Microsoft and Google are hatching separate plans to seize some of cyberspace's most valuable real estate, the consumer-health sector—a move that could accelerate the drug industry's own online promotional push.
According to the New York Times, which got a sneak peek last week at Google's site-in-progress and spoke to Microsoft consultants, the new platforms will be leveraged on services each company already offers Web users. Google, the go-to engine for some 60 percent of all online searches, will expand and refine its browsing capabilities for the fast-growing category of health and medical information. Meantime, Microsoft, whose software drives 90 percent of the nation's computers, is developing digital technology for personal medical records that would be compatible with Microsoft programs already widely used in hospitals, labs, and doctors' offices.
If the two company's launches into the consumer-health market will start out as complementary, their ultimate vision of all-in-one patient platforms is strictly competitive. They will be vying to seize the Web 2.0 initiative not only from each other but from smaller, specialized outfits like WebMD and Steve Case's upstart Revolution Health. Although neither Google nor Microsoft has announced how—or even if—the platforms will make revenue, the drive toward consumer control of medical records, along with state-of-the-art functionality, is likely to present pharma with an unprecedented array of direct-to-consumer marketing opportunities.
"If the sites accept advertising, they will not only allow for a lot more inventory for drug companies," says Deann Harvey, VP of Eastern Sales for Pointroll, the online advertising rich media provider. "They will also enable pharma to better target products to specific patient groups and to create much richer, more interactive user experiences." These online activities also make demonstrating measurable results much easier, Harvey added.
Four out of five Americans search the Web for health info, and almost half say it is their primary source—surpassing even their own docs, according to a recent Burst Media study. A survey of online users by Prospectiv found that half favor accessing this information from general health sites—the type that Google and Microsoft are developing—and a third prefer specific disease-focused sites, while fewer than 5 percent head first to drug-company sites, even for prescription-drug searches.
Given these stats, the online channel may also offer the industry a way to counter the negative effects of quick, slick DTC ads. According to Marc Benjamin, managing director of media agency Convergence Point Media, "Highly targeted campaigns can speak frankly, minimizing the need to dramatize a product's benefits or use ?lowest common denominator' taglines that often invite scrutiny."
Microsoft is set to unveil its consumer-health package this fall, although Google's has reportedly been delayed until next year. Both companies are perfectly positioned—in terms of expertise and resources—to handle the massive challenges of data storage, software, and networking posed by such a platform. But insiders note that negotiating the regulatory and confidentiality tripwires of medical territory may prove a steep learning curve.
Google, in particular, may find its typical tactics of matching users with ads untenable, says Alex Porter, VP of search engine marketing firm SearchAdNetwork. "The practice of, say, using algorithms to ?read' Google e-mail content and target ads to users based on keywords would be much more controversial around medical issues," he says. "Monitizing these services will raise some very interesting privacy concerns."