Author: Matt Arnold, Principal Analyst

Towards the end of the year, we at Manhattan Research/DRG Digital set out themes and trends to track and explore in the following year’s proprietary surveys of consumers, physicians and payers. 2016’s surprise election result clouded our crystal ball a bit, but on other fronts, some trendlines are clear.

Here are key ones that we’re watching and helping clients plan for:

  • Policy trends bring chaos, but the shift to value continues apace: The abrupt shift in U.S. political power will spell uncertainty for the healthcare industries – and probably a spike in uninsured Americans. But with MACRA in place and businesses on board, the shift to value will go on, even if presumptive HHS head Tom Price isn’t a huge fan. That will mean more experimentation with alternate payment plans and continued pressure on providers to realize cost savings and improve outcomes. Pharmas must incorporate these pressures into every aspect of commercialization, from pricing to positioning and pill-plus value-adds. We wonder: How will providers, payers and patients navigate access issues in this new paradigm? How can pharmas best position and augment their products in a value-driven environment and help payers and providers meet qualitative goals?
  • Personalized medicine meets personalized marketing: Big Data has brought about a revolution in how marketers understand their customers. Pharma marketers can now couple real world evidence data, like claims and EHR data, and traditional market research with what we call real world marketing data, including social data, search analytics and clickstream analysis. This affords us a far more in-depth and multidimensional view of the customer across their decision-making journey, enabling brands to offer them the right content and services at the right time and in the right place. Whether mapping the patient journey or tracing a drug’s trip from bench to bedside, we’re asking: What are our customers’ needs and pain points at each stage of decision-making? How can pharmas get them the resources they want within these windows of maximum influence?
  • Social is the media: 2016 was the year that Facebook executives woke up the morning after an Election Day shocker to ask if they had inadvertently swung the swing states. Facebook is now the 800-pound gorilla of all publishing, with one-third of U.S. social health users using it for news, emotional support or to connect with other patients. Between still ill-defined FDA regulations, the burden of monitoring and the fragmented nature of digital marketing, pharmas have lagged behind other industries in their use of social platforms to drive awareness, engage patients and mine customer insights. It’s time for brands to move beyond the standard cookie-cutter page-per-platform approach – especially with Facebook, which recently rewired its algorithm to promote content posted by friends and family over that posted by publishers. We’re asking: How can brands leverage the power of health influencers? How should marketers compensate for the “dark social” phenomenon, wherein visible shares might be just the tip of the iceberg?


  • Immersive experiences offer marketers an increasingly powerful tool for engagement: The runaway success of Pokemon was the biggest surprise of 2016 – until November, anyway – and put augmented reality back on marketers’ maps. It’s early days yet for VR, but the technology is fast improving and VR content will emerge as a major competitive arena for brands in consumer-facing sectors in 2017. For pharmas, it offers exciting potential for patient education, as evidenced by Excedrin’s migraine simulator, and at least a few enterprising brands are already using high-end headsets to lure physicians into their booths at medical conferences. Meanwhile, our research continues to show huge demand for health video among patients and providers alike. We’re asking: How substantial is consumer and physician demand for applications of these emerging media from pharma? How are customers accessing health and medical video, and what kind of video content are they looking for from pharma?
  • Digital treatments and augmentations are changing the practice of medicine: Pharma marketers used to think of digital as a channel, a box to check after placing TV and print ads and marshalling sales forces. Now, not only is digital media the media, but digital treatments and augmentations of traditional treatments promise a radical shift in how we treat disease, as digital “pill-plus” and standalone therapeutics join the traditional mix of drugs and biologics. A burst of recent pharma-tech joint ventures, from Alcon’s partnership with Verily on smart contact lenses to IBM Watson’s partnership with, well, everybody, attests to this burgeoning melding of these worlds. We’re looking at how patients and providers are using pill-plus therapeutics, particularly for adherence and condition management, and how these value-adds impact payers’ willingness to reimburse a prescription drug.
  • The CX is king: Not for nothing did a number of pharmas reorganize their digital centers of excellence into customer engagement groups in 2016. In an increasingly digital and patient-centric world where payers and providers are focused on patient engagement and satisfaction, traditional “push” marketing has limited reach – rather, pulling customers in with content and services of value to them and building relationships over time are the coin of the realm. We’re asking: How does the customer experience shape decision-making at each point in the process? How can pharma provide a better user experience to each of its constituent groups?
  • The machines never sleep: Amid an exponential wave of technological advances, new challenges and opportunities are coming at you fast. Artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, blockchain encryption and advanced programmatic advertising are among the emerging technologies that will begin to impact marketers in 2017. We’ll be monitoring adoption and awareness of these technologies and keeping clients abreast of what they mean for their businesses.

And ten predictions for 2017:

  • Intense competition among pharmas to hire big data talent and build capabilities in this area;
  • A glut of new approvals resulting from cyclical factors as well as a lower regulatory burden will mean less budget for individual brands at many companies, accelerating the shift from TV and direct sales to digital;
  • Managed care marketing becomes all the more crucial as MACRA continues to drive the shift to value and ACA repeal-induced tumult fuels still greater waves of consolidation among providers and payers;
  • Companies hold down price increases in the early days of the Trump Administration, and a whole sub-discipline of crisis PR emerges around responding to presidential shame-Tweeting; meanwhile, a spike in the number of uninsured Americans heightens public ire over drug prices and patient and provider angst over costs, forcing pharmas to recalibrate financial assistance programs and copays;
  • Wearable bands and watches are joined by electronic apparel ala UnderArmour’s bioelectronics compression shirt. Apple will launch medical versions of its watch;
  • A number of pharmas look beyond the walled gardens of trusted publishers to begin experimenting with programmatic buys for precision targeting of consumers;
  • FDA recognizes the public benefits of communicating accurate Rx information in space-constrained formats and relaxes restrictions a bit;
  • Machine learning and social analytics power revolutions in population health and adverse events reporting;   
  • Physicians get on board the telemedicine train and virtual visits move from one-off, acute care use into established patient-physician relationships
  • A few pharma brands begin optimizing their digital properties for voice search, anticipating the impact of Alexa and Google Home on their visibility

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