A Prescription For Native Ads As WebMD's Audience Catches Mobile Bug

Todd_ZanderKeeping up with tech-savvy consumers who demand personalized experiences is a challenge for publishers and advertisers alike. Like other companies, health information provider WebMD realized it needed to revamp its advertising strategy with a greater focus on mobile devices and customizable features.

Earlier this month, the company launched a new version of its app that asked users specific questions about their health and lifestyle goals and also allowed physicians to “prescribe” education materials through the patient’s smartphone. AdExchanger spoke to Todd Zander, WebMD’s VP of mobile and emerging media.

AdExchanger: How did WebMD get into mobile advertising and what’s your approach to native ads in mobile?

TODD ZANDER: A few years ago we decided to build audience-based applications, so we launched WebMD Baby, WebMD Pregnancy and WebMD Allergy. It’s all about personalized health experiences with us so the idea was if we target specific audiences, we could get them to engage with us more.

We built the apps with native custom ad units in mind. WebMD Baby was the first one that we did, which was for the iPhone, and there wasn’t even talk yet of native advertising. We called them custom ad units. We combined standard banner ad units with custom ads that were integrated into the actual content in the app.

That was successful for us. Click-through rates in our apps were higher than what we saw on the mobile Web, and when we added custom ad units, the CTR was even higher. That led us to implement native ad units in all our applications. We just launched a new flagship app that we haven’t implemented native ad units for yet but we’re working on that.

What kind of ad targeting do you offer? Do you do contextual keyword targeting, for example?

We have a pretty large sales force that goes out and sells inventory for custom sponsorships, so it’s not really keyword targeting. Our sponsors are creating content for specific audiences with us.

Are you looking into a programmatic approach and real-time bidding?

I can’t comment specifically on what we’re doing in that space but we are looking into it.

How do you scale your native ads?

With any innovative, cutting-edge technology, you’ll always see issues with scale. From a product perspective, we’re still figuring out how to scale across platforms since our audience accesses us through the desktop, apps and the mobile Web. And building organically takes time, so I wouldn’t say that we’ve solved it yet. But if you look at what Facebook, Twitter, and even Yahoo are doing, I don’t see scale being an issue going forward.

What percentage of your audience is on mobile vs. desktop computers?

During the second quarter, approximately 37% of our page view traffic was from a US desktop; 29% was from a US smartphone; 8% was from a US tablet device and 26% was international. It is important to note that we are able to monetize tablet traffic in a similar manner to desktop.

Is desktop traffic falling at the same time?

It’s actually not. We see mobile as incremental to desktops. Desktop consumption continues to be strong during work hours and then we’re seeing big spikes in mobile on nights and weekends. [This is in contrast to interim CEO David Schlanger’s comment during this year’s Q2 earnings call that desktop views for Q2 were down 21% as compared to the prior year period.]

What kind of tracking capabilities do you offer to advertisers?

I can’t comment on that specifically but we’re actively working with folks in that space to figure out solutions. The big challenge we get is how do we identify users across these platforms and how do we know if the same user who accessed our site on their PC is also accessing our apps. There are companies trying to answer that and we are talking to them.

Looking ahead, what trends offer more advertising opportunities for WebMD?

We see a lot of opportunities around personal health experiences. There’s a lot more we’ll be doing on the product side next year that will ultimately drive marketing interest. We believe there’s going to be more biometric data that is accessed and stored by users.

Because of FitBit, Jawbone and Nike, we feel think there’s a big need to have all this data exist in one secure place in the cloud. If I’m using FitBit for example and I want to correlate that data and make it actionable, we feel we have the opportunity to marry that with healthy living and specific data. The idea is to create a personalized experience that will ultimately drive marketing opportunities.

 

 

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