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by Kate McMahon

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The cold and flu season is here in full force, meaning misery for millions of us and a multi-million dollar marketing opportunity for retailers and makers of remedies, facial tissues, disinfectant wipes and even chicken soup.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week said the number of states reporting widespread flu activity increased from 36 to 40, and the H1N1 flu is to blame for increased hospitalizations and deaths. The CDC expects the flu epidemic to peak in the weeks to come.

For years, retailers and consumer product companies turned to the CDC’s weekly tracking report – now known as FluView -- to determine the path and severity of the flu virus. But social media and info gleaned from online search engines have changed all that. Personally, you can just click on your smartphone to see if the worst of the flu is heading to a zip code near you. If it’s your business to know, more real-time tracking and predictions allow a company to tailor shipping, marketing and advertising accordingly. Here are examples of how flu-forecasting has changed in the era of Google, Twitter and more:

• Google determined that certain search terms as simple as “flu symptoms” are good indicators of flu activity. So it launched Google Flu Trends , using aggregated Google search data to estimate current flu activity around the world in near real-time, and updated on a daily basis. It’s a go-to for health professionals and industry.

• In addition to tracking searches, Clorox also monitors Twitter for discussions about the flu, according to the Wall Street Journal. By matching Twitter feeds with zip codes, Clorox has been able to anticipate increased needs for its products, including disinfecting wipes. Last year, Clorox sent an additional 30,000 cases of wipes to six states most affected by the flu, the WSJ reported.

• Kleenex is promoting, a proprietary forecasting tool utilizing CDC data, social media discussions, and weather and air-traffic patterns. Consumers can log on to see whether the germs are due to strike close to home in the coming weeks. (My zip code’s three-week forecast is “High: Prepare to hibernate. Avoid sick friends and relatives, get plenty of sleep, and continue to stock up on cold and flu essentials.”) For Kleenex, the additional info allows it to roll out a “Kleenex Checkpoint” traveling promotion and publicity efforts in hardest hit areas.

• Reckitt Benckiser, the maker of Mucinex cough remedies and Airborne vitamin supplements and Lysol products, is partnering with the health website WebMD to anticipate flu outbreaks and coordinate is distribution, advertising and promotions to meet demand.

• For chains such as Walgreens and CVS, flu marketing covers both in-store flu shots beginning in the fall to selling over-the-counter medications, thermometers, lip balm and more throughout the season. “This has been a more active flu season than we’ve seen in years,” a Walgreens spokesman told Forbes, and the retailer is aggressively promoting both flu prevention and remedy checklists in its 8,000 stores.

• A more anecdotal accounting of cold and flu cases was reported by Seamless, an online service that delivers from Manhattan restaurants. Orders for chicken soup jumped 35% last January from the previous year, including notes from appreciative flu sufferers.

The business takeaway here is simple: Search engines and social media provide a treasure trove of information that can help company anticipate consumer demand in real time, and failure to do so will leave you way behind the curve.

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