"It is the 800-pound gorilla," West Shell III, CEO of HealthLine, which recently raised $25 million with General Electric and NBC Universal's Peacock Equity Fund as the lead investor. Mr. Shell -- and a swath of competitors, all well-funded by investment dollars flowing into the space -- are hoping that will change soon.
"You've got all these major consumer brands who are struggling to address the aging population," he said. "You've got more people looking for health information online [in a day] than are going to see doctors."
Another company ramping up scale is Waterfront Media, which runs the Everyday Health network of sites from its Brooklyn, N.Y., offices. It started accumulating reach by creating the web presences for popular diet books, such as the South Beach Diet, and found that when people sign up for diet sites, they give a lot of health information that can be used to build a database of marketing insights for health and pharma marketers.
AOL founder Steve Case is also betting on the space, having launched a healthful-lifestyle online brand called Revolution Health. The site is doing a major marketing push around O, The Oprah Magazine's annual O You event in Miami, which includes advertorials in the magazine each month leading up to the September event and a special "O Guide" on RevolutionHealth.com.
And HealthiNation, a company that produces health-focused videos for the web and on demand, is signing distribution agreements with portals such as Yahoo and major cable operators.
Only a fraction
Still, online media is a measly 4% of ad spending in the medicine-and-remedies category. While the category is the fourth-largest in terms of measured media, spending $9.2 billion in 2006, it ranks ninth in online ad spending, according to TNS Media Intelligence, at $380 million.
Karen Carr, VP-strategy and head of health and wellness for digital agency IMC2, said the health industry is still in the trial and concept online. "In many ways, they're kind of conservative animals," she said. "That's not surprising, but what we do see is the amount of trialing and the amount of inquiries and requests from strategic thinking is growing. If I look at the pulse in the market, it's really on the rise."
And because the pharma industry needs FDA approval for most of its products, many companies become very risk averse when marketing online. "No one wants to mislead in the communication," said Bonnie Becker, senior director-pharmaceutical and health at Yahoo.
Meeting consumers online
But the upstarts trying to challenge the giant see the disconnect between consumers' time spent online and the health industry's ad spending online as a competition issue. "Competition breeds innovation," said Ben Wolin, CEO of Waterfront Media, whose Everyday Health Network has the category's second-largest reach.
WebMD challengers should focus on healthful lifestyles, Ms. Carr said. "[These marketers] need to see their business beyond the pills. ... The web is a channel where the conversation can go on: how to take medication and what to do in lifestyle."
Raj Amin, CEO of HealthiNation, said companies are beginning to market their products in ways that will pass regulatory muster and also engage consumers. "We're seeing much better creative," he said. "Pharma ads are getting shorter. Broadband is an optimum environment ... a brand can stay front and center with the video."
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Contributing: Abbey Klaassen