The Content Conundrum in Consumer-facing Pharma

Even with appropriately targeted content, one question remains: How do you anticipate what your audience will decide is worth viewing, hearing or reading? While a precise answer is sure to remain elusive, it’s clear to me that the message-starved laundry list of factoids that shape most consumer-facing pharmaceutical Web sites offers us a model of what not to do.

Keeping in mind the rigorous and, at times, arbitrary constraints under which all pharmaceutical advertising is conducted, I’m still convinced we can do better.

As always, the place to start in evaluating your content strategy is with the consumer’s mindset. In this case, we’re talking about people whose diagnosis will have a major impact on their lives. So, the more devastating the news, the less you can expect a consumer to browse through 40 pages of Web copy, diagrams and expert testimony.

Seen from that perspective, much of the content on consumer-facing pharma sites is more than superfluous. It actually works against the business goals of the brand. For if there’s any sense at all to marketing drugs to people who can’t buy them without a prescription, it’s to get consumers to do one of two things:

  • Comply with their doctor’s treatment regimen (that is, take the drug in question)
  • Ask their doctor to prescribe the drug in question for their condition

If I dare state the obvious, it’s only because there’s very little in the content strategy of the average consumer-facing pharma site that contributes to either of those goals.

Part of the problem stems from the desire to create a site accessible to everyone—regardless of their education level or familiarity with the scientific principles underlying medical jargon. The result is a site overflowing with data intended to orient the disoriented to the bad news they’ve received from their doctors. Such sites typically include a superficial tour of the disease state, an overview of the what, how, where and why of their condition.

Understanding undermined.
Trouble is, as redacted by lawyers and resected by medical editors, this text quickly dissolves into a slurry of medical terms that merely creates the illusion of understanding. It’s a dreary, affectless exercise, pitched at a Mr. Wizard level of assumed knowledge—except, that is, when a product claim turns on the mention of a highly technical issue.

So it is that a site that feels the need to explain the phrase “immune system,” a topic fit for 6th-graders, may think nothing of throwing around vocabulary busters like “erythropoiesis,” or “immunomodulatory.”

Regardless of whether a glossary is included, anyone lacking a 6th-grader’s understanding of the immune system is too deficient in science education, as are a large number of Americans, to learn anything from a dumbed-down article about, say, the mechanism of leukemia.

Why? Not for lack of intelligence, but because the number of new concepts introduced by such articles is unreasonably high; even if your readers know the “meaning” of each word, they’re unlikely to grasp what the copy actually means. So, after reading at most a paragraph of your branded communications about Drug X, your target audience will have no choice but to fall back on what it already knows:

Doc says I’m sick and I gotta take some medicine, or else.

That’s because most people confronted with a complex medical issue are only prepared to deal with it on a practical level. Whether the disease affects blood, bone or brain, their main concern is how their diagnosis impacts everyday concerns. Will they be able to work, they wonder, should they go on disability, will they have to remodel their homes or make other accommodations to adapt? And what, by the way, should they tell their families?

As I see it, if the goal of digital pharma advertising is to create an aura of trust and a motivating sense that “the brand cares about me,” addressing these concerns upfront is more to the point than nattering on about B-cells, T-cells or tumor necrosis factor. And yet natter on, we do.

It’s this lack of understanding of the human condition that drives many-a brand to address its audience in such a stilted, condescending tone. “It’s normal to be worried,” you can read on countless Web pages. Maybe, but what’s not normal is talking to people as if they were an uncanny mix of jaded doctoral candidate and bright-eyed 9-year-old—a demographic abstraction with no basis in reality.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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