Can Voice-activated Ads Work for Pharma?

You can ask your phone for a weather report. To set your alarm for the morning. To give you directions to the nearest pizza place. For movie show times. Sports scores. Recipes. You can even ask your phone grand philosophical questions, though you will probably only get an amusing workaround. So why can’t you ask an ad on your phone about a brand? Where can you buy it? How much does it cost? What colors does it come in?

Nuance, a speech recognition technology company, is betting that—if given the option—people would engage in conversations with ads. The company has developed Nuance Voice Ads, a new kind of mobile ad where a user can ask an ad questions—similar to how they would talk with Siri on their iPhones or Google Now on Android devices—and receive answers that can help them learn more about a product.

For instance, the company has an example on its website of how a voice-activated ad can help a husband in the doghouse decide which flowers to purchase for his wife. Meanwhile, companies such as JetBlue have already started using the technology, and are having a little fun with it. The airline decided to create an ad to help people learn how to speak “pigeon.” While that approach doesn’t help users buy plane tickets, it does allow people to have a nice laugh while JetBlue is enforcing its brand message.

“There is a ‘voice engagement’ psychographic in the society that will love voice ads,” says Craig A. DeLarge, Global Leader, Multichannel Marketing Strategy & Innovation at Merck. “There is also a psychographic that wants extreme immediacy and convenience in their purchase research and fulfillment contexts, and they are ripe for this. I imagine that these customers will not think of themselves as talking to an ad much more than any of us think we are talking to a phone. The ad, like the phone, is just a channel that allows us to talk to a human (or humanoid) to get a solution we want. Ultimately, that is what we are after and so if these ads can get you a solution, there is little reason to believe some people will not use it.”

Of course, just because people will use them doesn’t necessarily mean pharma will be able to. The industry is known for holding back on new technology until it gets a better feel for how the FDA will respond to the new medium.

“The purpose of any ad is to sell a product and using a voice with an ad would be contrary to everything the FDA has said about drug advertising,” explains Richard Meyer, Director of Online Strategic Solutions. “The other issue, of course, is privacy. Not many people want those around them to know that they are talking to a pharma company.”

Meyer does point out, however, that there are some brands using live chat on product websites, such as Enbrel.com, where people can go to chat with a nurse about the product or inquire about access to it. And that does open the door for using the technology for purposes other than advertising. In fact, DeLarge believes that there may be more potential here for customer care and patient support, including applications to aid with compliance and adherence, and ultimately better health outcomes. But that doesn’t mean pharma voice-activated mobile ads are completely out of the picture.

Developing the Right Voice-activated Ad for Pharma

According to Olivier Zitoun, Founder and CEO, and Fred Petito, Chief Strategy Officer—both at healthcare communication agency Eveo—voice ads can offer an exciting alternative to the push-based, unidirectional advertising model that is still the foundation of the industry. And they are perfect for engaging with older, less tech savvy people who still use their phones primarily to make phone calls. In the end, Zitoun and Petito believe that voice ads, if done right, can do what most ads fail to do: Deliver information in a way that is relevant, actionable and personal.

Meanwhile, Jeff Danley, Mobile Strategist at Intouch Solutions, thinks that voice ads could be a good solution for marketers who are seeking new ways to entice users to click on their mobile ads.

“The key to a successful voice ad campaign will rely on enticing messages that encourage the consumer to click,” says Danley. “For example, in select health categories, an entertaining back-and-forth interaction could go viral and make consumers want to click. A conversation with a celebrity spokesperson could be quite inviting—imagine consumers engaging in virtual conversations with Phil Mickelson, Jack Osbourne or Paula Deen (prior to her meltdown). Another way to pull users into the ad would be to offer personalized information after the initial click. The initial screen can hold only limited information, but once a consumer clicks the ad, further dialogue can offer more, such as customized disease education information.”

