Microsoft Health Ad Format Aimed at Calming Privacy Concerns

Knowing that some people will be leery of clicking on ads accompanying its new HealthVault site due to privacy concerns, Microsoft is using a new widget style ad system, called Action Modules, intended to make users more comfortable with sharing personal health information online.

The Microsoft HealthVault, launched in beta format on Oct. 4, is intended to be a repository of individual health information that can be shared with doctors or otherwise referenced by patients. To help pay for the project, Microsoft provides direct links to its Health Search portal, which it announced last month. The portal, part of Microsoft Live Search, is divided among four verticals, including local/maps, entertainment, and shopping areas, where consumer queries will be answered.

Unlike standard adCenter keyword buys for sponsored text-based responses, however, users that request information over the Health Search portal will find sponsored ads presented in Action Module widgets.

Current Search Health portal advertisers, including Diet.com, eHealthInsurance.com, Medifast, and others, aren’t only providing text links for consumers to click. These advertisers provide visitors with opportunities to interact with their service directly from the search results.

Consumers interested in Diet.com’s ads, for instance, can click on a personality quiz or healthy recipe links, while eHealthInsurance’s ads start price quotes by requesting ZIP code, age, and weight information, directly within the ads. Most Action Module ads also include links to the advertisers’ privacy policy, and can be added to a “scrapbook” feature within a HealthVault user’s profile.

The goal is to provide consumers with a better understanding of what information they’ll have to give, and how their privacy concerns will be met, before they even click a link that will take them away from the search results page, said Sean Nolan, chief architect, Health Solutions Group for Microsoft.

“What we wanted to do was build a system that allows people to feel a greater sense of what’s behind those links and advertisers. And from the advertisers point of view, to have a much higher quality of leads than they would with text ads,” Nolan said.

Although the HealthVault and the Health Vault Search system are “sister products” according to Nolan, the company won’t link a Vault user’s personal health information to influence search results, but instead will use contextual keyword targeting on specific topics.

“Between the repository of data that you’re trusting us to hold and the monetization that we make of that, we want to be very clear that there is no transportation between them,” said Nolan. The company targets based on user queries and information from IP address. “So for example, not all insurers can work in all 50 states, so we don’t show their information there,” he said. “We will never share your information without giving you the ability to opt-out.”

HealthVault users will have the option of opting-in to share some personal information, which can be used by advertisers like eHealthInsurance.com.

“What this does is it puts more of the preliminary transaction shopping process on their site and creates a capability that if they’ve already saved the relevant data, it allows the consumer to use Fast Quote to get one click to a quote,” said Bruce Telkamp, executive vice president of eHealth, which owns eHealthInsurance.com. “It’s all anonymous data. It’s ZIP codes, gender, age, date of birth. We don’t collect private information until they are farther along in the buying process.”

For now, Action Modules will be used for ads placed on the Health Search portal, but Microsoft believes it could eventually be applicable across the Microsoft Live Network.

Microsoft’s use of the Action Module widgets seems akin to Google’s Gadget Ads format, which that company released in an extended beta format last month, according to Andrew Frank, research vice president with Gartner. Widgets are “The next step in the evolution of rich media ads, and are now becoming more interactive,” he said.

“The idea of using widgets to enhance the standard advertising display online, it’s definitely a trend that I expect Microsoft and Google and Yahoo and everybody else do that has an ad network to adopt,” said Frank.

However, as Microsoft positions itself as a trusted repository for patient information, it will have to take extra steps to maintain customer trust, Frank said.

“They’ve said a significant portion of revenue is going to come from advertising, but on the other hand they are trying to position themselves as a trusted source for the consumer,” he said. “They are going to have to be the brand that vouches for the idea that these advertisers are okay, that the information that is being released is going to be protected. They are attempting to create that proxy relationship where you are supposed to feel safe because you are dealing with Microsoft here.”

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