WebMD shakeup garners clicks but not adspend

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WebMD's third-quarter results showed that the health portal is still fighting for share. Sales fell 13%, to $117 million for the period ended September 30 compared to the same period last year, while sponsorship revenue and public portal advertising slumped to $96.7 million -- a 15% drop, compared to $115 million for Q3 2011.

However, the site also reported double-digit increases in site visits and page views, with about 107.2 million unique visitors tapping into the WebMD Health Network per month and 2.56 billion page views for the quarter.

WebMD has been working to turn around its ad sales slide, which contributed to the January resignation of longtime CEO Wayne Gattinella amid reports of an aborted attempt to sell the company and take it private. The company brought in CEO Cavan Redmond from Pfizer to head things up in June, and added Global Crossing veteran John Kritzmacher, SVP of business operations in October.

The company's more visible moves to reshape its image include the September revamp of its WebMD print  magazine, which carried over into the tablet-optimized version. The effort merges the print publication's lifestyle focus with WebMD's traditional medical information.

“I am definitely squarely in the target for the magazine,” publisher Heidi Anderson told MM&M in a phone interview, by way of example, and said that she's a mom with three kids and wants information that covers things like “battling wrinkles, and caring for [her] kids.” The revamp attempts to do just that. Anderson said the print refresh was about making content accessible, with tools like using “celebrity tips about getting kids to eat well or asking celebrity chefs what they make for their families,” in addition to having guest experts provide advice. The company is also seeking to move the concept of accessibility beyond tactics like celebrity tips and an optimized tablet version of the magazine.

Executives told MM&M that what may appear cosmetic changes are in fact a shift towards an overall more personalized WebMD experience that can provide light waiting-room information and at the same time be a source of trusted information about deeper medical concerns.

Using the magazine as an example, Anderson noted that tablet users can watch video vignettes about certain conditions and then can be “pulled through to the information on WebMD.com” for additional condition-specific information.

The site's changes include broad personalization efforts which have yet to be rolled out, that may include QR codes and scanning technology to help users create shopping lists, as well as funneling more narrowly defined information through targeted information streams or tools through apps, like Pain Coach, which is for patients with chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or migraines, or tools like its just-launched Answers.

The coaching app, for example, provides a user assessment and then serves up tips and tools, such as progress trackers, and is an example of a dual-purpose strategy that Chief Technology Officer William Pence said are a boon for both consumers and marketers. For users, Pence said the benefit is that visitors immediately see information that applies to them, and for marketers, that the profile information “comes directly from that user, so it's highly targeted” information. Using the site's established app for new parents as another example for targeted marketers, Pence said users have “told us who they are . . . we haven't relied on generic audience data” which in turns means unfiltered data for marketers.

In addition, the site has added tools such as Answers, which rolled out in October and is part of WebMD.com. The aim is a total convergence of WebMD's expertise with crowd-sourced knowledge. Advice from doctors appears in the same information stream as that of users from the WebMD community. Answers from in-house experts and organizations that have signed on to participate appear higher in the information feed than community responses, but the feed has a Reddit quality in that the user who asked the question can indicate which answer they found most helpful.

The marketing benefit is that users have to have WebMD accounts to use the Answers tool, which means more profiles for marketers to tap into and more targeted information that users see when the sign into their WebMD accounts. It also brings the personalized approach the company seeks through its apps. “We will bubble up questions and answers based on your past activity, so in addition to being able to be specifically notified about a particular topic . . . we can tell if you're particularly interested in information about diabetes [for example],” WebMD's Chief Medical Officer Michael Smith told MM&M.

Smith said users ask about relatively light topics, such as good versus bad fats, as well as more serious ones which trip the site's teams to prompt users to get immediate medical attention. In addition to having five full-time physicians in the Answers tool every day, Smith said the site designed failsafes to keep Answers from becoming a place of specious information, such as a team of moderators that looks for inappropriate questions or answers, and a system that removes a suspect post if users report it three times. Smith said the communal aspect is a differentiating feature in the space and a necessary one that helps WebMD push its health mission forward, explaining that sometimes patients with long-term conditions may be more interested in information and firsthand accounts from peers than advice from experts.

CTO Pence said from a theme perspective, 2012 was about “trying to get a user to engage with a personalized service which gives them a better value” and that 2013 will be able to leverage and expand that user value to a greater degree in the marketing space. “We really want to make sure we can provide high-quality audiences with very high-quality first-party data” he said.
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