Customer Data Perspectives, Ep. 3: Anthony Manson, WebMD Medscape

How people engage with companies today is increasingly digital. And the life sciences industry is not immune to changes in how marketers, sales reps and customer service professionals engage with healthcare providers.

In this episode of Customer Data Perspectives, host Isaac Sacolick sits down with Anthony Manson, CDO, WebMD Medscape to explore how pharmaceutical companies and life science organizations are using data as a fundamental part of their digital transformation strategy and evolving how they do business to meet healthcare provider expectations.

Watch or listen to the full episode below. You can also tune in on Apple PodcastsSpotifyYouTube, or wherever you choose to listen to your favorite shows.

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Read the Transcript

Sacolick: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this episode of Customer Data Perspectives. I’m here today with a good old friend and neighbor, somebody I worked with in the past, his name is Anthony Manson. Anthony is a senior exec at WebMD Medscape and he heads up Commercial Solutions there. How’s it going, Anthony?

Manson: It’s going pretty well. 

Sacolick: It’s always a busy week. 

Manson: Always a busy week. 

Sacolick: So Andy, you and I had a start a long time ago working at a SaaS company for newspapers. Before that, you were working at Young and Rubicam, you pivoted into pharmaceuticals and digital health where you made several significant accomplishments. I’ve been watching you for a long period of time, all the great things that you’ve been doing. Can you share some of the highlights with everybody?

Manson: Sure. As you know, digital has changed so significantly in the past 10 years. I was involved in the early days of digital advertising with WPP and Publicis agencies. We were really consulting with companies – I was doing non-health, as well as healthcare and pharmaceuticals – really helping them figure out how to leverage digital channels to transform their marketing operations and strategies. It was really kind of the wild days in the beginning, where you could do a lot of really cool stuff – people had a lot of risk tolerance at that point just because they were excited to try things. We did one thing with Metallica; it was a live concert outside Canada where they live streamed. It was one of the first concerts that was ever live streamed, so that was pretty exciting stuff. Adam Curry used to be with MTV, not to date myself, but that was fun. 

And then, I focused more on really getting into healthcare, which was really interesting. One of my passion areas was people suffering from chronic disease, where they don’t get as much help from healthcare professionals on a regular day-to-day basis. I think digital platforms, even back then, were really opportunistic areas to provide that support, even with just providing basic information on the disease and what you could do to manage the symptoms and minimize any complications. So whether it’s multiple sclerosis, or whether it’s severe asthma – we don’t realize how many people suffer from these ailments, and just don’t get the support that they need. 

So, to me, digital was a natural thing. Before Zoom – obviously, you can talk to a nurse or a dietitian or a psychiatrist today – but back then it was like, finally, there’s something where you wake up with some symptoms, you don’t know what they are, and you want to talk to a healthcare professional or somebody. Even if it’s just support – maybe they’re not going to diagnose anything. But to me, it was always a great opportunity for us to provide that level of support to folks that were suffering. 

And that’s before telehealth was even a word, we were doing things. I built, I registered,, and basically sold it to Bayer labs – we built the platform out for them.And it was really a way to acquire newly diagnosed patients, and then provide support to them, and provide a platform for Bayer to get their positive message out that they were supporting the multiple sclerosis community. So that was another one that I was pretty proud of, in terms of what the mission for that website was. There was more than a website, it was a real multi-channel platform.

Sacolick: Anthony, it’s amazing. I mean, I can hear all your experience and knowledge and passion, just working with customers. And you know, in the case of working in the medical profession, really thinking about patient and patient experience, and just some of the things that really are top of mind when people aren’t feeling well, and they’re just trying to find some basic information. You know, do I have COVID? Or do I have the flu? Or do I have something worse? I mean, just something that’s been top of mind for people for the last couple of years. 

Now, you know, you work at Medscape, you’ve been working in a lot of different areas. A lot of the ways people understand bringing drugs to market is, you know, hearing about an FDA approval, seeing an advertisement on TV, or maybe talking to a doctor or pharmacist. And all of a sudden they’re being recommended a drug with some ways it’s going to help them and maybe some things that they have to be careful about. So, maybe provide a little bit of a one-on-one – this is your bread and butter, what you’ve been doing for such a long time. How do you bring new drugs to market and what goes into that?

