Pharma Apps Fail Because They Have No User Acquisition Strategy

April, 4 2017

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Rowan Emslie
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Rowan Emslie

For the past few years, pharmaceutical companies have been producing a lot of apps without a lot of impact. The big players averaged 65 apps each back in 2014 but only four companies generated an active user base over 100,000, which is a lot of effort for scant reward.

So what's going wrong?

The customer is always right

The world is digital and mobile. Customers expect services to cater to them directly and they expect to be able to access services and information on the go. A lot of industries have been disrupted by new players adapting to the technological - travel & tourism, the media, telecoms.

Big Pharma is not immune. But the way the industry works doesn't lend itself to the new technological paradigm.

"Pharma traditionally works on 20-year time frames, driven by the patent cycle, whereas we think about renewing our technology every year. " Frank Westermann, CEO @ mySugr

36% of apps produced by pharmaceutical companies are B2B - aimed at healthcare practitioners. 50% are aimed at customers, but 30% of pharma apps have never been updated. 29% have only been updated once. That sort of thing really puts users off.

A big part of this problem stems from the fact that 38% of pharma apps are made to support the launch of a specific product. They create information apps as part of a wider marketing push but then ignore them, regardless of user uptake. Additionally, apps made to support drugs are restricted to single markets because of the high regulatory demands of the industry.

B2B apps, on the other hand, face serious structural problems. Medical practitioners are not typical first adopters nor are they blessed with a lot of time to research and learn about potentially disruptive technological tools. A 2014 study found that 81% of US physicians reported that they were either at full capacity or over extended.

RelatedA tale of two health apps

Worldwide, the healthcare industry is faced with massive demographic challenges, dubbed the 'Gray Wave'. Low birth rates married with the post-war Baby Boom generations hitting retirement age means, according to the World Health Organisation:

"...the number of people aged 65 or older is projected to grow from an estimated 524 million in 2010 to nearly 1.5 billion in 2050... the number of people aged 80 years or over is growing even faster than the number of older persons overall. Projections indicate that in 2050 the oldest-old will number 434 million, having more than tripled in number since 2015."

The older patients are, the more resources they require. This is true for healthcare budgets as well as for doctors' time and attention. Trends in medical school graduates might have risen in the last decade, but not by nearly enough to make up for the rise in demand or to close the existing physician shortage.

Source: New England Journal of Medicine

Take away: Doctors have neither the time nor inclination to drive the growth of healthcare apps. And that is only going to get more true as time goes on.

3 lessons for successful Pharma apps

Gamification works

Instead of focusing on product information, Pharma companies could be experimenting with app features that have proved to be popular with users of medical apps: gamification. Tilak Healthcare recently raised $2.7 million to develop mobile games that diagnose and monitor chronic conditions.

Before that, Cancer Research UK got Zooniverse to create Cell Slider, an app that got users to identify breast cancer cells as part of a game. Almost 100,000 people contributed to cancer research as a result. Analysis that would have taken researchers 18 months of laborious slide checking was done in 3 months just by reaching out to the general public with a fun mobile game.

Users value their experience above all else

Thinking about the users' experience key. Building a plan that users can follow, step by step, was found to be the most important feature in a 2015 study of 234 health apps. Three other features were also found to contribute positively to users' reviews of apps:

  1. Export of data. Users want to share information.
  2. Usability. Easy to use, intuitive apps are highly valued.
  3. Cost. Paid apps were rated much more highly, largely because the absence of ads improved their in-app experience.

Education, either general or targeted, was not found to be a significant driver of positive reviews. Users aren't looking for product information in apps, they are looking for ways of simplifying their healthcare.

Doctors care about patients, not apps

Medical practitioners are overwhelmed trying to look after their patients. Everything they do is aimed at delivering healthcare to ever more patients with ever fewer resources. Anything else, including your revolutionary new app, is just a 'nice to have' extra they don't have time for.

Now imagine if they hear about your treatment tracking app from patients a few times a week. They hear that it has helped organize their patients: no more missed appointments, no medication mix ups. All of a sudden, forgetful patients become model patients.

There isn't any better sales pitch than that.

Here is some good advice from an interview with the founders of mySugr.

"We focused on our B2C model to grow our user base, with a free basic version and a subscription-based pro version. The uptake of the subscription version helped us demonstrate value and made us more attractive to our B2B partners." Anton Kittelberger, CMO @ mySugr

At its core, healthcare is oriented towards its patients. Healthcare practitioners aren't going to adopt something patients don't care about, so pharma apps need to conquer the B2C market first. Once practitioners see the practical use of apps they will be open to exploring apps aimed at them.

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