IBM preps Watson-powered smart ads, but will pharma take advantage? Short answer: Yes

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IBM Watson, courtesy of Clockready.

Coming soon to the web, artificial intelligence-powered ads that can chat.

One of the first initiatives, driven by IBM’s Watson engine set for the fall, will have ads that can respond to “conversational queries like ‘is this medication right for my son?’" The Wall Street Journal reported last week.

The question is, how soon will the pharma business sign on? That may happen sooner rather than later, at least on the consumer healthcare side. GlaxoSmithKline Healthcare, the maker of OTC drugs such as Flonase and Theraflu, is one of three inaugural companies in on the launch of Watson Ads set for fall.

As Theresa Agnew, chief marketing officer, GSK Consumer Healthcare, said in an IBM press release, “Cognition humanizes the use of data as we move from intent-based advertising to actual one-to-one interacting. It also gives consumers easy access to information to make better decisions about their healthcare in real time.”

But what does it mean for other pharma companies? And what could it mean for branded prescription drugs?

The upside potential is a direct connection between brand and consumer. Inside the ad, a question can be asked and answered by artificial intelligence instantly, without consumers having to traverse the web.

Michael Spitz, VP of digital strategy and business development at Klick Health, said AI, in this case specifically chat bots that communicate back and forth with people digitally, is poised to change the digital landscape.

OTC drugs are well positioned in these chat ads because people can ask simple questions about headaches or how many pills to take, he said.

“Those kinds of things are extremely useful because health is all about information and a chat bot is a good way to get it (quickly),” Spitz said. “What gets iffy for pharma is the regulated environment. What happens if someone types into the bot, ‘I just took 10 pills instead of five, is that OK?’ or something even worse than that.

"We have to be really careful in healthcare. And frankly, the jury is still out on how well these bots that are on the other side, in this case even IBM Watson, can really respond to people in a way that’s effective and safe.”

Still, that’s not a reason for pharma to give up on cognitive advertising. Klick Health is working on chat bots for clients that can be programmed to recognize problematic questions or input and deal with that appropriately, such as answers that are pre-approved by regulators or those that direct people to further medical professional help.

And artificial intelligence can learn, theoretically making each interaction better, smarter and more intuitive.

“Look for the first of these ad bot chat bots to handle things like unbranded disease information and education. Also over the counter products are more likely before we charge into the world of prescription drugs,” Spitz said.

- see the IBM press release
- read the WSJ article (sub. req.)
- read Spitz blog post

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