Sponsored posts and ads on social channels can produce much higher click through rates than display ads, at least partially due to the rich targeting options available on the channel. However, the social platforms all have very different policies in place when dealing with pharmaceutical products.
We talk with all the social platforms throughout the year just to stay on top of technical changes, demographic updates, and ad policy shifts. Here is a summary of the current “state of the nation” in social ads for pharmaceutical companies.
Unbranded or Corporate Ads
First, all the channels are ok with taking ad dollars for both unbranded (condition-oriented) and corporate materials. These content types are the same as a huge array of groups, associations, and companies who advertise on the channels so they are not blocked by ad policies. All other policies and rules have to be respected, of course, but these are easy to find.
There has been a fair amount of worry in the industry about what is possible on Facebook. For good reason, too. This channel has 1.3 billion monthly active users and can produce very positive response rates for advertisers. So, it’s no wonder that when Facebook speaks people listen.
Facebook does have some special rules for pharmaceutical information in advertisements. When looking at these rules it is important to remember that Facebook has to deal with a lot of advertisers who may be less legitimate than giant pharmaceutical companies. The same fly-by-night companies that the FDA is constantly battling with their “Misbranded” and “Unsubstantiated Advertising” letters want to advertise their products on Facebook and the social network really wants to limit the amount of promotion they can do. The problem is that the rules get written in a way that can worry advertisers unduly.
In essence, Facebook tries to curb the selling of drugs on the site, not the marketing of drugs. So, the things you cannot do on Facebook:
- Cannot promote the sale of the drug – for the reasons described above
- Cannot imply that someone has the disease – to ensure the “over the shoulder” view of a page doesn’t release private health information
- Cannot target people who like other pages – to ensure that users don’t learn to avoid “liking” pages
The types of ads that can be done on the channel include:
- Learn about “brand” – there isn’t enough room for both claim and ISI so you need to use reminder ad style
- Ask your doctor about “brand” – it is easy to see how these ads are far from selling the branded drug so they are fine
The targeting of ads used to be an issue on Facebook as well. Advertisers had to be careful not to target certain conditions which were only somewhat documented. The new targeting rules are much easier because Facebook has been updating their tools:
- If you can find a condition in the ad tool you can use it – any controversial disease states that were previously banned are now simply not in the ad tool: easy!
- Can target based on brands, your own or competitors – your own media rules may not allow this but Facebook has no problem with it
- Can use lookalike audiences – by uploading your CRM list or other internal database you can match with Facebook users and then target other users who “look like” them
- Broad targeting – our contact at Facebook reinforced that one of the best ways of using the ad tool is not to be to prescriptive; it is smart enough to find people interested in your keywords
The final piece of the Facebook puzzle for pharmaceutical marketers isn’t a policy issue as much as a technical one. Right rail ads are easy to use but sponsored posts are more flexible and allow you to promote much larger pieces of content. They also work on mobile and other devices which is a big issue for advertisers. For marketers who have brand protection on their Facebook page, they will be happy to know that the protection extends to sponsored posts as well.
However, brands cannot turn off likes and comments on sponsored posts. So, if a marketer has a branded Facebook page with commenting turned off, that commenting will still appear on any sponsored posts (not on the page, only in readers’ timelines when they see it).
Twitter is a bit more coy with their rules than Facebook. There are three types of promotion that pharmaceutical brand marketers may want to use:
- Promoted Tweets
- Promoted Account
- Promoted Trends
The statement given by Twitter is:
Advertisements from pharmaceutical manufacturers are permitted with restrictions. These advertisers may only target the United States, and are only allowed with prior authorization from Twitter.
What this means in practice is not as easy to discern. We have a number of sample posts in to Twitter’s team so we should be able to report some more detail on this soon.
We sent a range of sample posts to Twitter to test the waters and the response we got back from their legal folks was “we can’t help you with the FDA.” From that we learned that all of our posts were fine with Twitter but they have no insight into what is permitted under FDA regulations. And that’s ok, we’re well versed on the rules and current interpretations. Our sample tweets included:
- Promoted Tweets
- Support Services
- Condition Awareness
- Help Seeking
- Brand Claim
- Promoted Trends
- Promoted Account
The venerable “pharmaceutical brand” channel is still available, with its ISI box and the ability to hide it when necessary. The rules for these types of channel have migrated a bit in the past but seem to have settled on:
- $100,000 in ad spend for 90 days on the channel
- The client’s account rep has the option to allow the channel to remain up longer than 90 days but this is not guaranteed
However, the “pharmaceutical brand” channel is limited to desktop only, it does not work on mobile at all. Our rep said that this seems to be causing many pharmaceutical advertisers to look at ways of making the videos themselves compliant rather than relying on the channel ISI.
Pharmaceutical advertisements for drugs are allowed but they will show only in the US and Canada. There are more discretionary options available for Ex-US ads, especially around HCP-focused material, but these are handled on a case-by-case basis.
Pinterest falls into the “no scammy online pharmacies” camp. Their advertising policies state:
We don’t allow anything that promotes online pharmacies, clinical trial recruitment, the sale of prescription pharmaceuticals or supplements we deem unsafe or questionable, including anabolic steroids, chitosan, comfrey, dehydroepiandrosterone, ephedra, human growth hormones or melatonin.
Like Facebook, Pinterest is mainly interested in ensuring the advertising on its channel is not enabling third-parties to violate the law but legitimate advertising by pharmaceutical manufacturers talking about learning rather than selling is acceptable. The difference with Pinterest is the ban on clinical trial recruitment. We’re not sure where that is coming from but it’s unfortunate because some critical studies for life-extending drugs benefit from social promotion to fill their quotas. We hope that Pinterest will revise their position on clinical trials once advertising matures on the platform, especially since the FDA is pushing to make sure that both women and men are represented appropriately in trials and Pinterest’s audience is 85% female.
LinkedIn’s answer about branded drug ads is a simple “no.” Their wording is:
Even if legal in the applicable jurisdiction, LinkedIn does not allow ads related to prescription pharmaceuticals, drugs or any related products or services.
Like LinkedIn, Instagram’s simple answer is “no.”
So, we can see that branded ads are available on the “big three” social channels. These channels can provide big returns for adventurous marketers, talk to your digital agency. Even if your brand isn’t active on social some of the options, specifically Facebook, can still produce excellent results.