Manson: A lot goes into it. Obviously, you have the whole R&D development lifecycle, which is very expensive. And as you know, with drugs, you have a seven-year patent life. So you really have to get out of the gate as quickly as possible. From a marketing perspective, you gotta be targeting the right audience. And a ton of research goes into figuring out exactly who the right patient profile is for that treatment – where are you going to get the best outcomes and best results? And then from the healthcare professional side, which is really important, too, which is really identifying, who are the practices and the doctors and providers that are really going to be most likely to prescribe that treatment? 

We live in a world where we have a lot of data, you can micro-target in multiple different ways today that we couldn’t do even five years ago. We’re in a very sophisticated targeting world. So it’s critical if you’re launching a drug – you need to know upfront exactly who you want to talk to. It starts early with disease awareness. Behind that drug could be some scientific messages, talking about, what we call mechanism of action – how does that drug work within the body? You may have to educate doctors to get them comfortable with it. It’s like, here’s exactly how it works. So there could be some scientific and educational programs that are running, that are unbranded, and those are really important. And then of course, have all the major medical conferences where all the research is being presented. And those are critical exposure points and communication touchpoints. And then you get closer and closer to final FDA approval, and then you basically flip the switch on DTC. And then, you have your omnichannel marketing going for the professional audiences, and everything’s got to be coordinated. 

I think that’s where the data comes into play. You really have to be tracking who you’re engaging with on almost a real-time basis. And then there’s a lot of message sequencing going on, where you sequence your messages depending on what one person consumes, or what they see – what’s the next best message that you want to give them?

So one message could be all around safety, and why this drug is safe, and there’s minimal side effects, and that the benefits outweigh the risks, which is really critical. It’s one-on-one, but that’s foundational marketing. And then, the next message might be around efficacy – why this treatment is more effective than others that are out in the market currently.

I think the other huge area today, as you know, I’m sure you’ve experienced personally, is cost. As we see more expensive drugs coming out, you have to get formulary preference. So there’s a whole marketing and communications program. And that’s a lot of data intensity too, where you have a lot of data on the different payers and how they review these treatments and how they tier them. So there’s a whole sales force that just focuses on payers. There’s lobbying – a lot of data analysis that goes into that. I don’t deal with that that much. But that’s really another big, I will call it a cornerstone, of pharma marketing and new treatment.

Sacolick: Some really good stuff there. I mean, when you see the advertisements on TV, you kind of get this picture: you have seven years to go to market, this drug that you spent maybe billions of dollars researching, and you get this feeling like it’s a megaphone that the pharmaceutical’s putting out. but we start even before FDA approval. We have to focus on a lot of learning and education. We have multiple actors, multiple people and professionals – we have to get them acclimated to it. There’s regulation involved. There’s pricing involved in this in terms of, ultimately what the consumers are paying for it, and just a tremendous amount of knowledge that you have to get out there – and do it in an ethical way too, right? Because people have to make smart decisions about what they’re going to put in their body, what they’re going to spend money on, who they’re going to listen to and trust when it comes to medical advice. I think that all plays into that.

Manson: Yeah, absolutely. As I said, it occurs a couple of years before, once they get out of what’s called Phase Three clinical trials, once they know they have good data, and that they’re meeting their endpoints, then they really get into that pre-launch mode and start playbooks, basically. And they start to go down those pathways to figure out exactly what their strategy is going to be. But if you go out with the wrong strategy in the first year, you’ve lost a ton of revenue and sales on a limited patent life. So you want to get it right. That’s the added pressure, as opposed to retail or other verticals. I think the stakes are higher – not that they’re not high in retail or other categories. But we always think of it the stakes are higher here, and what do we need to do to get it? 

