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Figure 1 starting to monetize multimillion-member ‘Instagram for doctors’

The app allows medical professionals to share images of patient ailments and seek the opinions of others in the instantaneous manner of other social networks.

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Four years after launching a free mobile social network for doctors, the founders of Toronto's Figure 1 Inc. think they have figured out how to make money from their app.

The app, which boasts millions of registered users internationally and daily traffic of up to 80,000 unique users, has been described as an "Instagram for doctors," allowing medical professionals to share images of patient ailments and seek the opinions of others in the instantaneous manner of other social networks. The app has also hosted other content such as events featuring experts on particular diseases and conditions taking questions from Figure 1 users.

The initial goal was to get professionals using the platform en masse, and figure how to "monetize" the network later. Along the way, Figure1 raised about $11-million (U.S.) in venture capital from the likes of Rho Canada Ventures, Union Square Ventures and Allen & Co. and Boris Wertz's Version One Ventures. Now, after experimenting with dozens of revenue-generating pilot projects over the past six-plus months, the company is enthusiastic about the initial results.

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CEO Greg Levey said several drug manufacturers, device makers, government agencies and recruiters – including Novartis International AG and Shire PLC – have run numerous campaigns that have been tailored to interest and engage doctors on their mobile devices. They have done so not by throwing flashy branded advertising at them, but rather through more subtle "peer-to-peer" native advertising including quizzes, disease awareness promotions and public health campaigns communicated by other doctors. "The last thing we want to do is just be another company pestering doctors," Mr. Levey said. "Doctors respect the service these companies are doing. They just want to be talked to intelligently and educated rather than being sold."

He said many of the advertisers have done little Internet advertising to reach this particular audience, but like that they can do so effectively through the app. In one case, more than 20,000 health-care professionals from 183 countries participated in a live "peer-to-peer event" on the app, where an expert physician responded to more than 100 questions in an hour. Mr. Levey said the unnamed pharmaceutical company that sponsored the campaign "told us that it would take their traditional sales force years to reach that many health-care professionals." He added quiz response rates on Figure 1 have been more than twice as high as industry norms. At least six pilot customers have done follow-on campaigns through Figure 1. "We think this will be a big opportunity for us."

Mr. Wertz, a Figure 1 board member, said that "whenever you put monetization on top of a social network, you worry about backlash. In our case, people are incredibly engaged … Ultimately it's now a matter of keeping the quality high, doing more of this, getting a broader advertising base onto the network … Now we have to scale it up. I think we can build a very large business out of this business model. That's what we need to prove out over the next two to three years."

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About the Author

Sean Silcoff joined The Globe and Mail in January, 2012, following an 18-year-career in journalism and communications. He previously worked as a columnist and Montreal correspondent for the National Post and as a staff writer at Canadian Business Magazine, where he was project co-ordinator of the magazine's inaugural Rich 100 list. More

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