Shares of Snyder Communications Inc. fell 28 percent yesterday after the company said it will spend $23 million next year to spin off its health care division, far more than the $8 million to $10 million analysts predicted.

The Bethesda-based firm's stock fell $7.68 3/4 to close at $19.37 1/2, making it the second-biggest loser on the New York Stock Exchange. About 10 million shares of Snyder traded yesterday, more than 15 times its average daily volume in the past three months.

The firm, which has grown by acquiring more than a dozen companies in the past three years, announced last month that it will spin off its health care marketing operations this fall, creating a publicly traded company, Ventiv Healthcare. Snyder also said that by September it will issue new shares to track its marketing services division Internet site, www.circle.com.

Scott & Stringfellow Inc., the Richmond-based investment firm, downgraded its rating of Snyder from "strong buy" to "buy" yesterday, saying the company had millions of dollars in expenses that the analysts hadn't factored into their earnings models. The magnitude of those expenses--for equipment, staff and marketing--far outstripped analysts' expectations.

Snyder executives did not return phone calls seeking comment on the market activity.

"They feel they are on the verge of taking a step up, so they need more laptops, Palm Pilots, et cetera," said George Shipp, senior vice president at Scott & Stringfellow. "This reflects that Snyder doesn't want to lose the long-term competitive race. They've got to step it up."

Ventiv will offer services such as education programs aimed at physicians, marketing plans for drugmakers and sales through its own network.

The company released its second-quarter earnings this week, reporting a 32 percent rise in earnings on strong sales in all units. Net income rose to $23.3 million, from $17.7 million in the same period a year earlier.

Snyder had 1998 net income of $22.8 million, and 1998 sales of $815.3 million.

Daniel Snyder, chairman and chief executive, is also principal owner of the Washington Redskins, which and several partners bought in May for $800 million. The purchase price was the highest ever for a North American sports franchise.

Shipp remains high on Snyder, despite his firm's rating cut and the market beating. He explained that such a sharp drop is to be expected "any time that you've had a company that's been a consistent success and beating expectations, and there's an interruption in that trend."

Added Shipp, "Whether I think it's reasonable or not, we all learned how investors react: Sell first and ask questions later."