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Rx for network: new ads

Physicians Online, a 135,000-member private network, is hoping its new ad technology keeps advertisers happy and doctors online.

Physicians Online, a 135,000-member private network, is hoping its innovative new ad technology keeps advertisers happy and doctors online.

The technology, which the people at POL call a "plug-out" application, launches a special window for ads when members sign on to the service. That window--a strip similar in size to a banner ad--stays separate from content. It can be moved on the screen, but it can't be hidden or closed.

The ad stays with the user as long as she is logged on, whether she's using private message boards, sending email, or surfing the Internet, explained Joan Gillman, vice president of marketing for POL.

In other words, POL has found a way to carve a permanent space for ads online, a technology that could be used by other online services, which are constantly seeking ways to give Web advertising new life and turn it into a lucrative market.

POL, formed in 1992, launched two years ago. Advertisers, dominated by pharmaceutical companies, have found the service to be an ideal medium because the audience is so targeted, Gillman said. The online service is open only to medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, and medical students, and is also free.

Jeff Ratner, vice president of new technologies for Young & Rubicam, called the new ads "innovative" but worried that they would be considered too "intrusive" because they could end up nosing in on valuable screen space. "It kind of says the rest of our content is not that important that we can put a window over it," he said.

While having a window pop up is not new, having it stay there is, Ratner said. Users, he added, could rebel against such a practice.

But Gillman said both members and advertisers have reacted positively to the ads, which began last month. Advertisers are pleased not only with the potential to have a constant line to the user but also with the ads' ability to directly target members.

For instance, an advertiser could specify that it only wanted to reach cardiologists from Wisconsin. While the advertiser would not know which doctors saw the ads--POL maintains strict confidentiality--the database would automatically target the right people, Gillman said.

Advertisers also can target ads based on where the members surf. For instance, a prosthetics company could give a list of related Web sites that would automatically trigger their ads. In turn, a doctor might see her name flash in the ad box, telling her about a product that she could purchase in her state.

The members have reacted well to the ads, realizing that advertisers are paying their online rent, Gillman said. In July, POL began offering five free hours of Internet access based on this new advertising, Gillman said. Members can purchase unlimited access for $14 a month as well.

Members, Gillman said, "understand when they're coming into our network we're able to give them a break," she said. "The tradeoff is the advertising is there." Plus, the ads actually improve online speed because they're cached separately, she added.

"We have developed a vertical market that is extremely valuable to advertisers," Gillman said.