Marketing automation is often seen as the way to respond to demands for immediate, personalized online experiences and email communication. Unfortunately, developing meaningful long-term relationships with patients and professionals can’t happen at the push of a button. This article covers the four things that are critical to the success of a pharma marketing automation program that software alone can’t do for you.


Marketing automation is a powerful combination of software and strategy that helps marketers deliver the right content at the right time to the right people using the right channels. Customers expect interactions that are fluid, intuitive and fast; content that is relevant, valuable and personalized; and a customer service culture that is “always on,” providing 24/7 support.

The goals of marketing automation are to make it as easy and enjoyable as possible for people to move from first-time visitor to delighted customer. The ideal outcomes are better engagement, more customers and lower costs.

The word “automation” may bring to mind robots churning out generic content that’s blasted anonymously and indiscriminately to everyone. Done well, however, it’s the opposite of a mindless content factory. Automation allows marketers to design personalized experiences for users based on how they interact with content across all your channels, including email, chat or text, social media and your website.

Since records management, segmentation, scheduling, dynamic content, lead scoring and tracking are typical components of marketing automation, it’s no surprise that software is key. HubSpot, Marketo, Eloqua and Pardot are four of the leading tools.


If you’re new to marketing automation, examples of the strategy in action can make the potential benefits clearer. Here are three examples from a pharma context. In each of them, every action the patient or professional takes gives us greater ability to deliver personally relevant information and ultimately influence their behaviour, whether that’s ensuring they keep up with their treatment (example 1), continue to engage with disease-state content (example 2) or purchase a branded product (example 3).   

Example 1: Branded patient website

A multiple sclerosis patient visits a gated branded site and enters a product DIN and email address to register for access. On the registration form, they check “yes” to receiving helpful tips and resources on MS by email. Once they’ve entered the site, they visit the FAQ section to learn about common side effects of the product.

A week later, the patient returns to the site. The software has been configured to adjust the content on the home page in real time based on prior behaviour, so the patient sees information on tips to manage medication side effects. They click on the callout, which takes them to an article. Halfway down the article page they’re shown information on the patient support and adherence program offered by the company.

Two days later, a friendly (but automated) email is sent from a specific support specialist at the patient support program, asking if the patient would like to schedule a call to discuss how they’re managing side effects with treatment. The link in the email allows the patient to schedule a call.

Example 2: Unbranded disease-state website

A person conducts a Google search on how to choose a depression support group. They click on a link that takes them to an article on that topic on an unbranded website that’s designed to foster a helpful, supportive community for people experiencing depression.

On the article page is information about Glass Half Full, an unbranded monthly podcast produced by two influencers with depression. The information specifically calls out an episode on tips for getting the most out of your support group. The visitor clicks the link, listens to the podcast and signs up with their first name (Sam) and email address to be notified when a new podcast is posted. Sam checks “no” to receiving other helpful tips and information about depression.

Two weeks later, Sam receives a personally addressed, automated email with enticing teaser copy about the most recent episode of Glass Half Full and a link to listen. Sam opens the email but doesn’t click the link. A month later, another automated email arrives with a link to a new podcast. This time Sam clicks and is taken to the unbranded website to listen to the episode. On the page is an announcement bar inviting Sam to take a one-question survey about topics s/he would be interested in for future episodes. (We've used s/he here on purpose. Unless Sam is asked for his/her gender in a form, marketing automation software can't segment Sam by gender, and marketers can't know whether Sam is male, female or non-binary.) Sam takes the survey and the results are added to his/her contact record in the marketing automation software.

With this information, Sam can be shown topics of interest to him/her whenever s/he is on the website. If Sam opts-in on a future form to receive other helpful tips and information by email—presumably because the site has established itself as a source of credible, useful and engaging unbranded content—the information from the survey can be used to send him/her information s/he has told us s/he will be interested in.

Example 3: HCP online launch campaign

A pharma company is launching a line-extension, combination product in diabetes. The market is expected to be small because there’s no formulary coverage for the product, so it’s decided to trial an online-only launch. That way sales reps can continue to focus on the priority products in their conversations with healthcare professional customers.

An email offering a link to a gated website for more information as well as an offer for product samples is sent to a database of diabetes product prescribers who are expected to be interested in the product. A series of automated follow-up emails have been added to the marketing automation software and are sent out to the healthcare professionals according to a pre-planned workflow based on how the recipients engaged (or didn't) with the initial email offer, website content and the offer for samples. The list of professionals who have requested samples can be shared with sales reps, who then make very efficient sales calls to these qualified leads.


Software is only as powerful as the people who use it. Without the right mindset, content, data analysis and review process in place, marketing automation won’t help you achieve your goals. We explore each of these four key components below.

#1 Adopt the right mindset.

