Pharma Marketers Scared to Test Google Ads, So Google Does

It’s been almost a year since Google proposed ad units intended specifically for pharma marketers to the FDA. One of those, the “Product Claim” format, is a particularly specific unit featuring a drug brand name, indications, and risk information. But the ad has not been used by pharma companies, who are fearful of being penalized by the FDA.

Around 200 health and pharma marketers convened at Google’s New York offices for the firm’s ThinkHealth event Thursday. The goal was as much to help those marketers understand how to use Google’s products as it was to help Google understand how to capture their marketing dollars.

In an effort to prod marketers to test the product claim format, and help satisfy the FDA, Google conducted a research study of the unit in August using a fictitious allergy drug. Results showed significantly lower click-through rates than the generic style ads many pharma advertisers are using now, but Google argued that could be preferable in some cases.

The product claim ad – featuring the drug brand name, indications, and side effect information – resulted in significantly lower CTR than ads with no drug brand name nor risk information. While 50 percent of study participants said they were at least “somewhat likely” to click on the non-specific ads, only around 30 percent said they’d be somewhat likely to click the product claim ad. In this case, study participants saw ads for a non-existent allergy drug which stated, “Side effects can include coughing, nosebleeds & headaches.”

To Google, fewer clicks represent more qualified leads for the advertiser when consumers do click. Though CTR dropped with the more specific test ad copy, the study found an increase in the number of participants who identified that the ad was sponsored by a drug brand – a result that’s considered a plus when it comes to appeasing the FDA. Also, according to the research, 15 percent said they “felt very or extremely knowledgeable about the risks associated with the product,” compared to 3 percent who said the same regarding the generic ads.

The next step is for Google to convince pharma brands to test the ad unit, which would require submitting their ads to regulators for clearance before actually running them. “We’re going into this not knowing if these ads will ever be approved,” said Belliveau. “The only way they can be is if the results show that the ads are in the best interest of consumers.”

Yahoo has also tested ad formats geared towards pharma advertisers featuring drug brand logos and links to specific landing pages. These pages feature drug “Treatment Info” or “Safety Info” to help satisfy the FDA’s requirements.

Also indicative of Google’s exploratory mode when it comes to pharma, the company asked marketers in the audience for feedback on a mock search ad unit displaying a consumer review and stars indicating a consumer rating. Jim Lecinski, Google’s managing director U.S. sales, called it “a concept for your input and feedback,” noting the company is looking to test it and bring it to market.

The FDA held a hearing in November to hash out ideas for marketing guidelines for pharma. During Google’s annual health industry event yesterday, company execs stressed consumer privacy protection. For instance, Eileen Naughton, director of media and operations, Americas, noted that the company does not enable display ad retargeting for prescription medication advertisers.

According to some in pharmaceutical marketing circles, the pharma sector is partly to blame for not pushing the FDA for more regulatory clarity.

“Nobody wants to take [a product claim ad] through the FDA and pre-clear it? That doesn’t make any sense,” said Fabio Gratton, co-founder of Ignite Health, a healthcare marketing agency. “We would rather sit on the sidelines…. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to not go to the FDA and just sit down with them. They want this conversation; that’s the whole point.”

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