Marketing to Doctors, Part 1: Defining the Challenge

This is the first of a five-part series on marketing to doctors. In this post, we’ll look at the some of the reasons marketing to doctors is so hard. In future posts, we’ll examine segmentation and messaging, tactics you can use, how to measure and optimize your results, and understanding your audience.


Everyone wants to market to doctors.

marketing to doctors 800lb gorilla

He’s got $25 billion to spend on marketing to doctors. What’s your budget?

Doctors are so popular because they control a ton of money. By many calculations your average doctor in the U.S. controls about $2 million per year in healthcare costs. In general, specialists control more than that and family physicians somewhat less.

 

Another way to think about it is that doctors control roughly 80% of all healthcare spending in the U.S. The U.S. spends nearly $3.5 trillion on healthcare.

 

However you look at it, it’s a big figure.

 

As a result, doctors are popular people. An endless stream of pharmacy reps want to give them samples, piles of free magazines stack up in their mailboxes, and most physicians have at least one or two people employed full time just to keep people they don’t want to talk to from reaching them. Doctors are both jaded from all the marketing aimed at them and are also very well screened from most of that marketing.

Doctors are busy and hard to find.

Most of the people reading this post are marketers. They’re reading this article on their laptop while sitting at a desk. Marketers are pretty easy to reach:

  • Big screens mean lots of real estate for display ads plus multiple tabs to explore the odd advertisement that catches a marketer’s attention.
  • Most publications aimed at marketers are unsurprisingly very ad-friendly.
  • Marketers are busy but generally still have time for a quick side excursion here and there if you make them curious.
  • Marketers control a fairly large amount of budget but nothing compared to 25% of the U.S. GDP that doctors control. Despite how it might feel to the Adtech companies out there, competition for marketing eyeballs in not really that fierce.

 

Compare that to reaching doctors. If any doctors dropped by to read this post, they’re almost certainly reading it on their iPhone (and no, I don’t mean their “smartphone”) or iPad while on the run. But small screen real-estate is just part of the challenge:

  • Most of the publications doctors frequent are professional journals that are either decidedly unfriendly to ads or crazily expensive, with banner ads costing $80–100 per CPM (or about 40X the typical “premium” consumer banners).
  • The increasing ease of ad-blocking on iOS is going to disproportionally impact marketers seeking physician eyeballs.
  • When doctors are working, they’re pretty busy with patients; they typically don’t have time to wander about the web.
  • The competition to reach doctor eyeballs is eye-wateringly steep.

Doctors think they’re smarter than you.

And for the most part, they’re right. This isn’t as arrogant as it might seem. Doctors are smarter than most people. In fact, most of them are smarter than most of you/us. And they are almost certainly more educated than we are. And that education emphasizes a fact- and statistics-based approach to evaluating problems and solutions.

 

That means doctors are unlikely to take your marketing fluff at face value. Therefore, it’s important to back up your well-crafted marketing assertions with well-researched facts. Hitting the emotional and rational buttons simultaneously is hard but critical to this market. So is developing a range of short and in-depth pieces.

Doctors’ work is important.

I did my undergrad at Johns Hopkins University, and a huge percentage of my fellow students went on to become doctors. Reunion talk often goes along these lines:Johns hopkins university seal

Friend A: I write books for a living!

Friend B: I consult for PWC.

Me: I help dozens of startups become successful with great marketing…to date my clients have cashed out for over $2 billion.

Friend C: I save lives.

Friend D: Me too.

Friend E: Yeah.

Friend F: Same.

Everyone else: <eye roll>

    <change of subject>

The point here is not just to avoid reunions whenever possible, but that when marketing to doctors, you must treat the profession as important. Because if you value human life, it is. Many marketers conflate this imperative to take the profession seriously with the need for excessive formality or even stuffiness. This leads us to the next challenge of marketing to doctors.

Most marketing aimed at doctors looks and sounds the same.

Take a look at a trade magazine or walk the floors of a conference and start a game of office bingo, giving points for every instance of photos of doctors looking serious, doctors looking competent while talking to a patient, doctors standing in front of their staff radiating leadership, close-ups of pills with massive disclaimer text, etc.

 

Sometimes there are good reasons for taking such a conservative approach, but be aware that when you’re marketing to doctors with this kind of stock concept, you’re going to struggle to stand out from a crowd of clones.

Big Pharma can outspend you.

Perhaps the best way to get some perspective on how hard it is to market to doctors is by looking at how (and how much) money gets spent by the 800-lb. gorillas of medical marketing: Big Pharma.

 

Although there are less than half as many pharmaceutical reps walking into doctor offices today than there were ten years ago, there are still considerably more pharmaceutical reps in the U.S. than practicing physicians.

 

Maintaining these reps in the field isn’t cheap, either—the average pharmaceutical rep costs $160,000/year in fully loaded costs to make his or her rounds. That works out to about $210 per office visit. Calling on specialists and hospitalists generally costs around $300 per visit.

Marketing to doctors isn’t cheap.
Just ask the pharmaceutical companies.

This level of spending is being maintained in a climate where more than half of physician practices strictly regulate or prohibit pharmaceutical rep access. That percentage has increased from just 35% three years ago, thanks to growing pressure from both medical professionals themselves as well as an increasingly vocal public and political climate that is concerned about the adverse impacts of Big Pharma marketing to doctors.

 

Pharmaceutical companies aren’t dumb— after all, they probably collectively employ more PhDs than even the biggest university and more MBAs than Goldman Sachs. They know that they’re getting ROI from these notoriously good looking and charismatic foot soldiers or they wouldn’t keep employing them.

 

Pharmaceutical costs are largely fixed. In other words, the main costs are in R&D and regulatory compliance. Variable costs like manufacturing are relatively negligible. Therefore, on a variable basis, pharmaceutical sales are absurdly profitable, and it makes economic sense for pharmaceutical companies to spend heavily for each additional sale. That’s great for branded drug companies (and pharmaceutical reps), but it makes for tough competition if you don’t have that kind of budget…or even if you ARE a pharmaceutical company and are trying to keep costs down and increase access.

 

It doesn’t matter if you’re marketing drugs or not…if you’re trying to market to doctors, you are competing with a $550 billion industry for doctors’ time and attention.

Marketing to doctors may be hard…

…but it’s hardly impossible for the savvy marketer, even if you don’t have a Big Pharma-sized budget.

marketing-to-doctors

Don’t worry. No doctors were harmed in the making of this blog post.

The general playbook for marketing to doctors is the same as it is for virtually any other B2B sale, but the actual execution is very vertical-specific if you want to achieve cost-effective results.

  • Tactical placement. If you need to reach doctors, don’t waste time with the 99.9% of the world that doesn’t have MDs or DOs. Or the wrong specialists. Or doctors who lack the independence to make decisions about your product or service. When marketing to physicians, focus is your friend.
  • Truly great content. You’re unlikely to make the sale with just a witty ad. You need well-researched and persuasive assets (eBooks, white papers, articles, etc.) to close a complex or technical sale.
  • Excellent creative. There’s an opportunity to stand out amongst a forest of identical looking and sounding pitches…if you can craft one that hits just the right note of originality and credibility.

 

Next week, we’ll tackle how to segment your audience and craft an impactful message.

 

This is the first of a multi-part series on marketing to doctors. In future posts we’ll cover:

Rich Quarles

Rich Quarles

Rich is a marketing strategist focused primarily on startups, technology, and financial services. He has advised startups that have collectively returned almost $2 billion to founders and investors. Rich founded glassCanopy in 2001.
Rich Quarles

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