Extending its ad opportunities directly into content, Healthline Networks has added an in-text ad unit that links keywords embedded in articles to related stories, topics, videos or other content along with relevant advertising.
The new Navigator ad format allows health marketers to target ads based on terms like "asthma" or "heart disease" via hyperlinks in articles that launch a small window when a cursor hovers over the keyword. The window might show a drug ad tied to one of those conditions as well as links to similar content throughout the site to boost page views and engagement.
Navigator is already rolling out across large sites that Healthline helps to power including Yahoo Health, AOL Health, Ask.com and Everyday Health.
The company says its Healthline Media network reaches a total audience of 44 million unique visitors each month. The new ad offering builds on the semantic search technology that powers existing Healthline ad options including SymptomSearch and DocSearch, that allow advertisers to reach consumers while they are researching symptoms and conditions or looking up doctors.
But Navigator goes a step farther by allowing companies to link relevant advertising to specific terms across the spectrum of health-related content it provides, including 1,100 condition-focused sites. "Pharmaceutical companies can distribute content assets whether display ads, text links or video," said West Shell III, chairman and CEO of Healthline. "It's a very flexible ad platform."
Shell didn't provide the names of any specific advertisers, but said a half dozen pharmaceutical companies have been testing the unit during the beta period. So far, click-through rates have been as high as 2.5% to 3.5%, according to Healthline, which would be well above typical banner ad response rates of under 1%.
Marketers have used Navigator in different ways -- one leading pharmaceutical marketer created a microsite in Navigator to drive users to new information about a drug, while other publishers have included images, links to information and display ads within content.
In-text ads as a category have long been controversial for blurring the distinction between content and advertising and simply being overly intrusive and annoying. In-text ads served by vendors like Vibrant and Kontera are usually distinguished from typical blue links by being singled- or double-underlined or green.
The Healthline in-text ads appear more like regular links except for a small arrow icon at the end of term. In addition to displaying links to related content and advertising, the window that pops up when a keyword is triggered also includes a search box at the bottom.
But Shell emphasized that Navigator is aimed at helping users bypass the search box by putting access to deeper, relevant information within the article they're reading. "It's a really powerful way to move people toward the exact content they're looking for," he said. "People don't love search, they love answers."
Search and social media advertising have come under closer scrutiny by pharmaceutical companies by the Food and Drug Administration in the last year or so. The agency last year notified major pharma advertisers that their search ads were misleading because they left out risk-related information about drugs. The FDA's "fair balance" rules mandate that pharma ads include side effects and other consumer warnings.
Drug companies immediately revamped their search strategies by reducing the use of search ads and by revising ad content. In relation to its in-text unit, Shell said the versatility of Healthline's new format allows pharma companies to meet the FDA ad requirements. "We have more flexibility and real estate to be able to show 'fair balance' information," he said. "That's the beauty when you have the control over the ad unit that Navigation offers."
The FDA did not respond to a media inquiry about Healthline's in-text ad unit before deadline. Within pharma companies, "the medical legal review folks love it," said Shell. Healthline isn't the only company placing in-text ads on health sites -- Vibrant, for instance, said it's seen a 20% increase in unique users in the healthcare category this year.
Healthline is selling the Navigator ads on a sponsorship basis, either as a stand-alone or as part of a search targeting package that includes ad options such as SymptomSearch, DrugSearch, DocSearch and the site's search engine request page.
The sponsorship package includes the development of custom Navigator ad units and category exclusivity tied to keyword lists that an advertiser provides. As distribution grows, the company plans to add an auctions-based marketplace for keywords, while continuing to offer sponsorship buys on Healthline.com and across its network.