Using Google’s Data to Reach Consumers
By ANDREW ADAM NEWMAN
THE viruses that Google researchers usually focus on are those that strike computers, but in recent years, they have studied those that infect people, too.
A mobile advertising campaign for a behind-the-ear thermometer by Vicks is designed to display the ad only in areas where there is a high incidence of the flu and only to mothers, the primary purchasers of thermometers.x
Google correlated billions of flu-related Web searches from 2003 to 2008 with actual Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data over the same period. Then, because Web searchers’ Internet addresses indicated location, Google devised a formula to estimate regional flu activity based solely on searches, with a reporting lag of only about a day, outdoing C.D.C. flu reports, which typically are published a week or two after outbreaks.
In 2009, researchers from Google and the C.D.C. wrote an article summarizing their findings in the journal Nature, and stated that the new predictive model — now called Google Flu Trends and accessible in an interactive format online — could be a boon to public health. “Up-to-date influenza estimates may enable public health officials and health professionals to better respond to seasonal epidemics,” they wrote.
What the researchers probably did not predict was that the Google flu data would end up being the cornerstone of an advertising campaign.
For the Vicks Behind Ear Thermometer, a new product that determines temperature when placed in the soft area behind the ear, marketers wanted to reach mothers, the primary purchasers of thermometers.
A mobile campaign by Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide, which is based in Chicago, places the ads for the thermometer within popular apps like Pandora that collect basic details about users, including their sex and whether they are parents, and can pinpoint specific demographics to receive ads.
But not all mothers will see the ad on their smartphones. Rather, the ads will be sent only to devices that, according to Google, are in regions experiencing a high incidence of flu. Also, the ads will only be delivered to mothers within two miles of retailers that carry the thermometer, including Walmart, Target and Babies “R” Us.
“Flu levels in your area are high,” says the banner ad within an app. “Be prepared with Vicks revolutionary Behind Ear Thermometer.”
Tapping the ad, which also notes the nearest store that sells the thermometer (“Buy at Rite Aid .3 miles away.”), brings users to a product page with items including an informational video and a list of nearby retailers. Tapping a retailer reveals directions there.
Also handling the campaign, which was introduced in a limited way early in December and will be at full throttle when flu season peaks in January and February, is Where, the location-based mobile advertising network that is a division of PayPal, a unit of eBay.
“It understands how this mom lives and shops, and she receives the message in the most relevant manner,” said Stanton Kawer, chief executive of Blue Chip, about the campaign. “It is so fantastically targeted that it’s really amazing.”
The new thermometer is made by Kaz, which through licensing agreements markets thermometers under the Vicks and Braun brands (both owned by Procter & Gamble), and which also makes Vicks humidifiers.
Sales for thermometers follow flu season, picking up in October, peaking in January and February, and tapering off in March and April, according to Lara Peterson, a vice president for marketing at Kaz, a subsidiary of Helen of Troy Limited.
Smartphones are used by 53 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 and 64 percent of those 25 to 34, according to Nielsen. Google reports that 79 percent of owners use them for shopping purposes like comparing prices and locating a retailer.
Organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommend against mercury thermometers (citing the danger of both mercury and glass). Sales of digital thermometers are up, growing about 17 percent from 2005 to 2010, according to a report from Mintel, a market research firm.
The American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends taking temperature rectally for newborns under 3 months, and not taking it orally until children are at least 4 years old. The newest generation of digital thermometers measure parts of the body including the underarm, forehead and inside the ear.
The new Vicks thermometer, with a suggested retail price of $40 to $50, is the first in the category made specifically to measure behind the ear, according to Ms. Peterson, of Kaz.
“It measures fever in a very noninvasive way,” said Ms. Peterson, adding that the location’s proximity to the carotid artery, which carries blood to the brain, ensures accurate readings.
Because feverish children can be particularly fidgety, the ease of use strikes a chord with parents. Kaz recently commissioned a study where the device was used to take the temperature of napping babies at a day care center, and 95 percent slept through it.
In addition to print and online advertising, also by Blue Chip, commercials for the thermometer will be shown in more than 2,600 pediatricians’ offices for two months beginning Jan. 15, through a deal with KidCare TV, which provides informational programming to waiting rooms.
As for the mobile campaign aimed at mothers in high-flu areas, Brian Morrissey, editor in chief of Digiday, an online publication that covers digital marketing and media, said being tracked by advertisers had a “creepy factor” for some consumers.
Many Facebook users, for example, balked when in 2007 it introduced Beacon, a program that shared their online purchases with their social network. “Creepiness comes in when consumers are surprised,” Mr. Morrissey said.
But he predicted consumers would actually like the thermometer campaign.
“It seems like they’ll pull it off, because they’re using the data in a smart way, for advertising that’s more relevant and useful,” Mr. Morrissey said.