The biggest waste of digital media spending in pharma

Many companies allocate an exponentially more significant percentage of their marketing budget to paid media over organic search. However, many brands are unaware of the waste inherently included in paid media. Organic search delivers results at a lower customer acquisition cost (CAC) than paid search — 87% lower cost, per research. According to Google, organic search also offers double the ROI that paid search does.

Organic search results are highly trusted and thus attract the majority of clicks. Consider that Google’s organic search results generate nearly 20X more clicks than the paid ads on desktop and 10X more on mobile.

Pew Internet found that most online health seekers (86%) visit multiple sites when looking for health information and do not have one favorite site.

Most start at a general, non-specialty Website – a search engine or a portal. After finding information or links to them on the available site, they surf other sites. The typical range of sites visited is two to five. Eighty-nine percent of health seekers who visit multiple sites say that, in general, they start at a place like Yahoo or the AOL home page. Just 8% of health seekers who visit numerous sites say they are most likely to start at a specialized health site like

Many pharma brands are making mistakes when calculating and ranking channel value. The organic search channel provides a strategic insight into changing market and consumer behavior. Understanding these trends allows brands to build lasting relationships with customers, improve lead generation, and increase customer lifetime value. The channel also offers more honest feedback than focus groups or surveys because customers do what they want without feeling pressured to answer a certain way.

Pharma has historically focused a significant portion of its marketing budgets on paid search. However, the online advertising industry is rapidly transitioning with the impending death of cookies, iOS 14.5, and recent privacy regulations. Businesses that focus on organic search strategies will be put in a better position to adapt, weather the storm and even leapfrog competitors, especially if they shift focus now.

The probability of wasted spending with paid search will only increase. In contrast, organic search will help brands position themselves to capture high-value positions in search before competitors realize what’s happening.

Even today, pharma continues to waste money on paid search when online health seekers prefer organic search results. To make matters worse, they, or their agency, don’t accurately measure the results beyond clicks. We have had the best results when we use long-tail search terms like “what are the side effects of new psoriasis treatments” or “what are the symptoms of depression.”

Who is searching for health information online?

In a national survey conducted March 1-31, 2002, the Pew Internet Project found that 62% of Internet users, or 73 million people in the United States, have gone online searching for health information. Women are more likely than men to have researched a medical question online. Some 72% of online women have sought medical information online, compared with 51% online men. Those in the middle age groups are more likely to turn to the Internet for health information than those under 30 or over 65. College-educated Internet users are more likely to search for medical advice online than those with high school education. Longtime users are more likely than Internet newcomers to look online for health tips. Interest in health information cuts across ethnic and racial groups relatively similarly – white, black, and Hispanic Internet users are equally enthusiastic for such material.

On a typical day, 5% of all Internet users – about 6 million Americans – go online to look for health information. There are few differences in the population of Internet users who searched online “yesterday”; men, women, old, young – all were equally likely to look for medical advice. However, it seems that those with more online savvy may be more accustomed to answering a health question online – 7% of Internet users with three or more years of experience search on a typical day, compared with 2% of Internet users with just six months of experience online.

According to Pew Internet, “two-thirds of all health seekers (64%) have looked for information about prescription drugs. Those who have seen a doctor in the past year are more likely to use the Internet to research a specific drug than those who have not consulted with a doctor. In our August 2000 survey, only 10% of health seekers said they had purchased medicine or vitamins online.

More than half of all health seekers have gathered information before visiting a doctor.  Health seekers dealing with a chronic disease or disability are more likely to do their homework before a doctor’s appointment.  One member of the Harris Online focus group living with fibromyalgia said, “I can at least go into the doctor’s office with a good knowledge of what is going on and ways of treatment.”

Pew Internet

When asked if they have one favorite site, 14% of health seekers said yes. Of that small group, 35% named WebMD. Other sites named by these “favorite-site” health seekers include the Mayo Clinic site, the National Institutes of Health, InteliHealth, Medline, and  One online focus group participant who is a fan of WebMD commented, “I know it so well it is just easier to go to it every time I have a question.

Most health seekers go online without a fixed destination in mind. The typical health seeker starts at a search site, not a medical site, and visits two to five sites. She feels reassured by advice that matches what she already knew about a condition and by repeated statements at more than one site.   She is likely to turn away from sites that seem to be selling something or don’t identify the source of information. And about one-third of health seekers who find relevant information online bring it to their doctor for a final quality check.