August 9, 2010
If correctly implemented, unbranded websites can be a valuable information resource for consumers and a valuable marketing tool for pharma brands. Andrew Tolve reports.
In early May, the FDA posted a warning letter to Novartis citing two unbranded websites for violating a raft of regulations, including promoting drugs for unapproved uses, failure to disclose associated risks, and making unsubstantiated dosing claims.
The warning letter raised a red flag for companies throughout the industry with unbranded websites, many of whom worried their own sites might be next.
“I keep telling my clients this is not the end of the day for the unbranded website,” says Kristin Keller, executive vice president of Compass Healthcare Communications, an interactive marketing agency that specializes in online communication.
“Don’t freak out, there’s nothing new here. The only thing that happened was that those guys were sloppy.”
A study from Manhattan Research released the same week as the Novartis incident suggests that unbranded websites, while operating in accordance with all regulations, can still create a valuable resource for consumers seeking disease-related information and an equally valuable marketing tool for a brand in that disease category.
"The extent to which a company can benefit from unbranded strategies varies greatly by disease category and product situation,” says Maureen Malloy, lead author of the Manhattan Research report.
“But under the right circumstances, this type of investment can support lead generation, relationship marketing, and awareness and education initiatives.”
When to go unbranded
One key to getting an unbranded site right is to make sure you actually need it.
In an online world saturated with content, redundant material doesn’t go far no matter how many marketing dollars a company might funnel towards it.
Keller says the first obvious marketing scenario for an unbranded site is when your product is the leader in its class and there’s a need for disease education and driving diagnosis.
Information on the site doesn’t need to be directly linked to therapy because, as the leader in the class, you’ll naturally benefit from heightened awareness.
On the other hand, if you’re a statin that has 15 percent of the market, there’s zero need to develop an unbranded website to educate people about statin therapy, says Keller.
“Let the market leaders, the Lipitors and the Crestors, invest in that sort of initiative,” says Keller.
“In the end, they’re the ones who will benefit regardless of who runs the site.”
A second reason to consider an unbranded site is if you’re in a disease state that struggles with compliance issues.
An unbranded site like J&J’s Children with Diabetes can offer education, support, and tools around managing therapies.
The third scenario is when you’re trying to introduce or increase diagnosis of an overlooked disease.
IGF-1 deficiency, for example, is a subset of growth hormone deficiency that rarely gets diagnosed.
Compass Healthcare is currently developing an education website for Ipsen that will help increase awareness.
Keller: “The site will say to parents, ‘Hey, if your kid’s not responding to traditional growth treatment, make sure you get screened for this enzyme deficiency because it’s often overlooked and your kid may have it.’”
Devising and implementing an unbranded strategy
The first step in devising an unbranded strategy, says Keller, is a listening phase.
Nearly every disease state has an established social media community through Yahoo! groups or an association website.
Keller recommends listening to what these groups have to say and analyzing the community dynamic—what’s important to them, what do they lack, what’s their tolerance for a manufacturer entering their community?
Keller says, “Some of them are extremely open and say, ‘Yes, do whatever you can.’ Others say, ‘Stay out of it; we don’t want you a part of this.’ And some are mistrustful but willing to communicate if you don’t push a brand at them. So it’s critical to listen.”
Once you assess the needs of the community and gain its support, it’s time to build the site, which will vary greatly in content and style depending on its usage—pre-launch awareness campaign, ongoing disease information, webinar series, etc.
Regardless of its final form, Keller offers two bits of advice once the site is established.
First, stick with it.
Nothing irks an online community more than a manufacturer who’s gung-ho one moment and absent the next.
Second, take advantage of it.
You’re foolish if you don’t use the community to market branded messages as long as you provide full disclosure and fair balance.
“It’s crazy how many people miss that strategy component,” says Keller.
“They invest in property, they get all this traffic there, they spend money on media and search, and yet they don’t bother capturing people. Why wouldn’t you?”
Manhattan Research’s study found that 35 percent of online consumers for pharma info used an unbranded website in 2009, and that most consumers are interested in (rather than mistrustful of) unbranded sites.
Keller points to a number of success stories, including the pku.com community site for BioMarin and the Acromegaly Answers blog and webinar series for Ipsen.
Acromegaly is a syndrome that causes gigantism and affects everything from body features to heart function.
Keller and her team analyzed the Acromegaly social media space and discovered that patients didn’t want another platform to talk to each other; instead they needed expert advice as it related to disease management and life coping skills.
So Compass Healthcare created an unbranded patient-facing blog—one of the first in pharma—that hosted a series of guest authors, from reimbursement specialists to physicians to patient advocates to nurses.
The result was increased understanding for patients and exposure for Ipsen’s drug.
“If the situation is right, an unbranded site can allow a company to become a truly engaged member of a community,” says Keller.
“It creates a level of intimacy and dialogue that a branded site simply cannot.”
“An unbranded approach tends to be more humanizing than a product approach,” seconds Malloy.
“You’re connecting with patients in a less sales-y way. Ultimately it’s more personal and condition-focused.”
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