In October, 25% of all Internet users visited at least one health-related site, according to consultancy Forrester Research. That included everyone from casual health-news seekers and hypochondriacs to newly diagnosed patients and chronic illness sufferers.
To reach these people, $100 million was spent in online advertising for healthcare sites in 1999, according to researcher Jupiter Communications, which predicts spending will hit $700 million by 2004.
The goal is to transform readers from condition-specific users (someone who logs on infrequently to learn about a particular malady) to frequent visitors using online chats, informational exchanges and marketing venues, says Daniel Teper, senior VP-business development with Softwatch, a pharmaceutical software company.
"The real value and significance [of branded content] is that it enables the creation of a community," Mr. Teper says, adding that DietWatch.com, a site powered by his software, has registered 170,000 consumers since its February 1998 debut. "Clients realize that the Internet can be strong in customer retention."
With thousands of sites in competition for visitors, there simply isn't enough traffic to support all of them, says Claudine Singer, senior analyst-online health at Jupiter.
General health sites that simply spew product and health condition information will begin to transform to full-service offerings that sell drugs and other products, and provide content and community-oriented chats, according to Forrester.
Ultimately, the WebMD and drkoop.com sites will dominate by 2002, according to projections from a Forrester survey of healthcare executives. In fact, fewer than a half-dozen healthcare sites will draw the majority of users by 2002.
"There's just not going to be nearly enough [ad revenue] to blacken the bottom lines of the myriad healthcare sites out there," says Ms. Singer. "That means that they'd better develop relationships with their consumers or attract more eyeballs to create critical mass."