Ben Putman, VP, Director of Emerging Technology and Media at JUICE Pharma Worldwide, agrees that there could be an appeal to virtual interactions with well-known figures—at least in part. “Entertainment brands, such as Disney, with characters that have recognizable voices as well as some CPG brands with mascots like Cheetos’ Chester Cheetah have an opportunity to create a fun and engaging experience for loyal and passionate fans,” says Putman. “I think there may be a limited window of opportunity due to it being an immature technology at this point, but it could be fun in the short term.”

Putman says he has mixed feelings on the use of this technology for pharma brands. While he thinks it could provide rich and unique creative interaction with brands, the limitations of the technology will make it an ineffective problem-solving solution in the near future. “Unfortunately, my experience with voice-recognition technology is that it is too slow to process compared to typing on the phone,” explains Putman. “Similar to Siri on the iPhone, if you have to wait long periods of time to get an answer and discover if you were heard correctly, it could result in a poor user experience.”

So, for now, Putman mainly sees this as something that could be used creatively for brands or advocacy groups that have an established voice or mascot for their brand. However, Putman also points out that IBM tested the business viability of speech-to-text in the 80s and found three main problems: Sore throat, noisy environments and its unsuitability for confidential material. Just something to keep in mind when considering whether this approach is right for your brand.

Working With Your MLR Team

If you do decide to dip your toes in the water and test out this new technology, the next issue is how to make sure you can get it past your MLR team. The good news is that it might not be as difficult as you think.

“Yes, it will be headache for MLR, but time and collaboration will heal this headache much as it does with any new channel we are faced with,” says DeLarge. “There will be questions related to how the recordings are captured and stored, privacy, how open-ended dialogue gets tracked for adverse events, how taped scripts (that are the pharma end of the conversation) get 2253’d, etc. and etc.?”

While Danley acknowledges that interactivity can be scary for pharma, he believes that these ads actually provide a controlled environment.

“Pharma marketers and MLR will appreciate the decision-tree logic approach, as this will ensure we provide specific answers to specific pre-identified questions, including those related to adverse events,” says Danley. “MLR will also appreciate the ability to put tight constraints on the pre-programmed responses. And the interaction can still feel conversational, even when sensitive questions are asked. For example, generalized responses such as ‘You should check with you doctor for more details on that,’ can address off-limits questions while still feeling conversational.”

Meyer, however, still has his doubts that pharma’s use of this technology will fly with the FDA given the fact that the agency requires drug companies to submit screenshots of online chats or posts. And he questions how pharma would be able to communicate fair balance.

Is It Worth It?

Anytime a pharma marketer is about to embark on a journey that involves the use of a new channel or tool, he or she probably questions whether it would be worth it. That includes everything from whether the investment will deliver an acceptable return to whether the company can handle any backlash from the FDA.

“The simple answer is yes,” says Lars Bastholm, Global Chief Creative Officer at customer engagement agency Rosetta. “That is, if the ad is a worthy conversation partner. Unfortunately, I can’t name a single great experience I’ve had with automated response systems—who either can’t understand you or whose circuits explode if you don’t follow a prescribed path through the system. So the technology needs to improve before I see much value in it.”

Bastholm points out that Siri is one of the most advanced systems on the market, yet it doesn’t provide much value to users considering most people can get the same answers with just a touch of a button. However, if an ad or a system provided actual help by expediting orders or providing real-time offers based on previous purchase history that could easily be accepted verbally, then Bastholm says that would be a different story.

“But in particular, when it comes to pharma marketing, the systems have to be smart enough not to provide misinformation,” he explains. “To my best knowledge, that’s not currently the state of the technology.”

Putman also doesn’t think pharma marketers are willing to invest in this type of technology right now.

“Having pitched similar concepts with open-field search where you can type in any possible question for a video avatar,” he says, “I think pharma marketers will need to be convinced that there would be a considerable ROI based on the perceived high expense.”

However, value is not always determined by ROI, and that is why DeLarge believes that it is ultimately worth it. “The incremental value of this is that it has the potential to bring information to customers for sake of improved outcomes, which will make an extended collaboration between marketers and MLR worth it,” he explains, “as we continue to adapt to the customer and the ways they want to engage us.”

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