Pharma Marketing

Text messaging in multichannel pharma marketing

Multi-channel marketing strategies usually include old tactics such as telemarketing, direct mailing and printed detail aids to accompany more fancy mobile applications, eDetailing on tablets and over the Web. Good old SMS text messaging is forgotten in the era of smartphones. Is it really so smart?

SMS in pharma marketing

Text messaging is a tactic that pharma marketers used in the past. There were successful pharma marketing campaigns with text messaging at the core of the execution.
One such example is Pfizer’s recruitment for a study that targeted teenage smokers with a radio campaign. The call to action instead of traditional “call us now” was replaced by “text us now” which allowed young audience to discreetly make a contact with researchers, even if they listened to the spot in their (unaware of teen’s deadly habit) parents’ car.

Novartis with its SMS for Life campaign allows better access to malaria treatment in Africa. A successful pilot in Tanzania that has been running since 2009, has encouraged the company to roll it out in other markets, including Kenya, Ghana and Cameroon. So far the results were very impressive, allowing company to reduce stock-outs of the antimalarial ACTs from 26% to just 1% of the facilities.
GSK is using text messaging to increase childhood vaccination rates in Mozambique and to fight counterfeit products in Tanzania. Merck is running a diabetes sms campaign in Kenya and Uganda…
But wait a moment, it is all just marginal actions, and never the core of the brand strategy in the product lifecycle. It seems that text messaging is no longer considered as a part of still trendy mobile marketing. Ask your average pharma marketing expert for mobile tactics, and you will get a standard list:
– build a mobile app
– build a mobile or responsive website
– make your e-mails mobile ready
This is all fine, but:
– a mobile app is usually a costly mistake that with limited reach and extremely short lifespan
Only 30% of apps is downloaded. Of those, only 30% is ever opened. For free apps, only 5% are still being used after one month. Astonishing 80% of mobile apps have less than 1000 downloads.
Yes, you can be lucky and make an app that is actually useful and used, as Merck was with its Clarityn’s Pollen Forecast app. But if you are in the Rx world, there is a very slight chance that a mobile app will work for you.
– a mobile or responsive website is good to have, but to convey a scientific message you need a big screen anyway. Check your current web entities for stats of mobile usage and you will be surprised how rarely HCPs are visiting it with the mobile device that is not a tablet. And for tablets, a standard website is perfectly fine.
– the e-mails are often read on mobile, that is true. Therefore, it is worth an effort to make your e-mails mobile friendly, but never stop here. If your e-mail reached a user on the mobile, the landing page should be optimized for mobile as well. Do not expect anyone to read a scientific paper on an iPhone or, even worse, Blackberry. Instead make the user journey mobile end-to-end – let them order delivery of the paper with one tap, rather than providing a download button as you would do for PC or Mac users. Limit length of the survey, make sure the landing page is light on text, etc. etc.
What your consultant probably forgot to add, a text message is much more friendly for phone users than e-mail. It can be even richer in content, especially if you decide to embed in your campaign OTT messages.
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Text message marketing vocabulary
Short Message Service (SMS) – the oldest standard for text messaging. It allows sending 160 characters, plain text. It is extremely cheap and can be very narrowly targeted. It can reach every phone, which gives you maximum potential reach. Arriving SMS is accompanied with buzz sound set by the user, thus it is important to set silent hours for SMS campaigns.
Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) – a standard to send messages with multimedia content to and from mobile phones. MMS can convey messages much longer than SMS, up to thousands characters or up to 1MB content. Unfortunately, its implementation differs from operator to operator and from device to device. Quality of the video and its length is also restricted, so limit yourself to 30 seconds, or use OTT instead.
Push notification – a service that allows an app installed on the device alert user with a message.If a push notification is received, an app will display it with its icon on the status bar of the device. It is useful for e-commerce applications (ie. while searching for an item, you may receive a push notification with a special time-limited offer from the merchant nearby). Unfortunately, the reach is limited to smartphones. On the other hand, users are keen on accepting Push while installing an app easier than to opt-in for SMS campaigns. Push is also cheaper than SMS.
Cross-channel messaging – messaging service can be used to seamlessly put content on other channels (ie. it is possible to receive and post Facebook comments via text messages, or use MMS to upload images on Flickr).
Over-The-Top messaging (OTT) – messaging with multimedia content that is enabled by mobile applications not associated with mobile operators (ie. Apple iMessage, WhatsUp, Blackberry Messenger). Messages are downloaded via data connection. If WiFi is used to send/receive OTT messages, it allows geolocation of the device. The best practice is to combine SMS/MMS with Push and OTT services.
Instant Messaging (IM) – real time text based communication over the Internet. From a mobile device it is non-discernible from OTT, and in some applications also merged with SMS/MMS service in one application view.
Short Code – a short, 5-6 digits, number for standard and premium rate use on assigned territories. Used for mass marketing campaigns. You can use a shared short code from your vendor to launch your campaign faster, but it will limit available keywords (each can be used only once per code). The best practice is to register single short code for your brand, especially in the long term campaigns.
Long Code – 10 digits phone numbers, as used by standard subscribers in person to person communication. They may be used for campaigns that happen across different territories, but the limitation is the amount of messages that can be processed via long code at the time.

