Spending by pharmaceutical companies on online direct-to-consumer advertising in the USA is expected to advance by 25% this year to $780 million, after a downturn in investment in 2005, according to a new report by eMarketer.

The recovery is a result of a growing recognition among drugmakers that there are benefits from switching away from a mass market approach and towards more targeted, online approaches, according to the study, entitled Pharmaceutical Marketing Online: Direct-to-Patient Becomes a Reality.

"Instead of merely advertising blockbuster drugs, the industry is beginning to chase the 'long tail,'" says the report’s author, Lisa Phillips. "The Internet is the best channel to target and reach consumers with specific conditions and questions about treatment."

She believes that health-focused portals are poised to become the next big vertical market online. Established players such as WebMD, the market leader in the USA, has been joined by EverydayHealth.com and the rebranded HealthCentral Network, she noted. Also coming up is Revolution, a consumer health site backed by former AOL founder Steve Case, while every major portal - Google, Yahoo!, AOL and MSN are offering consumer health information and the Web is filling up with smaller sites targeted to special health interests.

"Gone are the days of landing pages full of dry medical text. Pharmaceutical marketers are giving their sites the look and feel of social niche networks," according to Phillips.

However, companies need to be aware that word-of-mouth marketing, sponsoring blogs and producing podcasts are all potential minefields if not handled with discretion, she notes.

“After nearly a decade of 'pushing' drug messages to the public, pharmaceutical marketers must learn to listen to consumer comments without overreacting,” concludes Phillips.