The Need for Emotionally Engaging Pharma Websites

Dr Nicola Davies explores the importance of emotional engagement within pharma company websites.



People often visit a pharma website when they are feeling ill or are seeking health and medication-related information. They might have recently been diagnosed, issued a prescription by a health professional, or be looking for sympathetic and helpful answers. Indeed, it is important to remember that, on average, only 49 seconds are spent explaining a medication, so patients often leave their doctor with many questions that they seek to have answered online. Since the package in the patient’s hand has the name of the pharmaceutical company supplying the medication their first port of call will often be the company website.

According to a 2012 poll by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, nearly half (46 percent) of American adults take prescription drugs; the average is 4.1 prescriptions per person. Accenture found from a survey of 2,000 patients in the US that 76% think pharmaceutical companies have a responsibility to provide information and services to help them manage their own health. Nearly as many respondents - 74% - indicated that the most appropriate time to initiate outreach is when they start taking a medication, although half of the respondents are open to receiving assistance after beginning a course of treatment or when they are considering switching medications. Emotionally engaging websites can assist pharma in meeting these patient expectations.

How to initiate engagement

“The best communicators in the world do so with stories; storytelling has a unique power to create an emotional connection quickly,” says Andrew Vink, entrepreneur and founder of Yousemble, a platform that enables individuals, designers, and developers to build their own websites. Indeed, Holly Goodier, Director of Marketing and Audiences at BBC Digital, believes that through stories we inform, educate, and entertain each other, as evidenced in her presentation at the Thinking Digital Conference held in May.

Paint a picture that tells a story, and construct messages that serve to amplify that story".

Goodier is a strategist, researcher, and innovation expert who harnesses data and insight to create successful teams, products, programs, and brands for the BBC. On pharmaceutical sites, people want to hear success stories and stories of how to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems. They also want someone they can interact with in order to add meaning and perspective to their own stories. They want answers and to know that someone cares.

With this in mind, online interaction needs to become personal rather than personalized, explains Goodier, who points out that humans need stories that inform, educate, and entertain. “Paint a picture that tells a story, and construct messages that serve to amplify that story,” adds Vink.

Vink’s background includes building websites for clients and creating the SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) platform. This platform allows many designers, agencies, and individuals across the world to build their own websites without having to worry about all the technical aspects. Vink’s aim is to empower users of a website through “user experience and empathy.”

Giving visitors a level of control, plus the opportunity to contribute to a community, gives them a voice. That voice translates into constructive feedback, reviews, and building trust. As a result, this can help pharma website owners understand and become aware of visitor and community needs. “Having a blog, forum, review area, surveys, live chats, rating systems, and more open channels of communication empowers your users,” he says. On the Novartis blog, for example, interesting developments and article are posted for comment.

Participation is key

Goodier believes that for a website to deliver the most effective online experience it must be “seamlessly excellent, with client utility and audience needs met brilliantly.” She is especially keen to promote “participatory design,” which encourages users to cooperate during their initial exploration of a website. Focusing on health solutions, which customers can also help evaluate, encourages interactivity. Goodier also refers to the “cultural shaping of emotions”; in other words, the aim of a website should be to achieve a friendly feel rather than a tone bursting with pride or judgment. Reporting of suspected side-effects on the Novartis site gives consumers an option of a number of languages in which they can respond and a country-specific page for this to take place, all designed to make contributing easier.

“Interactive sites where users can engage with gestures such as swiping, scrolling, and clicking to reveal more of the site or information automatically create entertainment and curiosity,” says Vink. “Animation is also incredibly powerful when combined with elements on the page. Text, buttons, and more can animate when a user scrolls; images can appear; SVG or vector graphics can all be drawn while you scroll.” The University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy has a 3D animation program showing various animations such as the mechanism of Prozac.  With over one million views of their YouTube clips, they have helped educate students around the globe.

Parallax style sites that create interesting overlapping image effects when scrolling are particularly popular at the moment. Video is one of the most powerful forms of media to attract a user's eye, as the use of full screen or background video holds the visitor’s attention.

