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Reaching Cyberchondriacs

  |  December 31, 2002   |  Comments

When 73 million plus Americans seek health-related information online, marketers had better provide it.

Considering how easy it is to find a vast amount of health-related links just by typing a medical symptom or an ailment into a search engine, it's no surprise the Internet is becoming the dominant source for people's health information.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project, in a study released this week, says these "health seekers" -- which numbered 46 million in 2000 and grew to 73 million by October 2002 -- go online to get information about specific illnesses, weight control, and prescription drugs. They go because they expect to find reliable information online (81 percent of Internet users say this), although they do usually check with a physician before acting on online health information. Most health seekers are women looking for information on behalf of someone for whom they are caring.

The Pew Researchers discovered:

  • Three quarters (76 percent) of health seekers say they "always" or "most of the time" find what they are looking for when they look on the Internet for healthcare information; 28 percent "always" find what they need.

  • Internet users are as likely to turn to the Internet for medical advice as they are to ask a medical professional. Forty-six percent of Internet users say they'll use the Internet the next time they need reliable healthcare information, while 47 percent say they'll confer with a medical professional.

Another researcher, Harris Interactive, conducted a poll in May to see how many people went online for healthcare information. Harris came up with a number of 100 million people -- up from 97 million last year -- and it has cleverly dubbed these folks "cyberchondriacs."

According to Harris, some of the results are:

  • Of people 18 to 29, 82 percent are cyberchondriacs, as are 84 percent of those with a postgraduate education and 77 percent of those with household incomes of over $75,000.

  • 53 percent of adults (or 80 percent who are online) search for health-related information.

  • Cyberchondriacs seek out e-health-related information about three times per month.

  • Most find such sites via search engines and portals.

  • Only 12 percent of these adults go directly to the site itself.

Advertising to Cyberchondriacs

With numbers like these, I'm sure you could guess that pharmaceutical marketers are swimming where the fish are by advertising online. And guess what? Such advertisers deem online advertising an efficient medium. The estimated advertising cost to drive a single consumer request for a specific drug, according to a 2000 Cyber Dialogue study, was $220 in print, $197 in television, yet only $14 on the Internet.

If you're pursuing these strategies for your pharmaceutical company clients, remember that such sites need to be easy accessible by users and have robust content that is updated frequently to sustain users demands for current information.

Other studies indicate that users go to sites they feel they can trust. Many are those run by governmental and academic organizations, while others are large portals and search engines.

Tips to advertising to this audience:

  • Consider paid placement and keyword buys in addition to search engine optimization.

  • Use terms with which users are familiar, keeping in mind users may type in the symptoms, disease name, or drug name. They are very likely to misspell medical words or phrases.

  • Pull campaign data from large sites, such as portals.

  • Determine the percentage of clutter on these sites. Are many competitors advertising where you'd like your brand to be?

  • Consider using ad networks that may represent a health channel. Some of these verticals within networks have the niche content that may appeal to your target audience.

  • Test, test, test... creative, copy, and ad unit sizes.

  • Implement a mix of units and watch how each fares. You may be surprised. I once ran a campaign where the highest interactivity rates came from tiny text links.

  • Determine the lifestyle of the users you are targeting. They may have different surfing habits as a result. If so, choose additional keywords, phrases, and channels within sites that mirror such behavior.

Prove Your Worth

One of the most successful campaigns I've ever worked on was for a large pharmaceutical client. Unfortunately, I cannot say the advertiser's name, but I can share with you the strategy, tactics, and results.

Initially, the client was skeptical of online advertising in general. We were told to "prove our worth," which meant we were given a tiny budget. The planners hit the ground running only to find clutter everywhere. All the major competitors were scattered across large verticals, portals, and search engines.

Going back to the drawing board, we had to take a good, close look at what we had. We had already created a great Web site that had gained a substantial amount of traffic. Direct mail and print advertising were running consistently throughout the year. We were also about six months into a search engine optimization program, which was showing strong rankings and results.

We decided to capitalize on the offline efforts by tagging direct and print with a specific URL that linked to a dedicated splash page. We had come to the harsh realization that we did not have enough money to make an impact via online advertising that year. However, we needed to be online.

Because the drug we were advertising was for treating diabetes, we realized we could piggyback on print around the holidays. Diabetes sufferers have a particularly hard time making eating choices around this time of year because the holidays abound with forbidden foods. So, we implemented a campaign consisting of a mix of ad units that would appear on ad networks, portals, and search engines. These ads promoted a Webcast in which a dietician gave tips on how to deal with the situation. We sponsored that program, which linked to healthy recipes for the holidays. The campaign was easy to implement, incurred low production costs, engaged several hundred viewers per day, and captured a large number of email addresses of people looking for more information on the drug.

As we enter into the New Year, I'm sure many of us will be faced with small budgets that make it difficult to break through the clutter. Don't be discouraged. There are many back doors -- you just have to find them.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Seana Mulcahy

Seana Mulcahy is vice president, director of interactive media at Mullen (an IPG company). She's been creating online brands since before the first banner was sold. Her expertise includes online and traditional media planning and buying, e-mail marketing, viral marketing, click-stream analysis, customer tracking, promotions, search engine optimization and launching brands online. Prior to Mullen, Seana was vice president of media services at Carat Interactive. She's built online media services divisions for three companies and has worked with clients spanning financial, telecom, high-tech, healthcare and retail. Not surprisingly, she has taught, lectured and written about the industry for numerous trade associations and publications.

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