Health media startup Populus’ branded-content platform, which coordinates marketing content around telehealth consults, will debut in the first quarter of 2020, the firm is set to announce tonight. It’s believed to be the first formal attempt to affix ads and other content to the front and back ends of telehealth visits.

The content will come in the form of short spots — 15 to 60 seconds in length — on topics relevant to the patient’s condition. Behavioral health, dermatology and cold/flu are likely to be among the first therapeutic areas tapped, given that those areas have made the deepest inroads into telehealth to date.

Populus’ imminent arrival gives the company first-mover advantage in a channel that’s expected to surge in the years ahead. To illustrate the potential vastness of the opportunity, Populus points to estimates by the American Medical Association that around 70% of all physician visits could eventually be virtual ones.

As it now stands, there are only around 20 significant telehealth providers doing business in the U.S. But while only around 10% of healthcare consumers have availed themselves of telehealth services, those consumers like what they’ve seen, according to a recent J.D. Power study.

Per the J.D. Power 2019 U.S. Telehealth Satisfaction Survey, consumers love telehealth, giving it a satisfaction score of 851 (on a 1,000-point scale). To put that figure in context, among all the financial, healthcare and insurance industry studies J.D. Power conducts, telehealth’s score ranks behind only direct banking customer satisfaction.

Despite the overall high levels of satisfaction, however, there’s a sense that telehealth still lags behind on the user-experience front. For all the talk about convenience, wait times still exist — and in some cases, they can be significant.

Thus one of Populus’ key selling points is that brand information and education can fill the void. “The idea is to fill that space with meaningful content,” said Populus CEO Paul Theisen, previously managing partner of point-of-care auditing specialist PlaceBridge. “If you keep it succinct and relevant to the medical condition, people will respond.”

While Theisen declined to share specifics about partnerships or organizations that have signed on to pilot the platform, at least one A-list health media player has embraced it. McCann Health Engagement president Jeff Erb, who served as a sounding board for Theisen and COO Ray Rotolo as they built up Populus, characterized the idea of marketing content around telehealth as “a bit of a no-brainer from the client side… Both customers and physicians are used to seeing educational content and marketing at traditional point of care.”

He added that a McCann client in the women’s health realm has already expressed interest. “Having had conversations with many of the telehealth providers at this point, there is truly significant opportunity across every category… even in categories where you would think telehealth might not be as applicable,” Erb said.

One such area is oncology, which Theisen described as an “interesting” and “high-value” opportunity for telehealth providers. “In between when the patient goes physically in person to the doctor, many of the appointments are regular and pre-scheduled. That is ideal for telehealth,” he said.

Populus’ current challenge is twofold: to elevate the consumer telehealth experience and to create and drive a new revenue stream. It has already managed a third — namely, integrating the multitude of telehealth formats.

“There are so many different ways to deliver telehealth,” Theisen explained. “Some platforms are video-only. Some are just chat.” One of the company’s partnerships, with mobile ad tech provider Ogury, promises to help Populus navigate the choppy waters of mobile telehealth.

The company’s immediate growth is largely tied to the larger telehealth business. As Theisen noted, providers are currently competing not just to emerge from the telehealth pack, but for contracts with health systems.

That said, he believes that Populus’ early arrival to a fledgling channel will position it well to take advantage of a wealth of short- and longer-term opportunities. “We’d like to have relationships with all or most of the telehealth players out there,” Theisen added. “We’ve gotten an indication from them that they want to work on that user-experience piece, which isn’t necessarily a core function they’ve been focusing on. We’re coming in as a catalyst for that effort.” 

An earlier version of this story inaccurately characterized a statistic about the size of the telehealth market. It has been removed.