Zipongo Featured in the New York Times

How to Get Your Startup Covered by the New York Times

In my 12+ years working with CEOs of healthcare technology startups, I can count on a single hand the number of opening discussions that didn’t include this phrase: “We want to be in the New York Times.”

The expectation among tech entrepreneurs that the nation’s newspaper of record will jump at the chance to write about them is as common as it is unrealistic. This is especially true in healthcare IT, where only a handful of companies sell directly to consumers.

The Times coverage of healthcare IT seems to consist almost entirely of IBM Watson Health (it helps to be one of the world’s great brands) and the IT initiatives of large health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Conspicuously absent from their coverage is your average startup with a Series A round in the low 8-figures and two or three marquis clients who may or may not be willing to talk to the press.

The odds of such a company getting ink in the New York Times are slightly worse than the odds of being struck by lightning while speeding.

Lightning Strikes

And yet, sometimes, under the right circumstances and with the right preparation … lightning does strike.

Case in point. Zipongo is a three-year-old San Francisco-based startup with about 50 employees, $10 million in funding, and one brilliant idea.  Founder and CEO Jason Langheier, MD, MPH, helped launch the pediatric obesity clinic at Boston Medical Center.  The weight loss program was a great success but Langheier wasn’t satisfied. Millions of overweight American kids could benefit from the program, he knew, and yet it just couldn’t scale within the hospital setting.

Determined to help reverse the nation’s obesity epidemic, Langheier built an application in his “spare” time while earning a medical degree from Duke in three years.  And so Zipongo was born. The full story is slightly more complex but Langheier had hit upon an idea whose time had come. Zipongo helps self-insured employers and payers keep their employees and members healthy by making it easy for them to eat healthy.

Read All About It!

I could tell you how they do it but why bother when you can read a much more compelling description of Zipongo’s success with customers like Google and IBM in the Feb. 21, 2016 edition of the New York Times: Wellness App Aims to Improve Workplace Nutrition, by Times staff writer Stephanie Strom.

Wade in!  You won’t be the first.  Within one day of the story’s appearance in the national edition of the Times, Zipongo had received 40 hot inbound leads and Langheier’s inbox was overflowing with congratulatory notes from folks who’d crawled out of the woodwork to restart old business conversations.

How We Did It

There were at least three primary ingredients involved in Zipongo’s New York Times debut.

  1. A Lot of Preparation (identify news trends). Our first job in targeting the Times was to prepare a solid news pitch designed specifically to appeal to national mainstream business journalists. The strategy we ultimately developed was the byproduct of an hours’-long brainstorming session to assess Zipongo’s market appeal and identify supporting news trends. Zipongo had already decided to build a marketing campaign around new nutritional requirements of the Affordable Care Act. An evergreen news topic, the ACA made the perfect news star on which to hitch the Zipongo wagon. But a trend is meaningless to journalists without living examples.  We needed an A-list Zipongo customer who would verify that Zipongo fit the trend (in this case, that they helped employers satisfy the new ACA requirement more cost effectively than they otherwise could). Here luck played a role.  IBM had just become Zipongo’s newest customer, signing up to provide the app for their tens of thousands of U.S. employees. The agreement with one of the world’s top brands hadn’t been publicized, so it made the perfect fodder for a New York Times pitch.
  2. Target Beyond the Obvious. When pitching a story about a major technology company like IBM, the obvious route is to pitch Steve Lohr, the Times’ IBM beat reporter.  While we’ve worked with Lohr on numerous occasions, we decided to focus instead on the paper’s food business writer, Stephanie Strom.  Strom has a history of covering big brands and nutrition, so the Zipongo story was likely to appeal to her interests.  A little research revealed that she would be moderating a panel at a Napa, Calif. food conference where Langheier was scheduled to speak in the coming weeks. We let fly the pitch and – Bingo! Strom agreed to meet Langheier in Napa and hear what he had to say.
  3. Let Your Client Work Their Magic. This is definitely an ingredient in the Zipongo story but not one for which we can take any credit. The best that a PR agency can hope to accomplish is to put your client in front of a top journalist and let them make the sale. For phone interviews, it’s imperative to prepare novice media representatives with some hefty media training.  In-person interviews, on the other hand, live or die with the interviewee’s ability to establish an emotional connection with the interviewer. Here, Langheier more than held up his end. He so wowed Strom that she ended up interviewing not just IBM but Google and several Zipongo end-users as well. The result was better than we could have hoped for – a full-fledged company profile that ran to 24 paragraphs.

