While the growing popularity of Facebook advertising has shown significant promise as a digital marketing tactic over the past couple years, advertisers in the pharmaceutical space may understandably be hesitant. FDA regulations necessitate a more careful and constrained approach than the average brand is held to, and it can be tempting to stick with time-tested tactics in print and television advertising instead – especially since the benefits of a fast-moving digital platform may seem rather muted when the extra steps of legal review are taken into account.

However, while early adopters may have had a different experience, Facebook has been working diligently over the past year to make its platform more effective for pharma brands, introducing custom features that allow advertisers to more easily adhere to federal regulations, despite the limitations of stock ad formats. And with a daily audience of billions – including 70 million users active in health-related community groups – the opportunity is only growing.

Facebook’s current advertising platform offers considerable benefits for pharmaceutical brands. In this post I’ll lay out the major advantages as compared to other marketing tactics, and explain how to use Facebook ads to effectively promote pharmaceutical brands and products, working within FDA regulations to clearly communicate your message to the right audience of patients and healthcare professionals. 

Bonus: Download Our Pharmaceutical Advertising Strategy for Brand Managers

The Importance Of Social Media For Pharma Brands

Patients turn to the internet more these days, turning there first for information – in many cases before contacting a doctor or other healthcare professional. Facebook and other social media platforms make up a significant portion of web users’ time online, which means that an active presence on these platforms should be a no-brainer for any brands with a customer-facing public presence.

Posting to social media platforms like Facebook regularly is an accessible and easy way to maintain direct contact with patients, engage with them, answer their questions, and stay in touch with the issues most pressing to them. It can also be an extremely effective means of establishing authority and leadership on topics related to your products and the conditions they are intended to treat.

By building an active, engaged social audience, you can quickly become patients’ first source for fresh news and resources, increasing the brand’s familiarity and credibility with new users and current patients. A Facebook page that consistently demonstrates a commitment to sharing the latest news regularly is going to earn loyal readership, so it’s important to make your presence known. The more active your audience, the greater your message can be amplified by them and shared organically throughout the platform. And as powerful as organic reach and sharing are, paid advertising can help take these efforts even further.

Why Should Pharma Marketers Use Facebook Ads?

Some advertisers may wonder why a brand ought to expand its reach beyond a Facebook page. Community pages are important in healthcare – they often see the most engagement from patients online – but there are some limitations in their reach, and work better as an inbound tactic than a traffic driving medium.

Paid ads are useful for a number of reasons: you have a much greater degree of control over who you show ads to and how, allowing you to tightly manage messaging across target audiences. They also tend to display more effectively on mobile platforms – where both patients and healthcare providers are turning for information.

One of the most compelling benefits is the amount of data Facebook makes available to advertisers. This has two important applications: first, the ability to measure campaign performance precisely, and second, the high degree of flexibility in targeting users on Facebook.

Better Analytics = Better Outcomes

As with other digital marketing platforms, the performance of a Facebook advertising campaign can be measured at an extremely high level of detail. Facebook provides a wide variety of metrics within its ad management interface, allowing advertisers to build robust custom reports tracking all essential details about campaign performance over time. This also expedites the process of A/B testing, although a slightly different approach is still necessary in this space (as covered later). By constantly testing alternatives, advertisers can quickly refine their messaging and drive conversions faster- improving the performance of a campaign in a matter of weeks rather than months or quarters.

And unlike print or television advertising, where budgets are assigned for much broader periods of time – limiting advertisers’ flexibility as new insights and opportunities arise – Facebook allows for frequent adjustments depending on the needs of the campaign from week to week. However, both are best used in conjunction.

The Power Of Interest Targeting

Facebook’s interest targeting capability is arguably its most important feature. Because users voluntarily contribute so much data about their interests to the platform, through profiles, posts, and interactions, Facebook can build remarkably detailed information profiles about users’ interests. This allows advertisers to hone in on extremely specific interest areas, such as disease states or conditions that affect only a very small percentage of the general population.

This is hugely powerful for pharma marketers, because it makes it possible to show ads almost exclusively to people interested in their product. This saves on cost, provides better data, and allows for precise messaging, since ad copy is directed only at users with a degree of knowledge about the specifics of a condition or treatment option.

Understand Regulatory Limitations

A primary concern for marketers in the pharma space is how to make use of modern advertising platforms and formats while staying within the confines of FDA regulations. The lack of clear guidelines from the FDA has deterred some pharmaceutical manufacturers from pursuing ads on Facebook, and some of the standard requirements – such as the inclusion of potential side effects – may not seem to lend themselves to the relatively short character limits on Facebook.

There’s also the complication of user comments, which can run afoul of regulations prohibiting unsolicited or unverified medical advice associated with a brand or organization’s Facebook page.

Fortunately, Facebook’s push to better accommodate pharma brands has addressed both of these issues, including a special format for including side effects and the ability to turn off comments on posts, which is not available for most pages.

There’s still the additional step of legal review, which most brands will have to include in the development of any new advertising content. However, this process can be approached strategically to minimize headaches and streamline the approval process in such a way that still yields flexibility and precision.

How To Use Facebook Ads For Pharma

While many of the steps involved are standard for a Facebook ad campaign, we recommend paying close attention to the guidelines below, which have been informed by our experience building and managing Facebook ad campaigns for clients in the pharmaceutical space.

  1. Know Facebook’s Terms. First and foremost, you need to be familiar with what Facebook allows marketers to say in ad copy and imagery, even if there are some special exceptions for marketers in the pharma and medical space. (Check out their advertising policies here.) This is also likely to change over time, given that Facebook is a rapidly growing platform, so pay close attention to new updates (and consider following Facebook’s advertising blog).
  2. Know the relevant FDA regulations intimately. It goes without saying that you need to be deeply familiar with the federal regulations surrounding the product or treatment you’re advertising. If in doubt, consult with your client- they’re typically the best resource there is, and will be well versed in the legal constraints associated with their particular product. However, they may need some coaching as to how this is applied to online advertising, so be sure you’ve done your homework on Facebook’s policies first, and strike a balance that fits within the legal constraints but still allows you to effectively convey your messaging.

