Putting It In Context: How Pharma Marketers Can Finally Leverage Programmatic


ADOTAS — In pharma advertising, cookies and behavioral targeting have always been a challenge. While not strictly “outlawed,” they created a number of concerns around privacy – enough that pharma marketers avoided them for both over the counter (OTC) and direct to consumer (Rx) products.

Digital pharma marketing has always been limited by regulations. Think about the lengthy disclaimers you see on DTC TV ads, and you can get an idea of how that translates to digital.  The rules guiding pharmaceutical marketing online are lengthy and often confusing – and strictly monitored.

This has, to some extent, handicapped digital marketers in pharma. Privacy issues and regulations around them have kept them from engaging in some of the most promising advances in advertising technology, namely programmatic ad buying. Programmatic can deliver the ease of real-time bidding, data-driven targeting, vast reach and other benefits that make online advertising effective and efficient. Yet it isn’t an option for most marketers in the pharma space.

All that said, online behavioral targeting is permitted; that is, the FDA does not expressly forbid it. Marketers are, however, cautioned to use it sparingly and ensure their sites’ privacy policies have been updated to reflect their use of the tactic.  The DMA, and other organizations are especially cautious about behavioral targeting, particularly as it relates to HIPAA. Many Rx brands that make the transition to OTC are still forbidden to use behavioral targeting by their legal groups in many cases who feel the tactic draws too much criticism.

The upside for pharmaceutical markets that do permit BT is that they are able to target users who have expressed an interest, and reach them at scale.  They have a myriad of ad formats available to them to tell their story, and they’re able to drive those hand-raisers to a site where they can be further educated about a particular product. That’s all great.

Or is it? Let’s consider how retargeting looks in a hypothetical use case: Suppose a young woman has recently been diagnosed with lupus.  She does some research about her condition and the treatments available. During the course of her journey, she visits the official sites of a few branded medications. She prints a few things, takes notes, and jots down a few questions for her doctor.  Then she moves on.

A few days later, perhaps after seeing her doctor and discussing her treatment plan, the same young woman is taking some downtime online.  She’s on Pinterest, then an entertainment news site…and she begins seeing ads for lupus medications. There alongside the best-dressed celebrities the red carpet, a reminder of exactly the last thing she wants to be thinking about in this moment.  It’s hardly relevant to her current mindset, intent or the context of the site she’s visiting. So of all the ad categories, health context does matter…or to put it another way behavioral targeting, reaching patients on non-health sites out of context, may not be that impactful.

There’s a better way to reach patients interested in learning more about their conditions and treatment options. There have been tremendous advances in cookie-free targeting. With the use of algorithms and natural language processing, contextual targeting is more accurate than it’s ever been. And contextual targeting has gone way beyond the Google AdSense ads you may have purchased a few years ago: Rich media and video ads are now available. And the targeting has improved as well – there’s no need to worry about ads appearing alongside negative content. Contextual targeting has evolved enough to understand the page – not just a few keyword phrases. The historical performance of highly relevant pages can even be tracked and used. For example identifying pages focused on Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes versus targeting an entire diabetes section of a site.

Most importantly, targeting context ensures that an advertiser’s message appears adjacent to relevant content, but it does more than that: context targets intent. That means that when a user is seeking content regarding lupus, she’ll find ads that are relevant to her search.  When those ads surface to her in the moment that she’s actually seeking that information, she’s far more likely to respond to the ad in the way the advertiser hopes she will. By the same token, if she’s looking at movie stars in fancy gowns, she’s far more likely to click on ad for discounted strappy sandals than an ad for corticosteroids.

Ads can be tailored very specifically to the consumer as they absorb content, too: A consumer reading articles about autism around Autism Awareness Month may just be seeking general information and may or may not be a qualified lead. A consumer seeking information about specific behaviors within autistic children is likely the parent or caregiver for a child with autism, and may be in need of information on medication and treatment options.  A consumer seeking information about a specific medication is further along the decision path and should be given access to more detailed content.

These contextually targeted ads can be purchased programmatically, at the page level, allowing advertisers to reach consumers at scale across hundreds of quality, safe sites. Pharma marketers can finally take advantage the ease, efficiency and transparency of real-time buying and optimization – without putting patient privacy at risk.


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