R.J. Lewis is President and CEO of eHealthcare Solutions (EHS), a solutions-focused premium advertising network specializing in the digital healthcare marketplace, which he started in 1999. Today, EHS represents the online advertising, sponsorship, e-mail, and mobile opportunities of more than 75 of the healthcare professional societies, associations, and media companies; consumer health sites; and other quality digital partners in the pharmaceutical/ healthcare vertical. In 2007, he also founded Ad-Juster, a technology company focused on managing and reconciling discrepancies in statistics on online advertising. Lewis is a member of PM360’s Editorial Advisory Board and a regular E-Source columnist. He holds an MBA from the Stern School of Business at New York University.

PM360: So our first question is, “When should pharma brand managers be defining their online media buy?”

R.J. LEWIS: Well, we believe that the online media buy should be part of the broader strategy. So the sooner, the better. We’ve seen the most success when online is actually front and center. And as online grows in importance, we’re seeing more clients make online the hub of the wheel, and various traditional media often become the spokes. In the early days, online was often an afterthought, and it was frequently included as value-add to a program. But today, we’re seeing online more often becoming the center of the approach.

When I say online, I really mean digital, thinking about how the various digital connectivity channels are going to fit into and often really drive the strategy. We’re seeing that trend increasingly among clients, mostly due to measurability. That’s why it’s increasingly becoming the hub of the wheel.

What are the digital options beyond online advertising?

Mobile is an example. Video is an example. Targeting is really what’s improving the fastest. So what we call digital advertising is advertising itself just evolved a great deal because of smarter and more creative targeting. All online targeting used to be contextual. Now, much more of it is trying to better target an individual user or specific audience segment. So display advertising’s power and effectiveness have increased greatly, and it’s enjoying quite a resurgence.

The best brand managers focus on digital efforts early in the process. They’re looking beyond the tried-and-true and getting out on the cutting edge—looking at mobile, looking at video, looking at social media, looking at all the things that they can do beyond straight banners and e-mail. It’s about using all of those tools in conjunction, in concert, to drive the most effective, most powerful impact.

As an example, we use a “surround sound” approach. From our network of 400-plus digital options we put together packages for reaching physicians not just when they’re reading medical journals and clinical content, but also during many other activities, including when they’re researching drug information—which is their most common online activity, according to Manhattan Research data.

So we put messaging and access points onto reference sites like Drugs.com. We leverage billing and coding activity by delivering messaging through resources like ICD9Coding.com and electronic medical record systems like WebChartMD. That’s the “surround sound” approach to reaching physicians throughout their digital experiences— accessing clinical content, reading medical journals, looking at drug information, researching coding information, using their EMR, etc.

How does one measure the success of digital campaigns?

That’s the million dollar question. The Holy Grail is to measure Rx impact, both new Rxs and total Rxs. Sometimes that can be done—using a unique bar code on a coupon or through some sampling or survey measurement with a partner like comScore, for example.

But because measuring Rxs is often cost prohibitive—sometimes the study itself can exceed their initial investment— most brands are looking at proxies for ROI. These proxies are highly brand- and strategy-dependent. Some potential success metrics are things like time-on-site or level of engagement. Others are tied to a key objective—such as watching a video—and the criterion for success might be that a user watched for three minutes.

The most important thing is to think about the measure of success at the beginning of the campaign, even in the beginning of the strategy. Before you’ve executed on any media, on any creative, even on any site development, you want to think about the metrics you’ll track, and you want to build all the plan’s components to engage those metrics, so that everything’s aligned. Set your target well before you ever shoot the arrow.

How can brand managers seek out solutions instead of media buys?

The key is to involve their partners earlier. If they bring their partners in after everything’s been defined, when they’re executing media, then they’re going to get a media-buy recommendation. But if they’re involving a strategic partner on the front-end—in developing and making recommendations on the alignment of creative and media—then they’re going to end up with more of an integrated, solutions-based program that delivers better results.

In pharma, you really need internal champions who are willing to innovate and make changes. It’s interesting how many successful entrepreneurial businesses start when someone with a pharma background leaves and goes out and starts something. It’s not that that bright mind wasn’t a part of pharma; it was. It’s just that it’s freed when it shifts to an environment that’s more conducive to innovation. It’s a shame that pharma’s not capitalizing on the best and brightest who already work for them, because they haven’t created an innovative environment. So those with passion often leave and end up creating remarkable businesses outside.

What other benefits can be expected from a digital solution?

Digital brings two really big benefits to the table: measurability and cost efficiency. By almost every metric, digital far exceeds traditional media in both these areas.

Can you comment on privacy concerns in behavioral targeting?

It’s important to distinguish between the types of targeting among audiences. Behavioral targeting—or interest-based targeting, as the internet industry is trying to rebrand it—is typically based on historical destination visits. If one visits automotive websites and then moves on to a cooking website, they might receive a car ad among the recipes. It’s based on the user’s historical traffic patterns.

But there’s also another type of targeting in the mix. It’s more profile driven, based on user registration information. Both are very compelling. Both are very effective. And both, particularly the former, come with a little bit of a creepiness factor: when consumers don’t realize that they’re being targeted because of some understanding about them they may find it a little strange when an advertiser follows them around the internet.

Pharma has to tread lightly in both. The industry has made great strides in terms of creating self-regulatory principles for online behavioral advertising. In July 2009, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the Better Business Bureau (BBB), and the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) all came out with self-regulating principles for doing behavioral advertising properly. It’s mostly about transparency and disclosure. So simply notify consumers clearly and effectively—with an icon on the ad unit—that this ad is being delivered based on data accumulated from another source. Users can find out what those data are and can opt out of that data source if they don’t want to receive that advertising. When retargeting based on non-personally identifiable data collected from a registration process governed by a reputable privacy policy, the tagging and tracking are done with permission rather than through anonymous observation.

In the long run, I think, consumers will welcome improved targeting, simply because they’ll get ads that are more relevant to them. If they’re shopping for something, they’ll find the relevant merchants raising their hands and coming to them—like a concierge service. As long as the disclosure and the ability to opt out are there, it’ll be a win for all parties involved.

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