What WebMD Can Teach Brands

SAN FRANCISCO While patients cool their heels in their doctors’ waiting rooms, instead of leafing through tattered issues of People, now they can pick up WebMD magazine—a modified print version of the WebMD Web site—and get shortlists of specific questions about blood pressure, cholesterol, overweight kids and chronic pain to ask their physician when they finally get into the exam room.

Even before they make the medical appointment, people are filling out online health-assessment questionnaires and Googling symptoms on the Web. Clearly health consumers are becoming more informed and empowered, thanks in large part to the Internet. In fact, more than three-quarters of people with Internet access use the Web as their primary source for health information, compared to 23 percent who turned to healthcare providers first, according to an August survey by Burst, an online ad server.

Understanding the trends and the mind-set of these evolving health consumers offers new strategic opportunities to marketers who sell a range of health and wellness products, from cold medicines to low-calorie food to skin treatments.

Twelve-year-old ad-supported health portal WebMD offers the guidance of an insider. Its experience and research suggest that modern patients are looking for brands that represent credibility and trust, and which also offer personalization and a grasp of the emotional aspects of healthcare.

Two years ago the company extended its online brand into the glossy magazine distributed in 400,000 doctors’ offices around the country. This year it faces new competition from Microsoft, Google, Steve Case’s Revolution, the HealthCentralNetwork and large hospital chains offering do-it-yourself digital health-management tools. In mid-October, WebMD formed an advertising partnership with Yahoo!, in which Yahoo! sponsors search on WebMD’s sites and WebMD can sell ads to users who go from its site to Yahoo sites. Driving the activity is a boom in online ad spending in the health and pharmaceuticals category, which is expected to top $1 billion next year, per eMarketer’s Pharmaceutical Marketing Online report, August 2007.

“Our goal is to be seen as the trusted source of health information” for women with families, says CEO Wayne Gattinella. The site averages more than 40 million unique visitors a month. Eighty percent of the visitors are women and about a third have children under 18, according to a company representative.

A Shifting Audience

By tracking Web site activity and conducting focus groups and online surveys, the company has found its audience’s interest is shifting more toward health and wellness topics and away from disease information. “About half of the women on our site go to [family] health and beauty areas, and the other half are in areas about conditions that affect women later in life. The most popular topics in the women’s area are about skin conditions and skin beauty,” said a company rep.

Health consumers’ “interest and willingness to talk about health issues has also gotten more open and mainstream,” even for personal conditions that used to be kept private, said Gattinella.

The company leverages that insight to attract celebrities for its magazine cover articles—giving them a platform to share health stories that have happened to them and their families, e.g., actor Patrick Dempsey talking about his mother’s bout with cancer and actor Andy Garcia discussing how Pilates helps his back pain.

The company has also found people want health information to be personalized and at their fingertips. “People are seeking higher levels of information that is attuned to individual needs,” said Gattinella. “They want to drill down to the info they specifically need, rather than gather general information. To get that content they are more willing to provide data on themselves” than they have been in the past, he said.

Online health consumers are also seeing doctors more as partners, and less as authority figures, in the data-gathering endeavor. For instance, WebMD and similar sites offer a symptom checker, which allows users to click on a picture of a body and asks questions that a doctor might ask, distilling the likely causes of the symptoms. The program then tells the user to print out the assessment and take it to his or her doctor. “The idea is to make the discussion with the doctor as productive as possible,” said Gattinella.

Not surprisingly, trust in the accuracy and objectivity of the health information continues to be the key component in users’ minds, and WebMD’s strategy takes that into account. Physicians contribute to the site and the magazine based on specialty, all of the content is reviewed by a medical editor and approved by the four doctors on the company’s independent medical review board, said the company representative.

To further assert its credibility, in August 2006 the company began providing branded content and resources to the CBS Evening News, The Early Show and CBSNews.com and helps the network produce regular, co-branded medical and health news segments.

Rating the Doctors

What do health consumers want next?

Some online health initiatives, such as Microsoft’s HealthVault, launched Oct. 4, are focusing on online personal healthcare records and generating privacy concerns. Microsoft hopes to get people to store their complete health records, including test results, healthcare provider data and insurance information on one ad-supported Web portal. Critics, however, say there are no legal guarantees that the information will remain private and worry it could be used for marketing and to deny insurance coverage.

Other new heath sites promote social networks, a secondary offering on WebMD’s site. For instance, Steve Case’s Revolution Health site, which launched in April, urges users to ask and answer each other’s questions. PatientsLikeMe.com and ICYou.com use social media to aid people searching for support and firsthand health information. Some hospital chains, such as the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, have even started offering virtual medical consultations online as a patient retention, cost-cutting and marketing tool.

WebMD findings, however, indicate empowered health consumers want to get more data about the health industry, not give the health industry more data about themselves. Users want credible ratings and comparisons of doctors, health facilities and insurance programs, said Gattinella. “Our audience has a thirst for transparency and sees the Net as a great enabler. They want empirical data that tells them about the quality, cost, ease of access and service of hospitals and any healthcare interaction. When people shop for cars, they do their research online, but so far in health it is hard to get the same sort of transparency,” he said.

Until 2005, advertisers in WebMD’s print and Web properties were almost exclusively drug marketers. Since then a variety of products have joined the ad and sponsorship lineup—from electric toothbrushes to crackers by Nabisco to mold-resistant building products from Georgia-Pacific to lighting from Philips.

On Nov. 7, the company reported third-quarter revenue of $87.2 million, up 31 percent from $66.6 million for the same period last year. Advertising grew by 36 percent during that period, per industry reports.