Part 4 of 5 Despite a down economy, online advertising in 2009 saw steady growth according to a survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers published in April 2010. “Search revenue accounted for 47 percent of 2009 revenues, up from the 45 percent reported in 2008. Display advertising also showed solid growth, accounting for 35 percent of 2009 revenue up from 33 percent in 2008. Digital video, which is a component of display advertising, increased 38 percent from 2008 to 2009.” (PWC 2010) But along with this phenomenal growth come phenomenal complexities.

Following and targeting consumers online is challenging in the healthcare industry. Consumers commonly search for information on heathcare sites such as WebMD. However, they are also increasingly turning to user-generated health content such as blogs, chat groups and physician and hospital rankings. Many user-generated sites contain health information that is incorrect or misleading.

Behavioral targeting becomes useful to track information about an individual’s web-browsing behavior by identifying pages visited and searches made. Select ads can then be specifically targeted to the individual and placed on reputable sites.

Further, retargeting offers a powerful tool to reach a consumer by displaying multiple impressions of the same ad to the same user, based on behavior. For example: a newly diagnosed patient comes home from the doctor and searches for “diabetes treatments.” After browsing through a few sites, the patient moves on to another site such as the New York Times to read the news. At this point, an ad for the diabetes treatment product (from the previous site visited) will appear.

According to a recent study by the Network Advertising Initiative, conversion rates for retargeted ads are 6.8% compared to 2.8% for non-targeted ads (NAI 2010). However, privacy is an issue. In a post earlier this week, “Consumers Go Online For Healthcare Answers,” we discussed the growing trend of consumers becoming increasingly proactive online, with some not wishing to publicly identify with certain healthcare brands or social networks. Other consumers may be concerned about privacy online, and choose not to participate in the various health communities available.

While some consumer advocacy groups have expressed concern over behaviorally targeted ads, others point out that it is simply a means of displaying relevant content to users. Users are tracked via cookies on their computers, and no names or other personal information is collected. Additionally, most ad platforms don’t allow users to be targeted based on anything they have read relating to mental or sexual health.

So far, the FDA has been silent on the issue of guidelines for online advertising, referring questions to longstanding policies governing traditional forms of advertising and promotion. Pharmaceutical companies, in particular, are struggling with how to incorporate fair balance information into their online endeavors.

“Consumers’ demand is clear. We want the best health information possible to live healthier lives,” said John Bell, a Word of Mouth Marketing Association board member. “Thirty-six percent of people who gathered information about a health condition online subsequently spoke to their doctors as a result, and 21% made a change to their lifestyle because of the information they found. That information comes from professional health sources, healthcare companies and our peers. We need to protect consumers while making it easier for health care companies to use digital and social media to serve their patients and customers better.”

Sources: PricewaterhouseCoopers. “IAB Internet Advertising Revenue Report.” Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) April 2010

NAI (Network Advertising Initiative) “Study Finds Behaviorally-Targeted Ads More Than Twice As Valuable, Twice As Effective As Non-Targeted Online Ads.“ 24 March 2010.

Smith, Kristen. “Word of Mouth Marketing Association Urges FDA to Provide Social Media Guidelines for Health Care and Pharma Companies.” Word of Mouth Marketing Association 9 March 2010.