Search Marketing in the Pharma Industry

Do you or your clients work in a highly regulated environment like pharmaceuticals or financial services?

Search marketing in these industries can be highly contentious and must be carefully deployed, but by no means is it impossible. The majority of my clients are in the health care industry, so let’s look at some issues that pharma marketers face when undertaking search marketing, as well as some of the solutions they’ve implemented.

The Challenges

In pharmaceutical marketing, every claim made in a promotion must have the supporting risk or safety information (i.e., side effects) displayed within the same ad unit. If you want to relate a brand to a condition, you must provide the associated risk or safety information. Otherwise, you have to talk in either a strictly unbranded or strictly branded environment.

As sponsored search ads have limited space, pharma advertisers have no choice; there’s no room to display all the safety information, so they’re forced to use unbranded ads to market their drugs when consumers are searching for treatment options for their condition. And anything they display, branded or otherwise, has to go through a rigorous review process that consists of medical, regulatory, and legal approvals.

Up until very recently, many pharma advertisers got away with marketing the brand and the condition in the same ad. They followed the one-click rule (i.e., the safety information was available within one click from the ad). But the FDA issued warning letters a few months back, which quickly put the kibosh on this activity.

Even within the FDA’s current confines, advertisers still have a strong opportunity in this space. Though unbranded ads must be shown for condition searches, they can be redirected to the brand site. And for brand searches, most pharma advertisers are allowed to show branded reminder ads. That is, ads that mention the brand name, the generic name, and really nothing else.

That said, drugs that have a special black box warning (define) aren’t allowed to show reminder ads at all, and they must show an unbranded ad even when a consumer searches on their brand name. Consider Concerta, an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) treatment with a black box warning (most ADHD drugs have them).

Let’s say a patient is prescribed Concerta and searches for “concerta patient support” in a search engine. All the patient might see is an unbranded ad that says, “Learn about a treatment for ADHD.” What would make the searcher think this ad is relevant?

This situation leaves many advertisers hoping they have a strong organic listing for all their relevant branded terms. And in an attempt to influence these listings, many recognize the importance of undertaking SEO (define) in addition to their paid search activities.

SEO and Pharma

Because search engines ultimately determine exactly when, where, and what shows on the SERP (define), organic listings are much more difficult to manipulate and control than sponsored listings. However, some tried-and-true best practices can influence what appears in the organic listings.

One basic way is with meta-data tags, the behind-the-scenes tags Web developers can add to a page to tell the search engine crawlers something about the page. Most notably in organic search, meta data typically includes page titles, descriptions, and keywords.

When the description tag is empty, Google will often take a snippet from the on-page content. And in the pharma industry, sometimes the snippet it pulls is from the safety information. Imagine your description in the SERP reading, “May cause heart attack, heart failure…”

To exert some level of control over what is shown, include a description that Google will then most often display in the organic listing associated with that page. This stands to help influence the organic listings for a brand.

Is Organic Next on the Chopping Block?

To date, organic listings haven’t been considered promotional, and rightly so. Therefore, they aren’t within the jurisdiction of the regulating bodies to review and approve.

But with sponsored listings coming under scrutiny by the FDA, some marketers are afraid the organic listings could possibly become required for review as well. However, this would only likely be due to a lack of understanding surrounding what organic listings are, how they are served up, and the mechanics of search engine indexing.

Because search engines have trouble reaching Flash and non-textual content, meta data is often the only way to help the search engine learn what a page is all about and index it appropriately. The meta data isn’t meant to be consumer-facing; it’s meant to be spider-facing.

That said, the regulating bodies could argue that, even though meta data is behind-the-scenes page coding, they have some influence over what appears in the SERPs, which are consumer-facing. And in their minds, anything consumer-facing could be considered direct-to-consumer (DTC) promotion and therefore subject to the same review and approval processes required for all DTC advertising.

Hopefully this will never come to be, but it is something to be mindful of for the future.

That said, no matter how much scrutiny is given to search marketing activities in this or other highly regulated industries, investment will no doubt continue because of search engines’ importance to their audience. It will continue to be a challenge to work within a strict regulatory environment but no doubt a necessary evil to capture online share of voice and stave off competitive threat.

Large-scale search programs face complex challenges to operate as effectively as possible. Join us on Wednesday, September 9, 2009, at 1 p.m., for a free Webinar on tips and techniques to wrangle the most complex of programs.

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