WebMD’s Cold and Flu Map Is an Effective Marketing Tool—So Why Does It Make Some People Queasy?

How the makers of Mucinex sell to the sniveling masses

Millions of people with cold or flu symptoms turn to the internet for help, and marketers can use that data.
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If you’re reading these words while coughing, sneezing and rubbing your eyes, there’s a decent chance you have a common cold—which is, as the name suggests, common. The average American adult will suffer through 200 colds in a lifetime. Every year, that collective misery results in 100 million doctor visits, 40 million missed workdays and $25 billion in lost productivity. If you happen to have the flu, the news is worse: Last year, of the 25 million Americans who contracted influenza, 310,000 wound up in the hospital, and 12,000 died.

As you might expect, millions of people with cold or flu symptoms turn to the internet for help. And that, in turn, leads many to WebMD. The 21-year-old site is the No. 1 online platform for health information, drawing some 75 million unique visitors a month. WebMD’s Symptom Checker prompts visitors to key in what’s ailing them, and then its proprietary algorithm spits out a list of possible maladies. At this time of year, colds and flus are frequent outcomes.

Now, let’s say you’re simply worried about how many people in your area might be sick. For that, there is the Cold and Flu Map.

In WebMD's map, the range of light blue to dark blue symbolizes areas where the cold and flu are mild to severe.

Using a combination of geo-location data and the symptoms entered in its Symptom Checker, WebMD maintains this interactive map of the U.S.—searchable by ZIP code—showing how severe cold and flu symptoms are regionally via color coding (the darker the blue, basically, the sicker people in that area are).

The map is a popular feature at WebMD, and according to vp of marketing sciences Eric Trepanier, the company improves it regularly. The map, he said, “help[s] our consumers better understand where there are more cold and flu symptoms experienced relative to other geographical [areas].” This year, he continued, “we tried to modernize the look and feel and improve the user experience” by making the map “responsive to the device you’re on.”

But WebMD’s Cold and Flu Map has another level to it, one that has nothing to do with coughing and everything to do with marketing.

WebMD’s corporate partner for its map is Reckitt Benckiser, a U.K.-based health and hygiene colossus whose portfolio of brands includes Lysol and Mucinex. Lysol disinfectant spray says right on the can that it “kills cold and flu viruses.” Mucinex D was the leading over-the-counter cough remedy in America last year.

Geo-specific, symptom-specific data on consumers sounds like a great way to target advertising—and that is exactly what Reckitt Benckiser does.

“We want to be there on the WebMD site,” said RB’s marketing director for healthcare Emma Howe. “If you’re going there, you’re already sick and looking for information, and the symptom checker is important.”

But there’s more. “The real value is sitting in the data behind the WebMD map,” Howe said, referring to the location-specific reporting of symptoms. “The data enables us to send specific information to the right consumers—cold and flu information to the most relevant people.”

Retargeting meets sniffling and sneezing 

The practice of serving ads for specific products to people whose online activity shows an interest in those products—“retargeting,” in the industry argot—is not new. Today, it’s a standard part of the emarketer’s tool chest. If you’re browsing online for a pair of dress shoes or better golf balls, there’s a good chance you’ll soon be served ads from footwear and golf brands.

The difference is that getting sick is not the same thing as shopping for golf balls. It’s far more personal, which moves this type of ad serving into a different realm, say experts.

“From a marketing standpoint, it’s genius,” said Stewart Gandolf, CEO of marketing firm Healthcare Success. When it comes to retargeting, he said, “we like doing this as much as we can, and we work with clients constantly and healthcare providers especially.”