Through no fault of our own, pharma marketers are used to working slowly, deliberately and sequentially. We start with an annual brand plan, then ask our agencies to develop the tactical plans. Campaign elements are created from scratch and a copy deck is completed and approved before the project goes to design or development. Once everything is finished, the project is launched all at once. It’s a classic “waterfall” approach to marketing: we build big, one sequential step at a time, and launch in one grand “ta-da!”

Some of the best aspects of marketing automation include real-time intel on actual user behaviour, which can be used to modify a campaign or website to better engage our ideal audience. To take advantage of this, we need to adopt a mindset that’s responsive and iterative. Brand teams need to think of campaigns as puzzle pieces, creating smaller, modular, reusable creative elements—interchangeable sections on a webpage, blog posts that can eventually be assembled into an e-book, emails to nurture contacts towards desired outcomes—then refine and add to the elements on a regular basis based on data.

The marketing automation mindset also requires us to pay attention to who is engaging with our content, when they’re engaging and how they’re engaging with it, in addition to what they’re engaging with. That way we can think strategically about what channels people are using, where they are in their journey and what they need next, then use the software to segment contacts into lists so we can offer them a more personalized, meaningful and relevant experience to increase their level of engagement even more.

#2 Create quality content.

Marketing automation gives us the tools to deliver content in different ways to different people at different times, but it can’t tell us what that content should be. It’s our job as expert content creators to anticipate what’s next for people in their journey, based on where they might be and what they’ve done before, and deliver it at the highest possible quality.

Quality content is helpful, interesting, well-targeted and offered in a variety of formats. We want one type of content when we’re researching our options and another when we’re ready to buy. We want different content when we’re using a smart phone on the train and when we’re sitting at work in front of a desktop computer. When we’re busy, we want fast, easy-to-skim content. Curling up with a cup of hot chocolate? Cue that podcast, video or long-form blog post.

Email is a cornerstone of marketing automation, and high quality content is a requirement if we expect people to give us their email addresses in exchange for it. First, we must convince people to fill out our form, and quality content is important here. If we’re marketing to Canadians, we have to make that experience so great that they’ll check off a box on the form giving us “express consent” to email them in the future, otherwise any email we send them outside of the initial offer will be in contravention of Canada’s anti-spam legislation (CASL). Next, we have to make sure that the quality of the content they’ve “bought” with their email address is of such high quality that it advances the relationship once they’ve viewed, read or otherwise engaged with it rather than creating feelings of disappointment.

#3 Interpret and act on the data.

All marketing automation software has built-in real-time analytics. You can learn how people are accessing your content, what content they’re engaging with, how often personalized content is being shown to them and what they’re doing after they’ve seen it. If they fill out a form, you can also know who they are. But access to data is only half the battle—it’s up to us to determine what it means and what to do about it.

One area where data is especially powerful for marketers is data-driven audience management. Instead of relying on personas developed through market research, brand teams can use the data from marketing automation campaigns to move toward more accurate audience segments based on actual behviour. For example, the brand may identify audience segments that are defined by engagement interactions within the campaign, such as completing a doctor locator search.

Of course, pharma marketers will find it a challenge to quickly act on data, given the Canadian advisory and regulatory context (see point #4 below). That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t monitor, report on and interpret the data from campaigns while they’re in progress—after all, it’s a way to learn important information that can be applied to future work. But it does significantly limit our ability to pivot quickly based on mid-campaign intel.

#4 Refine your review process

As pharma marketers, our reality is a highly regulated one. In fact, the mere suggestion that you could change a campaign mid-stream based on analytics probably made you laugh. Or cry.

There’s no doubt that to truly benefit from the power of marketing automation, the regulatory review process needs to be updated. We don’t have much control over PAAB. But we can refine our internal review processes to better accommodate dynamic and personalized content. Here are three tips.

First, marketers must become proficient in explaining the sequences, contingencies and workflows their campaigns depend on. These if-then scenarios can be confusing, particularly to people who weren’t involved in the campaign development itself. Work with your regulatory team to develop best practices for illustrating the different paths people can take in your campaign and what happens in different scenarios.

Second, regulatory teams must become comfortable with reviewing templates and fragments, knowing that the system will have business rules created that ensure compliance. The team should be authors, contributors and reviewers of these rules, as well.

Third, consider breaking large campaigns into smaller ones. That way you can get approval on a small campaign, let it run, review the outcomes and use what you learned from the data to develop the next small campaign and so on. This helps eliminate the cost and delay of having reviewers and regulators approve changes mid-campaign. If you want to continue to work in larger single campaigns, you could set regular review points—every quarter, for example—where you would review analytics, recommend changes and obtain the internal and external approval to implement them.

In conclusion, marketing automation can help create meaningful, personalized experiences that result in increased engagement with your target audience. If you adopt the right mindset, create quality content, interpret and act on data, and refine your review process, you’ll get the most from your software and your team.