And, we could talk about privacy for another half an hour. Of course, privacy is very important, as well – we have a lot of data. But I think we’re all really careful in terms of what data we’re collecting. And the security of it is critical. You have to respect all of those data best practices. HIPAA, of course, is a big part of it. So I think that adds another challenge to doing this right, understanding that and having the right experts at the table, so that you’re respecting the privacy of you and me. That’s what I think – okay, if it was me, what other information do you have on me, and what are you doing with it? 

Sacolick: That’s a really good tool – put yourself in the shoes of the people that you’re trying to market to, and sometimes you can understand where they’re coming from. You have some kind of affinity with that demographic, with that persona. And other times you – I remember doing focus groups with you –  just trying to understand what’s in the mind of customers and patients and doctors. Trying to live in their shoes a little bit.

I want to switch gears a little bit, you’re talking about data and marketing, pharmaceuticals. You also have an entire set of experiences, building platforms out; obviously, also very important. Your work at jobs and healthcare information…you built a digital healthcare platform, personalized content, and you did something called trigger-based marketing tactics. So explain what that platform was, how you went into personalization, and what these trigger-based marketing tactics are about?

Manson: Sure. It’s in terms of being able to sequence messages. So if someone comes in and they’re looking up information, if a physician comes in and is looking at side effects on a drug, what’s the next message you want to get to that person? Frequency is important, but you don’t want them seeing the same message five times because they’re just going to tune out. I think, especially with a healthcare professional audience – these are incredibly smart people, they process information at a higher speed than most people do, so they’re multitaskers. When you go to the doctor, and they’re on the computer, they’re asking you questions, and a nurse comes in, fires off three things – most of the time, they’re multitasking. They can consume information, so don’t waste their time. Get them the right message at the right time. And that’s where trigger marketing comes into play. 

So, if I see one message, then trigger another message. If you go to a website and trigger an email that goes out within 24 hours that says, “hey, you might be interested in checking out our exhibit booth at the major medical conference coming up next month,” then if they go to that conference, send them another thing that says, “hey, would you like to join one of our free webinars with the leading medical experts in this in this field, you might know them, you went to medical school with them,” – and then invite them to the webinar. It’s all about triggering the next best message or action. And we didn’t have the tools even 10 years ago that we have today. Now we have sophisticated targeting and personalization tools and CDPs and we’ve gone way past the CRM platform today. We can track people, we can collect data from multiple different sources, aggregate data, and then trigger messages and marketing programs based on that. So we are in a much better place today in terms of setting that up. It was really manual even five years ago. 

Sacolick: We came from the world where journey maps were done on PowerPoint and flowcharts. And you would come to me and say, Isaac, you know, can we go implement something that looks like this, and I’d be scratching my head and saying, well, okay, that’s gonna take a lot of work, and a lot of customization because my CMS doesn’t do things out-of-the-box with that. And now you can implement it directly in platforms, you can collect a lot of information in real time about how people are navigating your information sources. You can tailor it to different groups, different personas, different time of day, trigger based on what information they’re looking at, and what they’re not looking at. The only thing I didn’t hear you say, is just the need to experiment really rapidly with this. It’s not like somebody’s, like, I write a book and the book goes out. You’re constantly evolving this, is that right?

Manson: We’re used to talking about A/B testing, now we’re talking about A-to-C testing, you know, so I think we’re always iterating, and testing different messages to different target audiences. That’s really where the micro targeting comes into play. So, especially with physicians, it’s not just a primary care doctor versus a neurologist. So you have different types of neurologists out there today that specialize in different things. So if you have an Alzheimer’s drug, you want to make sure you know exactly which Alzheimer experts you’re talking to, and make sure you’re tweaking the message properly for that. So I think we’re in a one-to-one marketing world. And we have the data collection power now that we didn’t have before,with dashboards and being able to get that data on a daily basis.

I think part of the challenge is just the data overload today. Are you using all your data, or you only actioning three percent of it? I think that’s a big debate that we’re all having in terms of where we just collect data for data’s sake. But how do you make it more actionable? I think we still have a ways to go to figure out how we make data more actionable.

