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Programmatic Media in Healthcare: The Creepy Line

How to walk the very fine line between smart programmatic targeting and downright creepy healthcare ads.

digital media strategist kc truth advertising agency nick fritz

By Nick Fritz, Digital Media Strategist

We all remember the first time we saw a uniquely targeted ad served to us online. In my case, it was a Zappos ad showing me the exact pair of shoes I looked at a week before but didn’t buy (should’ve bought them; regret it deeply). Whatever the case, when this technology was introduced, it made people uncomfortable. Online users felt this was a breach of privacy and that advertisers shouldn’t be able to target them based on their browsing history and habits. Over time this has become less and less of an issue. People began to understand that the kind of shoes you like isn’t hyper-personal information.

Healthcare, however, is a hyper-personal subject. With healthcare ads, it can be very easy to go from being a friendly advertiser to an online media stalker. To navigate this space, we need to recognize and understand the three lines of programmatic targeting in healthcare media strategy.

First, there’s the Unrestricted line.

healthcare programmatic media unrestricted line

At this line, ads will be served to anyone and everyone regardless of who they are or what they do online. This is the lowest level of targeting possible.

Next up is the Legal line.

healthcare programmatic media unrestricted legal line

HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) neatly draws this line for us. HIPAA protects all “individually identifiable health information.” Basically, any healthcare information that could potentially single out a person is strictly off limits. Any health data beyond this limit doesn’t exist publicly.

And finally, there’s the Creepy line.

healthcare programmatic media creepy

The Creepy line falls somewhere between the previous two lines. This is the point where a user feels like an advertiser knows maybe a bit too much about them and starts to feel uncomfortable. Depending on the healthcare solutions that are being promoted, this line will shift around.

Take a very sensitive issue (sexually transmitted infections for example): the creepy line will slide to the left and be close to the Unrestricted line. These users don’t want to feel like the internet somehow knows that they have an STI. Getting too targeted with these ads will instantly turn a user off to an advertiser. See how this looks below:

healthcare programmatic media creepy sti

Targeting a very general condition or service (think cold/flu prevention) will start to push the Creepy line further to the right, and closer towards the Legal line. Everyone suffers from these issues. Thus, getting more targeted will not feel like a breach of privacy to the users. See below for an example:

healthcare programmatic media creepy line cold flu

There is no one-size-fits-all, 100% always completely correct answer as to where the Creepy line is. The key is to understand your target audience and how sensitive the issue is, to find the correct place to put a campaign’s Creepy line.