As smartphones become health aids, ads may follow

Written by New York Times | Updated: Apr 10 2012, 09:40am hrs
Milt Freudenheim

With smartphones changing the culture in so many ways, more and more young people are using their mobile devices to keep track of their health, and the trend is not going unnoticed by advertisers.

Young adults are much more likely than older people to have a smartphone and to use it to look for health information, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which surveys technology trends. And their health concerns differ markedly from those of older people.

Nearly 100 million Americans own a smartphone, but younger people use them very differently, said John Mangano, a vice president of comScore, an online research firm. Three of the top five symptoms searched for on Yahoo Mobile in January were early pregnancy, herpes and HIV. None of these symptoms showed up among the top searches on desktop computers, which are more likely to be used by older people.

The most popular symptom searches on PCs included gastroenteritis, heart attacks, gout and shingles, Yahoo said, adding that the encyclopedic medical symptoms checker on WebMD was the most popular site of its kind among PC users. On WebMD, the top symptoms searched for in January were muscle strain, gastroenteritis and irritable bowel syndrome.

Besides tracking signs of pregnancy and various sexually transmitted diseases, mobile device owners frequently downloaded apps to help manage their eating, drinking and exercise, according to Everyday Health, an online company that has 30 million visitors a month to its health, diet and exercise websites.

The number of visits coming from mobile device users increased fivefold during the last 24 months, said Benjamin Wolin, chief executive of Everyday Health.About a third of smartphone users tracked diet and exercise electronically in January, comScore said. The numbers were slightly higher for iPad and other tablet users 35 percent for diet watchers and 39 percent for exercise fans.

Ariel Young, 20, a biology major at George Washington University, said she exchanged text messages at least 75 times a day. Part of that traffic is with close friends who trade tips on healthy foods and recipes. Im checking calories, she said.

Susannah Fox, an associate director of the Pew Internet project, said, Once they have a smartphone, people are more likely to participate in online conversations about health.

Advertisers are taking note. Led by auto companies and packaged goods makers, they spent $3 billion online in 2011, including $818 million for mobile ads, PricewaterhouseCoopers reported. That was more than for print or radio, although television still got the largest share of the ad dollars.

Geoff McCleary, group director for mobile innovation at Digitas Health, which is owned by the Publicis Groupe, the Paris-based ad giant, said some health care companies were noticing that more people were using a mobile device to visit their websites.

Some companies are using surveys and social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to learn more about customers they could reach via smartphone.

It may change the way we craft strategy, McCleary said.

So far, health care companies have been slow to advertise online. ComScore said health ads were only 1 percent of all online display ads at the end of last year. As for placing their ads on smartphones, many drug companies are struggling with the challenges of fitting safety information required by regulators, like side effects, onto the smaller screens of phones, McCleary said.

Heartbeat Ideas, a privately held ad agency, advises health care clients to max out the portion of their advertising budget allocated to mobile devices. The return on investment is much higher than radio or TV, Lee Slovitt, Heartbeats media director, said. If searchers are actively looking for information on a given condition or a specific drug, they are much more likely to respond to a commercial message, he said.

Slovitt said online viewing had pretty much reached parity with television, with around 40 hours a week spent online and 40 hours watching television.

Indeed, some of those viewers may be doing both at once. In a world of multimedia and multitasking, a person watching a commercial on a TV show or looking at a print ad can be spurred to go online on her phone to get more information about that specific treatment, McCleary said.