Sacolick: Yeah. And it’s not just where you’re at. I mean, I talked to folks working in banking and financial services, and in automotive. Anytime you that big decision, and you’re not gonna just go to Amazon and buy a book, right? You’re looking at drugs for all your patients with a specific ailment, you’re looking at, putting a lot of money into a particular asset manager. I mean, there’s all kinds of these large decisions, and we collect a ton of data around it. But obviously, there’s so much you can do with heuristics and rule-based systems. And now we’re putting a lot of machine learning on top of that to be able to make sense of all this data. Maybe tell us a little bit about your experience at Medscape and WebMD. You’re a part of a team during AI-driven intelligence to communicate to healthcare professionals. What can you tell us about that?

Manson: I think everybody’s looking at AI and beginning to really heavily utilize it in certain areas. I think there’s a lot of different ways to apply it. We have a team of people that are evaluating the optimal ways to utilize it to get the best results. I think we’re still in kind of a learning mode, but we’re certainly aggressively applying it and trying to figure out exactly what is going to make the most sense. You know, the fact that you can teach the machine to learn and figure out patterns that you and I wouldn’t be able to figure out. We have tons of data in healthcare, whether it’s first party or third party. Being able to have AI and machine learning determine what patterns they’re seeing, I think is critical. And that’s what that’s what we’re doing. So we’re still kind of in a learning mode. I think it affects the entire organization. I’m just one part of it, but I think every organization is going to, in the next couple of years, be AI driven.

Sacolick: I agree with you, Anthony. One of the things that I think about here is, you can think about the sequences, you can think through the heuristics of personas and what messaging to put in there –  there’s obviously some crafting  and A-to-C testing as you put it out there – but then there’s a timing element. And then there’s a location element, right? When am I going to be most receptive to your message, and now you have a spectrum of answers around that. I think that’s one of the better places to really think about machine learning – when is the best time to send a particular message to me? Where’s the best time to do that, if you can track locations, track mobile devices, and things like that – a lot of opportunity around that. That’s just part of the entire customer engagement and journey mapping and really thinking about bringing together both sides of a marketplace, something that you have a lot of experience with. 

Tell me a little bit about how you build up that customer engagement. So I’ve got all this content, I’ve got all these ways of marketing to them, I’m trying to get them to see there’s something of value that I’m providing to them. Give me a last word on how you engage customers around that.

Manson: It’s hard to give a short answer to that. But, I think it goes back to – what do you know about that customer? What’s their profile look like? What have they looked at in the last 30 days, 60 days, 90 days? Automatically giving them a menu, or personalized feed – we see that all the time, when that’s the algorithm that runs that serves up, here’s your three best friends that you check their Instagram every single day and you see their messages in the feed. Now algorithms, of course, always change. But I think that’s where we all are focusing on, how do we automate this so that, based on what you’ve looked at, here’s what you see more of? Obviously, I’m simplifying it significantly. 

I think whether it’s a physician or whether it’s an 18-year-old attending college, I think it’s the same theory behind it, in terms of, how do you personalize that content to get maximum engagement? Whether it’s an app, whether it’s for advertising, or whether it’s a sponsored message? Or, whether it’s editorial – it doesn’t matter what that content is – how do you maximize engagement? With advertising, the more engaged, the more money the company makes. So you have to look at that and say, what’s that conversion rate look like and frequency of engagement?

Sacolick: Yeah, it’s the optimization of the time you have presenting things to a potential customer, with the dollars that you have against it. And then the creative aspect of, how do you create something that’s truly engaging, that’s going to really be immersive, and bring them back?

I remember doing this with you a number of times, and your entire career you’ve been really challenging yourself to go after the big rocks, big areas where you can make some impact. And my word for that is digital trailblazers. It’s a word I use to describe my next book, and our persona of people who really challenge the status quo and look for new avenues to make an impact. I’ll give you a hint, Anthony, you make a slight appearance in the book, you’re gonna have to read it to find it, and you’re gonna laugh when you see it. And you’re going to recognize many of the stories around there, but I’m interested: what is your advice for transformation drivers, people who are really looking for big and bold ways to do things differently than what’s been done in the past?

