getting an implant injected into the eye every three years. As horrible as that sounds, people with this condition have already resigned themselves to getting a shot in the eye every 60 days. They have a familiarity with sticking themselves to check blood glucose levels daily, so it was not a foreign or uncomfortable concept to them.

Our team developed messaging that spoke to the idea that this implant could mean more time between injections, so they could better manage their lives. If they go to the doctor’s office for an injection once every three years, that removes a huge burden, and it makes appointments easier to manage. The new cadence of appointments won’t be as long or as frequent as what they are used to. It translates to less time away from work or less time asking relatives to take them to a multitude of treatments. We also found that many had a hard time arranging travel, so we chose markets with public transportation, or where they could walk to the office. We told them how physician offices could help with insurance paperwork, removing another barrier to acceptance.

The process of learning about patients’ habits and creating smart and authentic messaging about their pain and personal experiences also means they are prepared to have more informed, meaningful care conversations with their doctors. Providers are more receptive to people who want to try a treatment because it will help them manage their disease (and their lives) better, versus patients who tell them, “I kept seeing this ad on TV.” Providers want to know they are helping, instead of being marginalized by TV ads.

Paid Search — People Want to Find You
To find pain points, nothing is better than paid search. People don’t want to be defined by their illness; they want to live the best lives they can. Because of this, they may not be Googling “living with type 2 diabetes,” but instead, they may be searching for “inexpensive finger sticks,” “sugar-free food,” or “healthy meal plans.” And in the case of people with epidermolysis bullosa dystrophica, they are looking for ways to buy gauze in bulk.

Another way to reach people online may be through social media followers of inspirational or educational influencers on Instagram or Twitter who may have a chronic illness. Much of the content these influencers post can be helpful for others who experience an illness or disease. We found these profiles are another “backdoor” way to find more people who are experiencing the same symptoms or pain points.

The Bottom Line
Patient-centered thinking opens you up to more possibilities and potential programs because you better understand people and how they live with disease. If your strategy is only about running ads about your drug, you are not aligning with the patient’s journey. Your ad will just be an ad with no value – part of the 5,000 that don’t register.

But when you align messaging with the patient’s journey, you are helping along the way. You are viewed as a partner that understands their pain points. You are coming alongside to help. And you connect. Reframe your thinking by refraining from using the word “patient.” Substitute it with “people living with a disease.” Focus on helping people first and the rest follows, including meeting all regulatory and labeling requirements.


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