To market Niche Drugs, US Pharma goes Online.

Digital advertising spending by the US healthcare and pharmaceutical industry will hit $1.58 billion in 2012 and rise to $2.48 billion by 2016. But even as marketers move larger percentages of their budgets online, expiring patents and regulatory challenges will conspire to temper spending growth.

“Most pharma marketers see digital marketing’s potential but remain rooted in old ways of doing things. Though adoption is uneven, a paradigm shift is under way as campaigns slowly but steadily migrate online,” said Victoria Petrock, eMarketer senior analyst and author of the new report, “The US Healthcare & Pharmaceutical Industry: Digital Ad Spending Forecast and Key Trends.”

The expiration of patents for blockbuster products will be the biggest industry change that will force new ways of thinking. “Faced with generic competition and fewer blockbusters in pharma pipelines, marketers are ramping up to promote a crop of new, specialized products that treat less-common diseases,” said Petrock. “Rather than turning to one-way, mass-market media to promote brand awareness and maintenance, marketers are experimenting with more interactive, lower-cost and more targeted digital channels.”

In particular, while promotional spending aimed at providers historically has been the largest slice of pharma companies’ marketing pie, it is becoming even more important as physicians turn online and to mobile devices for education and information. A 2011 study by Booz & Company and National Analysts Worldwide found that pharma executives in the US and EU put programs aimed at healthcare providers—as well as unpaid forms of internet promotion—high on their list of planned budget increases.

The net effect of these factors will be that digital healthcare and pharma industry ad spending in paid media will grow at a compound annual rate of 14.1% between 2011 and 2016, which is the average rate for US online ad spending as a whole. Over the forecast period, the industry’s investment will remain stable, at about 4% of total US online ad spending.

According to Petrock, “Highly customizable digital formats will help educate and engage smaller target populations.” While search, online video and mobile will help marketers place “particular emphasis on helping key audiences more easily find products and services, educating them with video and reaching them across channels.”

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