Why healthbots may eat search ads and mobile apps

The internet strongly agrees there's an artificial intelligence (AI) revolution going on, and it's come to pharma marketing.

IBM Watson, the AI brain being infused all over healthcare, will form the backend of an interactive display ad for GSK Consumer Healthcare's Theraflu.

The cold-and-flu product was one of seven brands, across four beta partners, to sign on with Watson Ads, an initiative announced this past summer by the Weather Co. — an IBM property — aiming to develop a new wave of ads that people will be able to communicate with. According to the firm, it marks the first consumer use of IBM's cognitive technology for advertising.

See also: Pharma adopts data-science culture in move toward AI

“This is a whole new foray into marketing,” says D. J. Reali, SVP, national ad sales for the Weather Co. He adds Weather is an appropriate platform for Theraflu, given its connection to the cold-and-flu category.

Just like the Watson cognitive platform partnering with Medtronic in diabetes and Memorial Sloan Kettering in oncology, the system powering Watson Ads learns from user behavior to understand what consumers are asking in natural language and offers responses.

“It allows marketers to get deeper engagement with consumers based on questions they might have about their product or things that can be developed and made via different products that marketers offer,” explains Reali.

For example, a Campbell Soup ad, one of two campaigns up and running at press time, generates unique recipes based on the consumer's personal tastes.

Just don't call it a chatbot.

“A chatbot is based on a decision tree. Watson is based on cognition,” Reali notes.

That makes it more like ... a banner bot? “There are opportunities to initiate a customer service-like experience from a banner ad, which is compelling and captivating and paves the way for some of the digital experiences already knocking on the door,” says Michael Spitz, VP of strategy, Klick Health.

See also: Big data expert Hilary Mason on 3 ways to create a data-driven culture

Those opportunities, he notes, promise to be very different from traditional search and display ads.

Banner and chatbots would eliminate the heavy lifting on the user's part, saving them from having to enter their query in a search engine, or to install and access separate apps. While this user experience is transformative, it could be disruptive, Spitz says.

“We're looking at a paradigm shift for the digital experience for consumers in general, health and wellness in particular, and tremendous ramifications for all we do in the pharma space,” he explains.

The new user experiences are happening with increasing frequency on the health and wellness side.

Boston Children's Hospital's Kids-MD offers medical advice to parents via Amazon Alexa, and HealthTap's chatbot, launched within Facebook's Messenger app, doles out referenced answers from doctors.

One of the most bizarre aspects of their rise is the false dichotomy between human and AI. Consider supposedly AI-powered personal assistants such as X.ai, which is designed to automate meetings through an email interface, but actually relies heavily on humans.

“Chatbots are getting way more attention than they actually deserve,” notes Hilary Mason, founder of Fast Forward Labs. “The hope of entrepreneurs is that some day the algorithms — the magic — will catch up. We're not there yet.”

But the promise of being able to have a two-way conversation with a brand may be too much for marketers to ignore. Patients may find themselves communicating more with AI-driven ads and chatbots aiming to be as intuitive as Uber, Amazon, and Netflix.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the Theraflu category. It is the cold-and-flu category. 

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