Digital Pharma Marketing in the Cookie-less Era

If you’re a pharma marketing manager, you probably don’t think about cookies a whole lot (unless you’re hungry). But there are changes coming to tracking cookies that will greatly affect digital pharma marketing.

Third party cookies provide some of the biggest advantages of digital marketing. And, in early 2022, Google Chrome will drop support for third party cookies.

It’s a big deal.

Chrome supports about 65% of Internet traffic and 92% of the remaining cookies on the Internet.

It is the end of the cookie era.

When the change happens, the limitations of cookie-less digital pharma marketing will undoubtedly show up in your KPI’s.

If you rely heavily on digital tactics, then this is important information. This article will lay out the role that cookies play in your current digital plans and the considerations you might want to make.

Cookie Monster

Third-Party Audiences are Out

Targeting digital audiences will fundamentally change in 2022.

Advertising networks partner with tens of thousands of partner websites. These partners place cookies on their site that tell the network the content that individuals browse.

Without cookies, ad networks won’t know the content a person consumes. They won’t have the ability to laser target audiences based on browsing behavior.

  • We’ll lose access to behavior-based audiences like “New diabetes patients” or “Parents of kids with ADHD”.
  • We won’t be able to target audiences by age, gender, household income, and other demographic factors.
    Profiles with circle around them

Losing these third-party audiences will hurt some advertising channels more than others.

The channels that will be most affected will be:

  • Programmatic (display)
  • Social media audience networks
  • Video & OTT advertising
  • Digital audio campaigns

On these networks, your ads will be seen more often by people who are outside of your target audience. Return on investment for virtually all digital marketers will fall.

Contextual is In

Contextual targeting is going to be the new standard targeting method.

Book page

Contextual targeting focuses on targeting the words on the page rather than who reads them. If you find out who searches which keywords, you will hit your audience.

Rather than targeting “New diabetes patients”, you’ll have to target pages containing diabetes-related keywords. 

In a nutshell, contextual targeting is good, but not as good as audience targeting.

This is mostly because you have less access to your users. You’ll only know someone is a target if they’re browsing content directly related to your brand.

The rest of the time there will be no factors that distinguish them from anybody else.

Alternatives to Third-Party Cookies for Audience Targeting

There are some options for replacing third-party audiences, but they range from low-volume to suspicious.

  • Fingerprinting

Some marketers bring up methods like device fingerprinting as alternatives.

This tactic takes browser signals and historical audience data from existing audiences. Then, algorithms pair those sources of information with the habits of individual devices in order to build a unique picture of the device’s user.

Fingerprint superimposed on computer

But seriously considering tactics like these (which are functionally the same as cookie targeting) is ignoring the writing on the wall. Major browsers are already shutting down them down1,2.

  • Predictive Audiences

Predictive audiences are similar to fingerprinted audiences. They’re also highly suspicious. Only a few networks carry them and the process is secretive.

Predictive audiences merge audience data with device data in a process that is very similar to fingerprinting. The only difference is vendors then incorporate an advertiser’s first-party performance data into their models.

The only problem is that the system will break down cookies disappear since it is founded on cookies to begin with.

If your team is approached by these vendors, be skeptical. If they can’t explain their process to you in a 20-minute presentation, back away slowly (and then run). 

  • Publisher First Party Data

Large publishers like Forbes and the Washington Post have lots of people who log in to their platforms. These publishers build audience personas based on the pages that logged in users read. The vendors can then pair this browsing information to login details and assign users to audiences.

The problem with this targeting is that it’s fragmented. Since you’re buying from an individual publisher, you only have access to a few platforms at a time, so the reach is small.

Blocks coming off of parent block

To solve this, major media companies like Vox are partnering or buying these organizations with the goal of creating first-party data networks.

However, these campaigns are still much more limited in scope than third-party cookie audiences.

  • Rearc Project

The option with the best chance of reviving the golden age of digital marketing is the IAB’s Rearc project.

Rearc is an industry-wide initiative that will be interesting to follow. The principle will likely by focused on a universal identity that based on a person—similar to an email. But this initiative is still in its early stage of development. If it does succeed, it’s years away.

Unaffected Channels and Tactics

Some channels don’t rely as heavily on third-party cookies for targeting.

  • News feed advertising on social media

People-based targeting on social media news feeds will still be possible. This is because those platforms target people based on their profile information.

If your pharma brand isn’t on social media, I would recommend looking into it. We have a series on pharmaceutical social media strategies if you’re interested.

  • Paid search

Paid search advertising on Google, Bing, and Baidu will be relatively unaffected.

But those who layer search targeting with audience targeting will see their volume collapse. So it’s important to keep an eye on paid search strategies.

  • Email Campaigns

Email campaigns will also be relatively unaffected.

For most marketers, email will become far more important for re-engagement.

Retargeting Changes

Retargeting is tactic in which advertisers serve ads to users after they have left the advertiser’s site.

