Ad Spending Trends in Pharma and Healthcare

Brendan Gill  | 

For pharmaceutical and healthcare companies, TV and print have long been advertising’s go-to buys, offering marketers both guaranteed reach and well-understood protocols for conforming to the stringent privacy and regulatory guidelines that drug and device makers, biomedical outfits, hospitals, doctors, researchers and healthcare services providers must abide by. As such, it’s understandable that the industry’s embrace of digital has been more tempered than that of others. In fact, according to eMarketer, pharma and healthcare’s share of digital is a mere 2.7% vs 22% for retail, 12% for financial and 9% for CPG, and its projected digital ad spend growth for 2018 lower than average at 12.7%.

But with the explosion of “beyond-the-pill” programs that allow both physicians and consumers to take to the internet to better manage health education, outcomes and costs, pharma and healthcare companies are increasingly motivated to overcome the complex regulatory challenges associated with engaging customers in the digital realm. Here are some of the ways the industry is evolving its digital ad strategies to better serve the on-demand expectations of its audiences.

TV still reigns, but its objectives are changing
That healthcare and pharma continue to invest heavily in traditional advertising is not surprising. As reported by eMarketer, spending on TV grew from $3.11 billion in 2016 to $3.45 billion in 2017, while digital outlays for the same period went from $2 billion to $2.52 billion. What is illuminating, however, is that advertisers’ use of TV seems to be going beyond traditional goals of just driving brand awareness and toward that of driving audiences online. While healthcare and pharma companies have never been known as early adopters of multi-channel campaigns, they seem to be championing it now, according to this research, and, in the process, supporting the industry’s direct-to-consumer ambitions, as this article suggests. Using TV as the pillar in multi-channel efforts is not only helping the industry directly engage doctors and patients, but also fueling the growing investments in various digital formats, including search (expected to grow 6% in 2018 in part because of efforts to sync search with TV ads) as well as digital video (expected to grow 13.7% in part due to doctors’ growing appetite for viewing profession-related content online).

Programmatic making in-roads
Programmatic, as we wrote last year, is still problematic for many brands in the healthcare and pharma space because this type of highly targeted, automatic campaign buying can infringe on patient privacy and HIPAA regulations or open companies up to brand safety violations. As a result, investment in programmatic has, to date, been far lower in healthcare and pharma than other industries and, according to eMarketer, buying via programmatic will remain a relatively smaller part of brands’ overall ad buying strategies. But, growth is occurring. eMarketer said that marketers are expected to increase the share of digital video bought by this method by a whopping 43% in 2018. While eMarketer didn’t offer specifics in what is driving that growth, an interview the organization conducted last year with Jack Hogan, CTO of medical publisher Lifescript, offers potential insight. Hogan told eMarketer that publishers are devising ways of de-coupling first-party, declared health data from private information which is enabling advertisers to reach desired audiences with stated medical interests without violating HIPAA patient privacy rules. These efforts are in their infancy but making it possible for pharma companies to test the waters of programmatic buying.

Going mobile
What needs little interpretation, however, are the numbers around mobile and social. As is occurring in nearly every sector measured by eMarketer, pharma and healthcare are following their audiences to mobile and expect ad spending on the format to grow nearly 15% this year. eMarketer cited studies that found 8 in 10 physicians using smartphones for work, with two-thirds of them checking their devices more than 10 times a day, so mobile is a natural way for the companies to market to these customers. Consumers, for their part, seem eager to access health information via mobile, as evidenced by the robust use of the FDA’s app to access its online database and the numerous apps launched by brands. Brands are mostly sticking to Facebook and Twitter for these activities as they are the platforms most accessed via mobile.

The challenges and risks of operating in the digital realm haven’t gone away for pharma and healthcare companies but their slow but steady moves toward digital show they understand they have to address the challenges to reap the rewards of engaging more closely with customers anywhere and everywhere they are these days.

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