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COVID-19 and Pharma paid search: How should SEM marketers optimize amid the changing landscape?

30-second summary:

  • Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky has said that the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most significant events ever experienced.
  • Pharma search engine marketers want answers to these key questions – “How are these shifts impacting the search messaging landscape? How to adapt SEM campaigns to remain relevant to shifting patient/provider needs and stay competitive in the search auction?”
  • Ian Orekondy shares insights from AdComplyRx analysis of 50k+ SEM text ads from over 500 prescription treatment brands serving on thousands of keywords.
  • The analysis showed that copy messaging with search terms like “savings” and “coverage” has rapidly risen.
  • He highlights some quotes from industry veterans to help paid search marketers gain clarity on these conundrums.

Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky said on Tuesday’s earnings call that the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is “one of the most significant events that any of us have ever experienced”.

It has caused more than 120,000 deaths and is impacting every industry, especially the pharmaceutical sector.    

According to IQVIA’s ‘COVID-19 Market Report’, published April 10th with data through March 27th, “increasing unemployment pushes more patients onto Medicaid and into economic fragility. [Likewise], providers are financially strained due to decreased visits, reduced elective surgeries, and lower reimbursement rate [and] many pharma companies are expanding patient support in response to the COVID-19 crisiswith free branded drugs through Patient Assistance Programs…and copay reduction & patient savings programs. 

These companies include Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Allergan, Lilly, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Abbvie, and more. 

So the question for pharma search engine marketers is? 

How are these shifts impacting the search messaging landscape?

And how do we adapt our campaigns to remain relevant to shifting patient/provider needs and stay competitive in the search auction?

To help answer this question, AdComplyRx analyzed over 50k SEM text ads from over 500 prescription treatment brands serving on thousands of keywords (condition, treatment and brand terms) comparing the frequency of mentions of various pandemic-relevant messages over two time periods: 4/1-4/13 (post-stay-at-home orders) vs 3/1-3/13 (pre-stay-at-home orders).

Pharma search ads shift to “savings” and “coverage” amid COVID-19 pandemic 

Since Google’s ad policy restricts ad messages containing terms like COVID-19 or Coronavirus, AdComplyRx also measured terms like “cost”, “savings”, “co-pay”, “supply chain”, “availability”, “fill”, and “delivery” in terms of frequency of mention within paid search (SEM) text ad copy from prescription drug brands in the U.S. 

Based on this analysis, AdComplyRx is observing the following shifts in Rx Pharma SEM advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Mentions of “savings” grew by 11%

These included “savings card”, “co-pay card savings”, “patient savings, register for savings.

Mentions of “coverage” grew by 40%

These included “insurance coverage” and “formulary coverage” saw the most significant increases in the frequency of mentions within Rx pharma brand SEM text ads. 

Category-level insights  

The top categories that showed the greatest increase in the frequency of the words “savings” or “coverage” were Hematology, Diabetes and Respiratory.

The Oncology category showed little change in the frequency of any of these messages during these time periods. 

Mentions of “savings” in paid search (SEM) ad copy messaging 

  • Haematology (+96%) 
  • Diabetes (+48%)

Mentions of “coverage” in paid search (SEM) ad copy messaging

  • Respiratory (+184%) 
  • Haematology (+156%) 

COVID-19 and Pharma paid search (SEM) insights infographic by AdComplyRx

Since it is unlikely most pharma brands have already created new search ad messages and received approval from their med-legal team, this data suggests that Google’s advertising platform may be dynamically adjusting existing pharma brand search campaigns to better serve patients and providers based on their search behaviour (for example, search interest and click behaviour).  

How should pharma brands shift their search engine marketing (SEM) campaigns? 

  • Search Engine Machine Learning algorithms are working on behalf of advertisers by prioritizing the most engaging messaging themes thanks to functionality like:
  • Responsive search ads
  • Optimized ad rotation
  • Extension prioritization

In light of this, GVP of Search at Publicis Health Media, Peter Levin suggests,

“Think beyond refreshing creative through new asset submissions.”

“Brands should strive to maximize the impact of already approved assets and prioritize patient assistance and treatment accessibility messages.

Pharma brands can ensure a nimble response in the short term by enabling these features and making sure priority messages are available across campaigns while trimming away lower priority message themes. Don’t neglect planning out long-term responses with new messaging strategies and landing page content, as well as the potential for new paid keywords as the editorial landscape evolves.” 

Sri Nagubandi, Director of Search at Syneos Health suggests that,

Pharma brands should take both a shortterm and a long-term approach as this will be an ongoing concern globally until there is a viable vaccine. In the short term, brands should begin tracking ‘Brand name + Covid and ‘Category Name + Covid’-related search volume to understand how patients and providers are searching around their specific brand situationFor example, we are seeing some categories like oncology where search activity is increasing as patients and caregivers seek to understand the impact on ongoing treatment, especially for the immunocompromised.”

Additionally, from an organic SEO perspective, Nagubandi cautions,

“Do not use a takeover modal window on your website to communicate Covid-19 related messaging. Google has not suspended best practices because of the pandemic. Instead, use an updated header above the top navigation.” 

How can these insights impact pharma brands SEM campaigns to improve patients’ lives? 

With marketing budgets in flux and paid search (SEM) being one of the few marketing channels that many marketers will continue to invest inbrands will be relying more than ever on search traffic to support their business and serve patients and providers during this challenging time. Since search advertising is a competitive, auction-based marketplace where advertisers with the most relevant and engaging ad copy typically see improved ad click-through rate (CTR) and reduced cost per click (CPC), ensuring your brands’ search campaigns contain frequent mentions of the above messages can help brands reach more patients and providers with potentially life-saving treatment messages within limited marketing budgets.

Ian Orekondy is the founder and CEO of AdComplyRx, a pharma ad tech stack based in New York.

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