Creating user-friendly interfaces

Goodier believes encouraging interaction will create greater persistence in the user, who will then be more motivated and less liable to become stressed when using a site, thus enhancing learning. It is especially important that pharmaceutical companies who manufacture medications for diseases that are often the result of lifestyle choices - like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity - provide users with information and education on changing lifestyle choices to enable them to improve their health.

By ‘listening’ online, pharmaceutical companies can find out what concerns their customers most. What users want and need is of paramount importance in order to build a successful online interaction. Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies, as the experts, utilized a top-down approach – passing information from company to client. Today, user reaction to information can be tested using task scenarios. By setting realistic tasks in which users are required to perform an action rather than just answering with words, companies can gauge the effectiveness of an interface as users click or scroll to fulfill the task. Pharmaceutical companies can then check how the interface is being used and the level of ease or frustration it engenders. The iGBStar App for blood glucose management (Sanofi Diabetes) allows a person to track carbs, blood sugar levels, and insulin and share this with the patient’s healthcare team. It connects directly with the iPhone and iPad and won a Webaward for innovative use of technology and interactive content.

What turns people off a website?

Vinks says, “Less is more rings true when it comes to design on the web. Most people tend to have a limited attention span when it comes to the overwhelming amount of information available on the Internet. Capturing a visitor’s attention quickly is critical. Keeping things simple gets the information they are looking for in front of them as fast as possible; bad design usually does the opposite.” 

In contrast, too much copy clutters your design and hides your message. “I've seen many sites that include reams of copy that nobody ever reads,” says Vink. “Big powerful keywords and phrases go further in getting your message out and creating a hook for someone to read more, click through, and become a loyal customer.” Winner for the 2014 Webaward for outstanding achievement was PillCamCrohns.com for the Best Pharmaceutical Website and also the Best of Show.

What about photography? Vink explains that, “people can have uncanny adverse reactions when it comes to poor photography. Investing in powerful professional photography is one of the cornerstones of good web design. Professional photographs capture your attention and create an emotional connection with the written content.” The PillCamCrohns site exemplifies this, with its high-quality photographs, showing exceptional detail and eye-catching natural backgrounds for some of the patient stories.

He also advises that overly detailed fonts be avoided. “With the web becoming more responsive or adaptive across multiple desktop and mobile devices, having clear legible fonts that scale well regardless of screen size is imperative so that people can consume information on your site quickly and effortlessly,” he explains. He adds, “Sites that aren't mobile friendly or ‘responsive’ aren’t only frowned upon by Google in search results but also experience a significant drop off in visitors who devour content in an ever growing mobile world.” Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline are two sites that passed the Mobilegeddon report, which said only 43% of pharmaceutical companies are mobile friendly.

In other words, overly complex or deeply nested navigation can quickly get a user lost. Trimming down and combining content into pages simplifies your navigation and focuses user flow.

Taking your website seriously

By taking a hard look at their current site design, pharmaceutical companies will be able to identify where patient services could benefit patients, increase business, and simultaneously provide support for retailers and providers.

Vink offers some practical tips on how to convey brand image in the best way: “At times, a single large image slideshow that occupies the screen says it all, as with the Nike site; at other times, it could be a video that tugs at your emotions; sometimes it could be big bold phrases of text. The general hierarchy is video, photography, headings, and then body copy. Having a clear flow of your content and steering a visitor’s eye certainly plays a role in striking the balance among all the elements on a page.”

Pharma companies need to strategically use video and/or imagery to tell their story effectively and not overwhelm a visitor with too much text. Video and images speak louder than words and if someone doesn't understand your message in the first few seconds of visiting a site you've lost them.

Overall, emotional engagement means making your customer feel safe at a period in their lives when everything seems to be crumbling as they struggle to come to terms with a life-threatening or chronic disease. They need to know that their pharmaceutical company is there not simply to make a profit but to fulfill their corporate social responsibility by providing information and giving hope.


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