  3. Know the language surrounding the condition or treatment. This is another no-brainer – in order to write compelling copy to a hyper-specific audience, who typically have a very detailed grasp of the specific terms and general language used to describe the condition in question (especially for those it directly affects!), you need to be fluent as well. Familiarize yourself with everything you can about the product, consulting your existing brand guidelines and building on existing advertising messaging if possible.

  4. Keep messaging consistent with the rest of the brand’s online (and print) presence. Subtle differences in copy can put off customers, especially given the sensitivity of most medical topics. You don’t want to seem like just another advertiser selling something – your responsibility is to be an advocate for the brand and what its product or service potentially offers patients with a particular condition. On social media, users are especially sensitive to off-brand or artificial-sounding messaging, both because of the attention-light nature of news feed scrolling and because that feed is personally curated, unlike a television program or public billboard. If it puts it off, they’ll ignore it or hide you, and that’ll quickly be reflected in ad performance.

  5. Build off the lessons learned from the brand’s organic social media presence. Facebook pages and groups naturally offer a wealth of information about what users are seeking from a brand and what they show up to talk about. This will help you find the optimal place to intersect with that conversation by advertising potential answers to their questions. And it goes without saying that your advertisements, which are usually explicitly tied to a Facebook page, should be consistent in terms of voice and appearance. If you’re unsure how consistent you need to be, consult your brand style guide and try to apply it as closely as possible to your ads.

  6. Take advantage of interest targeting. Again, this is one of the most powerful advantages of Facebook over other advertising platforms. While it does tend to be slightly more expensive to advertise to smaller audiences, the advantage is a much higher likely conversion rate – and given that the value of a new conversion may be quite high, it’s well worth the additional spend (which is commonly much lower per thousand impressions than other advertising formats).

  7. Don’t make people feel singled out. It’s a difficult line to walk, but there is a difference between the feeling that a brand is using your personal information (acquired from your behavior without even entering it explicitly anywhere) to sell to you, vs. an advertisement that seems to offer an avenue for help or advice that may not be clearly available elsewhere. And if you can use both the qualitative feedback from your organic pages and the insights you may have gained through AdWords or SEO keyword research, you can probably find exactly which questions people in your target audience would like answered – and you can offer that before they even need to ask.

  8. Avoid ad fatigue. This is another huge potential pitfall for advertisers. Facebook users, especially those in a narrow target audience, tend to become unresponsive to ads very quickly if they are oversaturated with the same messaging in a short period of time. People may still feel they’re being singled out, or may otherwise find the redundant advertising annoying. Since marketing these days is so user-driven – where the goal is to earn clicks from people already interested, as opposed to the traditional method of showing ads to a wide audience in hopes that some of them will respond to it – most users have relatively high expectations for the paid content they see in their personal feeds. If they don’t click on the ad the first few times they see it, it probably means they never will, and you risk burning them out on your brand name by continuing to push ads they don’t find relevant to them. While this already seems relatively intuitive – especially to those of us that regularly use Facebook, and consequently see a lot of ads every day – it’s also supported by real user data, in my experience.

    Earlier in the year, we launched an ad campaign targeting a narrow age range of people whose Facebook behavior had demonstrated interest in a fairly rare disease (~1 out of every 4,000 people worldwide). For the first two weeks of the campaign, the ads performed remarkably well. After that point, we experienced a clear dropoff in ad performance, to the point that we nearly paused the campaign on the spot. Since we had pre-approved alternate ads, using slightly different imagery and messaging – to combat this very problem – we replaced the current ads with those and closely monitored performance. Even with different ads, the campaign’s audience was so fatigued that performance continued to drop off at the same rate.

    Ultimately, we relaunched the campaign using a Lookalike Audience based on our first audience – and this campaign vastly outperformed the first. (More on Lookalike Audiences below).

  9. Let Facebook do the work for you. As it turns out, Facebook’s algorithmic methods for predicting user intent and behavior are even better than the hyper-specific manual targeting options when it comes to building a promising audience. Because a Lookalike Audience may be based on a larger number of shared traits between users – those that Facebook finds to correlate with the same interests – you’re much more likely to find an audience likely to convert. Ultimately, it can be difficult to predict exactly which interests or demographic traits similar Facebook users share – even with an intimate knowledge of the audience – so often it’s best to simply take advantage of the power of Facebook’s own algorithms in order to reach the largest percentage of interested users.

  10. Use Power Editor. I wrote a post a while back about just one of the many reasons to use Facebook’s Power Editor rather than its simplified Ad Manager interface, and there are plenty more. Essentially, if you’re a serious advertiser, Power Editor is the correct tool to be using. The interface is quite similar to AdWords, so it should be relatively easy to pick up, although it still has its quirks – and Facebook is constantly updating the UI and functionality of its entire advertising platform, so be sure to keep up on changes.

  11. Use Facebook’s Ad Feedback. Facebook’s built-in analytics provides some (though not much) insight into how users are reacting to your ad. Still, you should take advantage of this, and try to use it to inform the qualitative changes you make in ads going forward – although, as always, take it with a grain of salt.

In short, Facebook advertising offers huge potential for advertisers in the pharmaceutical and medical space, perhaps more so than other verticals where brands may be quicker to adopt new technologies. Now is the time to adopt or accelerate your use of this rapidly growing platform, and deliver your message to the people who need to hear it.