Where does nearly every single one of your audiences go when they need information? They Google it.
As Matt Lowe, CEO of performance.io, the industry’s first specialist online performance agency, notes, “this is a universal behaviour for all of your audiences – healthcare professionals, pharmacists, carers, nurses, patients, and payers”.
But Lowe says that for most organisations, their performance and search engine optimisation (SEO) marketing strategy is a “barren desert”.
“Before we launched performance.io, I hadn’t come across one company in any market that had a congruent, well thought-out, SEO strategy,” he says.
Lowe began his career working across a range of commercial sectors in pharma, for companies such as Sanofi and Grünenthal, and winning awards for his integration of data-led marketing and digital solutions applied to the marketing mix for drug launches.
It was this success that led to him being approached to head up digital operations globally for a mid-sized network agency, and the transition to agency life enabled him to get more exposure to the solutions being offered from creative, communications, med ed and digital agencies.
Seeing this shortfall inspired him to launch the industry’s first specialist SEO agency, Search Unlimited in 2015. Two years later, once the group had been sold, Lowe set up performance.io – whose goal, he says, is to “redefine performance in healthcare”.
“People talk a lot about new technologies and their impact on healthcare. Machine learning, artificial intelligence, IoT – all developments that are helping the industry address the way we provision solutions. But for me it’s the everyday skills and disciplines that are missing from the core competency framework in pharma.”
Lowe feels that as marketing and communications converge through technology, it is understanding the mechanisms of the web, the opportunities and data it yields that will provide the area of competitive advantage pharma companies seek.
That said, Lowe draws a distinction between “SEO” and the kind of end-to-end ‘online performance marketing’ that performance.io specialises in.
SEO is one of a multitude of disciplines in performance marketing that in turn is affected by a plethora of factors (such as content, frequency, links, metadata and mark-up data) and is predicated by the foundations on which it sits.
When working on performance marketing strategies, performance.io cleans and analyses vast data sets including information on search behaviours, semantic search queries, video, imaging, news, social media, attribution modelling and click streams, to get a forensic understanding of audience needs before anything is built.
“Step one is to gain a firm understanding of audience needs (user intent), the competitive landscape, where to play and perhaps more importantly where to avoid. I often give the example that if you are launching a running shoe in the UK and you target the word ‘running shoe’, after one year you wouldn’t have made a chip on the bonnet of the Nikes or the Reeboks of this world. Understanding the keywords to avoid is important, so you don’t blow your budget trying to win with the words ‘cancer’ or ‘diabetes’, which no pharma companies are going to do any time soon in any market outside the US (where they still don’t index).”
Understanding the landscape enables performance.io to map out the optimal foundations for a brand to thrive online. This is done by optimising and structuring the website information architecture to ensure Google’s crawling software indexes the whole site.
Step two is to work with development partners to ensure online performance aspects are considered through build and shortcuts aren’t taken that compromise performance.
“No assumptions should be made that development teams specialise in these disciplines,” says Lowe, “and through our work with a broad spectrum of superb development teams this has been our experience. You need to work in harmony with UX and Dev teams to balance online performance elements, load times, plugins and content and all with the end user in mind!”
Step three is working with clients on an ongoing basis to iterate as part of a ‘permanent beta’ approach and develop content based on a constant loop of data and feedback of how users have arrived at your site and how they have used it.
Performance marketing is an incredibly active process in a landscape that is constantly evolving. Just last month Google rolled out significant changes to how videos are indexed and presented in search results, launching its ‘in this video’ key moments, and in 2018 Google made over 3,000 changes to its system.
“It’s ultimately about understanding all of the moving parts that impact performance, from SEO and highly targeted paid media campaigns (for non-HCP sites), to email optimisation, social media optimisation, events and congress sign-ups, which are so often overlooked in pharma,” says Lowe.
“When working with clients, they often say ‘our media agency or creative agency have done some SEO for us’ and we find they have done a bit of paid media, or used a simple plug-in. That is not performance marketing. Conversions are non-existent and it doesn’t align with any plan. This isn’t helping healthcare to be more patient centric!”
What can help is getting clients into the top organic positions for non-branded keywords (dynamic opportunities) on Google.
Another goal is to get the company’s information to appear on the first page of the search results as a ‘featured snippet’ – search results that appear at the top of a results page giving additional information from a website, often in the form of bullet points and an image.
“They are tremendously valuable for clients and their audiences. There’s around a 114% increase in click-through rate for keywords that appear in featured snippets. For the clients and campaigns we’ve worked on this year, we’ve delivered over 100 of these, seeing a huge impact for clients’ campaigns and sales where relevant. If you get a featured snippet, it gets indexed twice on Google – once as a featured snippet and then once in the search engine result below.
“I feel this is an incredibly exciting time for pharma and healthcare. We’ve seen the bar raised in the past few years in pharma with creative more akin to the consumer space, and I feel we’re now driving this with online performance.”
Lowe says that having a good performance marketing strategy can have a profound impact on sales and understanding audience needs; moreover it’s about saving lives through earlier diagnosis, alleviating anxiety for patients, and helping healthcare professionals by using the vast data sets that pharma sits on to provide a source of useful information at the time it’s needed most.
“I have always thought it a privilege to work in pharma and healthcare, but I can’t help feel there is a tremendous waste of money on campaigns no one sees and limited use of the functionality that CRM and CLM offer consumer brands. We should be aiming to save and help as many lives as possible by providing balanced information in people’s hands at the time they need it most”.
Looking to the future, Lowe says he would like to see the broader industry embrace performance marketing and raise the bar in this space, and is proud that performance.io is leading from the front as an industry first.
Despite the fact that pharma is still finding its way with online performance marketing and SEO, Lowe says that companies have come a long way since he started in this space.
“In 2015 we were the very first to launch a specialist SEO solution, and when I was taking it into clients there was definitely some technical hand holding required and odd looks at ‘the strange digital guy’! The odd looks haven’t entirely disappeared in some circles, but 2 years later when we launched performance.io (2017), there was more awareness that online performance isn’t just a slide at the end of the pitch where we talk about measurement. Online performance is the thread that runs from the very beginning when you’re defining the ecosystem, the audience’s behaviours, through to build, through to conversions, and then back into content. People understand that now, they know it’s important.”
Nevertheless, Lowe says he often still needs to convince people that this needs to be prioritised as part of the spending within the product-related costs.
“I know companies often still see this as innovative, but the first search engines were launched in 1996 and there were no real performance or SEO strategies in pharma even as late as 2015. This is starting to change.
“It’s good to see. I think that’s a product of diminishing access to healthcare professionals. Most people now know that even doctors will look on Google, either within a consultation or in between.”
Matt is founder and chief executive at performance-io.com, focused on bringing healthcare solutions to as broad an audience as possible through new technologies. He spent over a decade in pharma working across a range of commercial sectors, before leaving to head up digital operations at a mid-sized network agency globally. In 2015, he launched the industry’s first specialist SEO agency, Search Unlimited, before founding performance.io, the industry’s first specialist end-to-end online performance marketing agency in pharma in 2017.
Passionate about mental wellness, he is a board member at the PeaceLove Foundation, who help children and adults in prisons and schools throughout America, with neurodiversity challenges to express themselves through creativity. Matt also assumes the role of co-founder at Artmatr, a company originating out of the Media Lab at MIT, who are developing technologies that sit at the nexus of art, engineering and robotics and extrapolating their tech to help people with physical disabilities to engage with the arts. He has also recently been appointed as trustee of Shafi Ahmed Foundation, whose goal is to use technology to train and teach medical skills to improve global access to safe surgery.