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Reader's Digest Pushes Into Health Care Market With 'Unserts'

Reader's Digest is moving ahead with a plan to deliver targeted information and advertisements to sufferers of 25 different ailments after receiving an overwhelming response to a health survey sent to more than half of its 13.5 million subscribers.

The magazine tested its subscribers' interest in receiving information on specific ailments through a questionnaire attached to a sweepstakes form last fall. The questionnaire, which was sent to 7.5 million subscribers, drew an impressive 10 percent response rate and resulted in a total of 5 million information requests.

This, coupled with results of a study by Roper Starch Worldwide, New York, in which Reader's Digest subscribers — whose median age is 47 — listed the magazine as the second-most trusted source of healthcare information after doctors, convinced officials to build a stronger, targeted healthcare program.

“There is an increasing responsibility placed on consumers to manage how to get well and how to stay well as a result of managed care,” said Dominick Rossi, vice president, corporate integrated marketing director for Readerís Digest. “As a result of that, there is a need for drug manufacturers to create a dialogue. Reader's Digest is in a good position to help create this dialogue because of their tremendous database and because of their relationship with readers regarding healthcare.”

Once the results of a questionnaire sent to the balance of its database this month are tabulated, the company expects to amass 10 million information requests.

The ailment specific database, which is expected to be completed in April, will focus on 25 different ailments. Files are expected to range in size from 100,000 subscribers interested in less common ailments such as epilepsy, to close to 800,000 subscribers interested in information on back pain. The effort marks the first time the Pleasantville, NY, company has segmented its database to specific ailments.

The information requests will be fulfilled in the form of 12-page “unserts,” supplements including articles and ads related to specific ailments and inserted under the cover of the magazine. They will be created in cooperation with direct marketing agency Lieber Levett Koenig Farese Babcock (LLKFB), New York.

The agency, which is entering its second year, was founded by five former Lowe Direct executives who have particular experience in direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising.

The agencyís executives worked with Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Merck & Co. and Wyeth Ayerst while at Lowe and retain Bristol-Myers Squibb as a client of the new agency. Reader's Digest is a new account for LLKFB and is expected to bring in an estimated $5 million in billings.

Reader's Digest expects to start including the unserts in its publication as early as June.

“They will be sent only to those who requested information on each ailment and will say something like: ëYou did your part in filling out the questionnaire, now hereís our part,í ” Rossi said.

Rossi would not reveal ad rates but said they would be competitive and lower than some other current healthcare marketing options.

Reader's Digest and LLKFB say the program should have little trouble attracting advertisers because interest in reaching sufferers of specific ailments is strong and growing, an assessment that is confirmed by list managers who already hold such files.

“There's an increased interest because healthcare is such a growing concern,” said Catherine McIntyre, general manager of the list division of ICOM, Toronto, which manages lists on ailments ranging from ulcers to hair loss. “Key reasons for growth are an aging population of consumers who are extremely interested and concerned about their health, and, I can't say it enough, an increasing realization by companies that it's not worthwhile to spend general advertising dollars to reach a small segment of the overall population.”

ICOM has seen interest in its lists grow not only from the traditional pharmaceutical companies and packaged goods brands that have historically rented lists, but from direct marketers of health products, health publishers, catalog companies and fundraisers.

The List Authority, Westwood, NJ, which manages lists such as the heart ailment-related program Heart to Heart and arthritis pain medication Medi-Zyne N has seen growing interest mainly from alternative health companies and publishers of health information.

“[The lists] are growing in every way,” said president Steve Kallet, who noted that he's seen lists turn around 30 to 40 times a year. “There are enough products out there. The market is growing and people are buying differently.”

Reader's Digest officials said its program may have an edge over other lists in the market.

“In addition to a great one-on-one dialogue with readers, this is going to people who have requested information on specific ailments,” Rossi said.

In the future, LLKFB will work with Reader's Digest to further segment lists as well as begin similar programs in new areas.

“We will be looking at what will be most useful to know and how to bring in that data,” said Loreen Babcock, president of LLKFB. “We'll be finding ways to cut the data. For example, instead of saying these subscribers suffer from hypertensive disorder, we may say these are the most valuable subscribers who suffer from hypertensive disorder.”

Factors that the agency will study to identify particularly valuable customers may include propensity to be a consistent customer, she said.

Future programs that the magazine and agency will work on include segmenting the Reader's Digest database for a variety of topics in the industries of finance and technology.

“There are several industries where consumers are starting to have to play catch-up on all of the information out there,” Rossi said. “Reader's Digest's heritage is one of simplification, of creating individual packets of information for consumers to absorb and understand.”

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