If you’ve ever bought a product and then were served ads for similar products from the website you purchased from, you were being retargeted.

For all its intrusion, retargeting is an extremely effective way to keep a brand top-of-mind in both patients and prescribers.

Cookies retargeting process

Retargeting involves placing a tracking cookie on a website visitor’s browser. Ad networks can identify the unique cookie on publisher websites and serve your ad to user.

Google is working on a replacement solution that respects privacy and still offers retargeting. It’s called Turtledov.

Google has proposed housing browsing data inside a browser rather than on an ad network’s server. With this, it will be changing its third-party cookies involved in retargeting into first-party cookies.

So, there will probably still be retargeting on Google. Since Google’s network reaches 94% of US traffic, this is a pretty fortunate thing.

But we just don’t know the details yet.

Re-Engagement Strategies for HCPs and Consumers

Shrinking retargeting options mean that, overall, retargeting isn’t as viable of a strategy for all advertisers. Especially for those with large budgets.

You’ll only be able to hit the Google Display Network. The GDN is fine for budgets under $3,000 per month. Above that, the results drop off significantly.

If you want to build a lasting strategy, consider organic re-engagement strategies.

Re-Engagement Strategies for Consumers

For a time, digitally re-engaging consumers will involve producing content and sharing it with followers.

  • Social media pages
  • Blog content
  • Influencer partnerships
  • Partnerships with patient support networks

There’s no time like the present. It’s a good idea to start creating pharma content now if you want to smooth the transition.

Magnet pulling in stick figures

Re-Engagement Strategies for HCPs

Cookie-less HCP re-engagement strategies should focus on providing value upon first contact.

There has been much documentation on what HCP’s want from pharma organizations, and we have written extensively on the topic.

HCP’s will reach out to you if you rise above the noise and give them what they need. Wherever you run ads, the placement should match the intent of the user visiting the web page. This way, you are earning their trust.

After you provide value, you just need to make your organization available. Your website is a great tool for starting discussions.

This comes down to discussion-oriented calls-to-action.

Make sure you have contact forms, email templates, and sales rep options place prominently on your site. If you have a good product and provide a valuable message, then you shouldn’t have any problem engaging HCPs.

Attribution Effects

Currently, most advertising measurement uses a process that is similar to retargeting.

  • When someone sees an ad, a cookie is placed on their browser.
  • This cookie can be read by your website and recognize users who visit after a period of time.
  • The campaign that served the ad earns credit for any conversions that happen on your website.

Digital tape measure

But no more.

This will affect our ability to attribute the impact of ads on display, video, and audio ad networks.

Without third-party cookies, our campaigns will not show us when they are working.

After the Chrome update, we’ll have to do things the old-fashioned way.

Paneling, sales measurement, and on/off analysis will be necessary until a new system can be developed.

The Rearc project aims to re-establish the current system of digital attribution. But, again, that is years off.

Cookie-less HCP Awareness Campaigns

Without a doubt, cookie-less digital pharma campaigns will lose some of their shine for DTC plans. But there will be effects on the HCP side too.

Stethoscope on laptop

Currently, a lot of digital HCP impressions are made possible by “lookalike” audiences.

• The starting point is a relatively small audience of physicians that provided emails to networks.

• Ad networks had access to these audiences, and so did individual advertisers.

• Advertisers could target new HCPs by finding audiences with similar browsing habits. These similar audiences were cookie-based, so they will no longer be accessible.

Obviously, this will not be possible anymore. But targeting HCPs contextually isn’t an option either.

When online, HCPs tend to get clinical information from continuing education websites. Unsurprisingly, these sites don’t partner with ad networks because they can get much better value from selling ads directly to advertisers.

Focus on Guaranteed, High-Quality Impressions

Computer with healthcare plus symbol on screen

Direct buys and partnerships will see more attention.

• Advertising on continuing education websites
• Opinion leader partnerships
• Webinars
• Running ads through HCP apps like Epocrates and Doximity
• Purchasing email lists from data vendors like DMD and Healthlink
• Running digital influencer campaigns with HCPs active on social media
• Audio advertising on medical podcasts

These tactics are much more expensive than targeting cookie-based audiences. So, to ensure ROI, they need to have much higher impact.

Fortunately, their proximity to clinical situations and discussions makes this a lot easier.

As long as ads for these tactics take the clinical context in mind they will succeed. Differentiating the creative, landing page, copy, and call-to-action for each placements is essential.

It’s been important to provide unique value with digital promotion for years. The loss of cookies will accentuate this issue for pharma marketers.

The Future of Digital Pharma Marketing

Perhaps the only thing that won’t change is that digital marketing will still be effective.

A Bowflex commercial on ESPN targets its audience in the same way that a foot cream ad targets readers of an athlete’s foot article.

And there’s a reason that millions of dollars have been spent on contextual ads: they work.

Even if we don’t have a report on every conversion that a digital campaign generates, we know it works because it operates on the same principle that has been effective since the first newspaper ad was published in the 1600’s.