Service Provider to Keep Consumers' Privacy Bubble From Bursting

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Optas Inc. is pushing a new concept that promises to directly market healthcare products via direct mail and e-mail to consumers without violating their privacy.

Dubbed "bubble marketing," the idea is to market products to groups of people with similar traits, rather than on a one-to-one basis in which marketers sell products to individuals who have the same characteristics, said Stephen Smith, president/CEO of Optas, Wakefield, MA. The company provides e-marketing services to healthcare firms.

For the past year, Optas has been using two new systems, Secure CRM and Secure OLAP, for direct mailers to use to reach healthcare consumers, Smith said. It began using the system for e-mail campaigns about a month ago.

The company kept the idea under wraps and only now is ready to push its innovation on the marketing industry, Smith said. Although the system has been in operation, he declined to reveal who has been using it.

Marketers want to sell products to communities of consumers, such as lists developed by Web portals, inside the "bubble" of privacy, Smith said. But in doing so, they risk bursting the privacy bubble by obtaining identifying information.

Smith said his company's technology allows it to serve as a middleman between list providers and marketers. For instance, it can tap into a Web portal's list to get demographic statistics about consumers without revealing identifying information to marketers.

Using Optas, marketers get a demographic breakdown of the types of people a list offers, but they don't get the actual list. Working through Optas, the marketer can fashion a mail campaign, which is delivered to consumers by the owner of the data.

Marketers know the mailers are being sent to a target market. But they never get to see the names of the people to whom they are sending the mailers.

Marketing to people in an aggregate way is less glamorous that marketing on a one-to-one basis, Smith said. But at the same time, it avoids the pitfall of one-to-one marketing. For example, when a mailer is sent to a consumer based on assumptions that turn out to be wrong.

"If you miss the mark and made the wrong guess, you actually can have a negative impact," Smith said.

Privacy is an issue of special import in healthcare marketing and often presents a stumbling block to marketers, Smith said. Collectors of data on individuals, especially healthcare Web portals, build trusted relationships with consumers from whom they receive data and risk losing them when they sell lists.

"It's kind of frustrating to most people in the industry," Smith said. "We don't know exactly how privacy laws are going to shake out."

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