Manson: As you said, I tend to think big, so it’s picking out a certain amount of risk, but doing it in a smart way. And then vetting it with the organization. You’ve got to build a virtual team across the organization, get all the stakeholders behind you. So to me, I’ve always thought about it as you have to be an evangelist. You’ve got to really drink the Kool Aid and believe in what you’re doing in order to convince other folks to come along for the ride. 

From the CEO down to the programmer, I think you really got to get everybody on board, if you’re gonna go after something big. And then, of course, you have all the financial folks who are critical, because, obviously, what’s that investment that it’s going to take in terms of resources, people technology. So you got to figure all that upfront and really come up with a plan that is smart. But as I said, it’s not just what’s in the plan. It’s also you’re the evangelist and you’ve got to go out and you’ve got to convince people internally.

One of the words I heard early on was, you know, there’s entrepreneurs that are building companies from scratch. But then there’s intrapreneurs, who are internally large organizations, who are really reinventing that organization from the inside out, they’re going after ideas and creating new ventures and new opportunities, new platforms, and say sey, here’s a new way we can engage our target by creating this type of content, or this type of engagement, or this type of product. I think there’s so many things to think about. To me, what’s exciting about it is, going after something big and new. I love that. I think that’s really what this business is all about – reinventing it while you’re flying the plane. I think that’s where it’s going. If you’re operating at status quo, I just don’t think you’re gonna get where you want to go. 

Sacolick: What I love about your answers is that you’re pointing at the big rocks, you have to acknowledge how important it is to sell that vision – you don’t get anywhere without that. But then at the same time, you need to be able to get in the weeds and understand how to execute against it, understand all the parties that are involved with it; convincing stakeholders to think differently. You have to get your hands a little bit dirty with the technology. What does it do? How do you operate it? How do you maximize against it? You’ve got to be able to handle all those different things. And that, to me, is what transformation drivers really need to focus on. So Anthony, it’s great to hear you accent that when it comes to building customer data and using it to an advantage.

I want to end with one last question I’ve been asking everybody on the Customer Data Perspectives podcast and webinar. What’s your wish list for an easy button? What’s hard to do today, that you do all the time, where you want to gain a competitive advantage with customer data, but it’s just not that easy to do? 

Manson: A lot of things I could list. The goal is, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, right? I mean, that’s an old cliche, but it’s really true. I think with data, you got to keep building on top of what you’ve already built, you know, is it easy now? I wish our reporting, we could basically get 10x smarter on our data measurement and reporting standards. You know, but that takes time and you’re trying to keep up with it, and you’re trying to elevate it. But there’s no easy way to do it other than just keep building it brick by brick, but I wish that was easier. I mean, some of the CDPs and some of the other data, you know, SaaS systems over promise – install the system, and you’re gonna have a magic one. I don’t think that’s true. It takes work to get those things to work the way you want them to work. And there is no easy button there. But we’re all we have to do it. 

Sacolick: I think just acknowledging that it is an iterative process, it is a learning process – the easy button comes from finding and making the right decisions at the right time. And acknowledging there’s a lot of really good technology out there that have good processes, good intelligence around it. But you’re not going to go from zero to 120 miles-per-hour just by hitting the gas pedal. You’re gonna have to do it in steps. 

Anthony, thank you for joining me on Customer Data Perspectives, and really excited to see what you’re doing now and what you’re going to be doing in the future. Thank you, everybody, for joining today. And we’ll see you at the next episode of Customer Data Perspectives.

Want more Customer Data Perspectives? Check out our latest episodes.

Isaac Sacolick
Isaac Sacolick
Isaac Sacolick is the President of StarCIO, where he guides clients on succeeding with data and technology while executing smarter, faster, safer, and more innovative transformation programs. Isaac is the author of the Amazon bestseller, Driving Digital: The Leader’s Guide to Business Transformation Through Technology, and has written over seven hundred articles as a contributing editor at InfoWorld, Social, Agile, and Transformation, and other publications.
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