Getting To The Heart Of Things: Big Pharma Marketing Challenges

While I don’t recall asking for her opinion, I got it all the same. My wife—of course—thinks that my cholesterol problem is due to my diet. She says that I could eat in a more healthy way (whatever that means). However, I, on the other hand, like to think—as any self-respectable kid does—that this is all my parents’ fault. After all, each of them has been on cholesterol meds since they hit middle-age.

But being the mature adult that I purport to be, I have to put the blame game aside—at least for a little while—and just be thankful for the drug therapies that help me and so many others. Today, tons of folks are receiving pharmaceutical intervention, and not surprisingly, more than a few search for information about the drugs online. But as anyone who has ever tried to conduct such research knows, doing so is no easy task.

In fact, I think most folks usually get overwhelmed with the process. And why shouldn’t they? There is nothing short of a glut of pharmaceutical sites out there, all claiming to be the pre-eminent source of information on a particular topic. To say the pharma industry is a tad cluttered and confusing is an understatement. Instead, it’s the epitome of chaos.

But consumers aren’t the only ones affected by it. Try being a marketer promoting medications. You’ve got to cut through the clutter, get your message to the right audiences, and abide by some seriously stringent rules. In short, marketers operating in this climate have more than a few hoops to jump through.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s take a look at some of the factors that come into play when building a branded website for a prescription pharmaceutical.

First, the website needs to target two very different audiences: the end consumer, and the prescribing physician. Why? Because each audience searches in very different ways, and they use their own unique sets of keywords. For example, consumers tend to conduct their research based on symptoms, while physicians are more precise, and search for a medical compound or drug name. As a marketer, your keywords and content need to speak to each audience in a manner that is consistent with their thought process. As such, marketers need to target both branded and non-branded/symptom related keyword phrases.

Next, selling prescription pharmaceuticals over the Internet is prohibited in the United States; consequently, the website must be purely educational. Given that reality, what’s the value of a visitor to the site? The first thing you need to do to answer that question is to create defined calls to action. Once delineated, then you can assign a value to each. For example, such calls to action could be anything from signing-up for newsletter, to an information request, or even an online survey asking people if they have ever used the medication or discussed it with their doctor. Again, once the actions are defined, a value can be assigned to each, and then you’ll know what a visitor is worth.

Finally, every piece of content on the site—visible or not—has to be approved for fair balance by a medical legal review board. Moreover, keep in mind that they operate on their own timeline, and that they are very strict about what they approve.

Clearly, big brand pharmaceuticals face unique marketing challenges. For illustration purposes, let’s do a search for the term “cholesterol medication.” As a person with high cholesterol, the term not only provides a great example here, it’s also a topic which is near and dear to my heart (no pun intended).

Launch a search in Google for the term “cholesterol medication.” It should produce the following results set:


Notice anything in particular about the results? Only two branded websites show up in the set. Lipitor is in position #1 (also in the #3 position within sponsored listings), and Zetia is in position #9. Other than one herbal remedy site, the rest of the listings are general information sites about cholesterol medication.

First of all, kudos go out to the Lipitor and Zetia marketing teams for doing such a great job optimizing their sites. But what has the Lipitor team done so well to earn that top spot? Let’s take a closer look:

  • The site has plenty of indexable content, and they have included good content that will be useful to users and attract links, such as their heart disease quiz page.

  • The use of the META information fields matches the content on the page, building a keyword phrase theme for each page.
  • The URL strings contain the keyword phrases that are being targeted for each page.
  • The pages are all well linked to each other internally.
  • The site speaks to multiple audiences; they have targeted consumers/caregivers as well as physicians.
  • The site has three defined calls to action that can have a value assigned to them to help value a visitor, and are aimed at driving trials: 1. Information request, 2. My HeartWise (which offers tools and education), and 3. Free trial request.

All in all, the Lipitor team has a done a nice job breaking through the clutter to get a useful and well targeted site in front of their potential audiences on a very competitive keyword. I suggest other marketers follow their lead as it will help ensure that you are capturing as much of your potential audience as possible.

Without a doubt, big brand pharmaceuticals face unique marketing challenges. It’s easy to see why they have their work cut out trying to reach their audiences. But even though the marketplace is clogged with a seemingly infinite number of sites, marketers should take heart because it is possible to breakthrough. Smart marketers will remember to speak to multiple audiences, optimize the site around the keywords specific to those audiences, define clear calls to action, and assign a value to each action. Otherwise, failing to do so would mean lost opportunity, pure and simple.

Robert J. Murray is president of search engine marketing firm iProspect and can be reached at The Brand Aid column appears Wednesdays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Brand Aid | Channel: SEO | SEO: General


About The Author: is president of search engine marketing firm iProspect and can be reached at

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  • Todd Mintz

    You do mean selling pharmaceuticals “without a prescription” online is illegal in the US…otherwise, and its ilk wouldn’t be in business. Also, pharmaceutical sites focused on medical professionals are probably .0000001% of the total…thin affiliate sites rule the roost in this category.

    I’m being hard on you…online pharmacy is an extraordinarily difficult topic to cover accurately if you don’t normally play in that sandbox.

    BTW, Google has done a decent job cleaning up the “buy viagra” SERPS…8 of the 10 results are pretty good, with and flickr being the exceptions.


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