Advantages of SMS marketing for pharma and mobile health

Forgotten by external consultants in the age of pharma cross-channel marketing, mobile messaging is still alive and growing. Actually, it is the most-used non-voice channel in the world, with 14.7 trillion messages sent worldwide in 2012. With the rise of OTT and IM applications the growth of this way of communication may be even faster than expected, going well beyond an estimated 28.2 trillion threshold by 2017.
Everyone gets now text messages from banks after transactions, from airlines when the flight is ready to board, from retailers who offer us their special deals. Pharma marketers could learn from their clients how to use text messaging.
Healthcare providers are sending messages to:
– manage appointments,
– provide information,
– inform on the prescriptions
– remind patients that there is some FSA money left to be spent before the end of the year.
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For non-US readers:
FSA stands for Flexible Spending Account and allows to pay for some medical and dental procedures or products and deduct it from the tax
Pharmacies are sending out pick-up notices, links to package inserts content, and allow text-to-refill service to their customers.
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SMS and mobile messaging advantages for pharma marketing:


  • Improved relevance: Message can be easily tailored for the specific recipient, embedding itself into the CLM concept with tracking capabilities.
  • Cost efficiency: Efficiency much better than e-mail notification in terms of Open Rate (~90%). Response rate is also very high ranging from 5 to 25%, around eight times better than for e-mail.
  • Always within context: Text messages are opened at the time of receipt. You can make sure that the message content is aligned to the schedule (or even location with Push and OTT) of your recipient.
  • Providing value through the whole process of customer relationship management, from the initial opt-in confirmation at an appointment, through reminders to thank you messages. Always interactive and fully tracked!
  • Compliant: SMS/Texting follows similar pharma/healthcare industry regulations as other communications channels.


Use cases for text messaging in pharma marketing and medical affairs:


  • Patient recruitment for clinical trials
  • Patient adherence (in clinical trials and after marketing authorization during therapy)
  • HCP and Sales Representative relationship: appointments, reminders, additional information in two-way communication


How to make a text messaging campaign that converts?

If you reached to this point, you are probably convinced, that text messaging is the tactic to include in your strategy. That is fine, but to make sure you are successful, we have prepared some tips and tricks, that will make your campaign better. We are all about digital marketing, so we assume you know the basics – your KPIs are already defined, and you will measure your conversion rates. So how to make sure your text message will convert?
Some of the tips are no brainers, but differ a bit in messaging campaigns from an e-mail world.
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Tips for converting text messaging campaign


  • Carefully consider timing of the campaign. With an e-mail, you targeted specific days of the week. With mobile campaigns, you need to be perfectly clear about an hour (and a time zone!) when the message buzzes in your audience pockets.
  • Targeting your audience is similar to what you do in other digital channels. However, your text message will probably come from the same code through the campaign, and your audience may respond. To ensure success, first shape your communication to the audience group (ie. cardiologists), then make a tree of possible reactions and answers to them.
  • It is somewhat similar to what you would do providing a script for telemarketers. You need to think about the message as a part of longer conversation. Never repeat the same message, always refer to the previous state, and make the user journey interesting with different call-to-action.
  • Whenever you can, do A/B testing of your messages. We are aware you need to submit them to the regulatory, thus submit different versions of the message, just in case the original one is not working as well as supposed.
  • Call to action is really important, especially if you have 160 characters, and you need to make sure that there is a Fair Balance in your message. Therefore, try to embed your messaging into other elements of the campaign. The most important will always be the landing page, but text messaging allows more response types than other channels.

After receiving and viewing your message, recipient can:

  • call back (make sure there is a call center ready)
  • schedule an appointment with rep
  • start remote detailing
  • order samples or research paper delivery
  • watch video, document or website content
  • download an app or bookmark page
  • share some content via social media or e-mail
  • answer a short survey
  • enroll to the program
  • opt-out from the communication (you have to always provide this possibility!)
  • probably you can imagine some other responses as well

As you can see there is a lot that you can do with simple message, and the more options you have in your campaign, the better results. You just need to test and fine-tune your campaign to select what works the best to deliver your key message and build valuable conversation with your audience.

Regulatory constraints for an SMS marketing in Pharma

As with every pharma marketing tactic, you must be aware of certain regulatory constraints while planning your text messaging campaign. The most important document to follow is CTIA Compliance Assurance Solution Mobile Commerce Compliance Handbook.
For U.S. run campaigns, you also need to be compliant with TCPA, HIPAA and (if you address children) COPPA regulations.

The key considerations from a regulatory compliance perspective for use of text messaging in pharma marketing:


  • You have a permission from the consumer to send messaging from your company (Prior Express Written Consent)
  • The short code used is the same for which consumer opted-in
  • Your campaign has been approved by carriers
  • All medical information is governed by HIPAA in terms of privacy protection
  • Consumer has always an opportunity to opt-out from all communications and is always informed about any cost that may be charged against him due to participation in your program.
  • In the U.S., according to 21 CFR 314.81(b)(3)(i), all advertisements and promotional labeling for a particular drug product must be submitted to the FDA at the time of initial publication or dissemination.  Each submission is required to be accompanied by a completed transmittal Form FDA-2253.


Rich Communication: the future of mobile marketing

Mobile messaging campaigns with SMS, MMS, Push and OTT is already very efficient channel. However, the technology is going forward, and new capabilities are being rolled out. Rich Communications Services (RCS), marketed as “joyn”,  is the platform that enables the delivery of communication experiences beyond voice and SMS, providing consumers with instant messaging or chat, live video and file sharing – across devices, on any network.

With RCS, we will be able to combine in one interaction a message, video, call, and remote detailing. Joyn does not need any additional setup from the end-user. It is provided by a carrier and ready to use within compatible devices. Supported by GSMA, the technology is already being rolled out across the globe. This new standard will be yet another reason to think “messaging” as the first option where it comes to mobile marketing.