Best Practices for Targeting in Pharmaceutical Campaigns

/ Thoughtspace - Healthcare, Industry Expertise

Who makes the rules?

In 1996, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was passed to protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without consent. When it comes to understanding HIPAA for uses of health information for advertising, there’s lots of room for interpretation leaving advertisers unsure if certain marketing capabilities are compliant and ethical. This especially holds true for pharmaceutical advertisers using health information to target audiences for prescription drugs, medical devices and other pharmaceutical brands through media. To provide an industry standard and best practices, there are committees devoted to providing this direction to advertisers like the National Advertising Initiative (NAI), the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) and others. 

One of the leading bodies in defining the regulations for digital advertising is the NAI. Founded in 2000, the NAI published a set of code for advertisers to abide by that is supported by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The most recent revisions to the code enables advertisers to reference media targeting best practices according to the NAI, including a definition for Sensitive Health Information to provide pharmaceutical advertisers with more concrete direction.

How do regulations affect healthcare targeting?

The first step is to understand if the brand falls under the ‘sensitive’ category. This will impact targeting capabilities. According to the NAI, there are two subsets of sensitive information: 

  1. Data about a health condition or treatment derived from a sensitive source 
  2. Data about certain sensitive conditions regardless of the source of the data

Determining whether a health condition is considered ‘sensitive’ is unclear in the industry. The NAI only provides a few sensitive categories. These include drug addiction, STDs, mental health, pregnancy termination, and all conditions predominantly affecting children not treated by OTC and Cancer.

There are resources to help guide the analysis of determining whether the brand falls into the sensitive category. The NAI provides guidance to help determine whether pharmaceutical targeting segments are considered sensitive.

However, this guidance does not give advertisers a clear list of the targeting capabilities that are compliant. Coegi recommends using this guide to drive direct conversations with the client. It is useful to create a mutual agreement on whether the brand falls into either the sensitive category to influence compliant targeting solutions. 

There is no clear list provided by any regulatory source. So, Coegi recommends working with the client to align on the brand’s definition of sensitivity. This will greatly affect compliant targeting capabilities. 

The Trade Desk (a NAI member) also takes precautions and has a healthcare targeting policy. Because there is no official list deeming health conditions sensitive or non-sensitive, TTD has its own process. It defines whether a condition is deemed high, medium or low in the sensitive category  to then determine permitted targeting capabilities. This policy uses a multi-factor analysis to take into account many considerations when calculating each condition’s category. 

Other advertising platforms have similar protocols for brands in the healthcare space. Before running paid ads through Facebook, advertisers must gain permission according to its Promotion of Prescription Drugs policy.

How to Approach Pharmaceutical Targeting Compliantly

Once you determine whether the target is in the sensitive or non-sensitive condition category, use these tactics to target consumers: 

Healthcare Consumer Targeting:

Behavioral Targeting

  • This form of targeting is typically not a compliant way to reach a consumer given it’s ‘data about a health condition or treatment’. However, there are third party data providers who use de-identified information. This is compliant according to the NAI. 
  • It is critical to understand how any third party data is being collected if used to reach patients. Coegi does a detailed analysis to determine whether a data provider is compliant according to industry best practices. 

Contextual Targeting

  • There are no known regulations for using contextual targeting for a consumer audience. This is a popular approach in reaching a patient and caregiver audience in a compliant manner. 


  • For both sensitive and non-sensitive conditions, geotargeting a consumer audience is not compliant. According to the NAI, unless the user’s opt-in consent is given to target by precise location data (like an HCP’s office), this falls outside of best practice.  
  • While precise location data requires opt-in, other forms of targeting that can reach a patient audience using geographic data. This data needs to be further vetted to ensure it’s not precise location data. 


  • According to the 2020 code, retargeting is a form of Tailored Advertising. Sensitive health segments require opt-in consent in order to retarget a consumer audience. 
  • Even for non-sensitive health segments, Coegi recommends having a conversation with the brand team to gain alignment prior to execution.

Healthcare Provider Targeting

Because you’re targeting by profession, there are fewer restrictions for HCPs. ID-based targeting allows pharmaceutical brands to reach HCPs with a compliant audience-first approach.

Various forms of audience targeting for HCPs can include: 

  • Dx Targeting – ICD-10 code for specific diagnosis 
  • Rx Targeting – prescription code for specific drugs  
  • Specialty Targeting – target HCPs by specific medical specialty
  • List Match Targeting – target HCPs by specific NPI number

Depending on a particular client’s goals, Coegi will provide a recommended targeting strategy to reach a HCP audience 

Even with less restrictions, we recommends investigating and understanding the source of the data segments associated with NPIs. We have a conversation with the brand team to gain alignment on certain targeting efforts, especially retargeting.

Interested in learning more about pharmaceutical targeting marketing best practices? View our white paper to learn more on targeting patients and providers with best-in-class digital tactics.

Coegi Partners

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