Admittedly, the stars aligned for this win. Very few small startups have a product as cool as Zipongo’s, and one that aligns with a major national news story like the ACA.  Fewer still have an A-list customer like IBM whose brand commands mainstream media attention. But without the right preparation and execution, and lacking a keen understanding of what drives coverage, even Zipongo’s amazing story would have gone untold by the New York Times.


What HIT Writing Needs is More Cowbell

When I first started writing on healthcare and health IT (HIT) topics, one of the pieces of advice I was given was that anything I write should keep in mind that the audience is highly educated, with advanced degrees and serious mindsets. Basically Ferris Buehler’s teacher. Buehler? Buehler?

But if the headline to this blog post made you smile, conjuring up visions of Will Farrell in a shirt two sizes too small and Christopher Walken being, well, Christopher Walken, it proved an important point: At the end of the day, clinicians and HIT leaders put their pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else. Even if they don’t make hit records once their pants are on.

Think about how major brands such as Coca-Cola, Budweiser, BMW or various movie studios promote their products. They don’t have separate ads or PR campaigns for clinicians or HIT leaders because “normal” consumer advertising doesn’t work on them.

No one drinks one brand of soda or beer over another because of data or logic. They all make you fat and lazy. They do it because they like the taste and/or identify with the brand image. When physicians plunk down money for that highly coveted BWM, it’s not because of gas mileage research; it’s because they’re sure they’ll look cool driving it. And as Star Wars: The Force Awakens was setting its box office records, it was doubtless doing it with plenty of clinicians and healthcare technology leaders in the audience. At least some dressed as Wookies.

Introducing an unfamiliar or complex topic by relating it to something readers already know and like can help draw them in and get them to a basic understanding of the value proposition much faster than a pure lecture on the facts. For examples, look here and here.

Yes, there is a time to be serious and straightforward, such as in a journal article or a white paper. But in many other materials, a reference to pop culture, common quotes or other more consumer-oriented areas can put just the right amount of cowbell into your message.

What do you think? Does writing for healthcare and HIT need to be boring? Have you tried taking a more consumer-oriented approach to explaining complex topics? If so, has it been successful?



One Factor that Will Kill a Corporate Blog

Having a corporate blog is a great idea. After all, a blog can:

  • Build SEO and attract visitors to your site
  • Provide a platform for exchanging ideas with prospects and customers
  • Strengthen your brand
  • Serve as the hub of your content marketing efforts
  • Establish you as thought leaders in the industry

This last bullet point—establishing thought leadership—has been a major motivator of most of the companies I have helped launch a corporate blog. They want a venue for sharing the innovative ideas they bring to the market, and they want to gain prestige and attract interest.

But despite their enthusiasm to launch a blog, many companies balk at the effort it takes to actually maintain one. Naming the blog and creating a space for it on the website is one thing; making it effective in the long-term is another task altogether.

The number one barrier I have encountered to establishing thought leadership through a corporate blog is a lack of commitment. A blog will die a slow (or sometimes not-so-slow) death when an organization fails to develop a culture committed to establishing thought leadership through content marketing.

Establishing this kind of culture can be difficult. The following are two straightforward tips that make the task doable.

  1. The executive team must lead the way. This seems like a no-brainer, but it is by no means easy. Executives are busy. They are also the main thought leaders in the organization, and they have the clout to drive participation in the blogging effort.
  2. The marketing team must recruit additional thought leaders in the organization to take the pressure off of executives. These thought leaders must receive formal responsibility to share their insights with blog writers, and executives must empower them with time to participate.

Naturally, executives and other team members shouldn’t have to take on the legwork of maintaining a corporate blog. After all, that’s what writers like me are for. Nevertheless, their insights are absolutely essential for establishing thought leadership. With enough participants, a 30-minute interview every other month is all the time it will take out of their busy schedules.


Handle PR Like Donald Trump

PR Tips from The Donald

Politics is one of those things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company. However, as a nation, we can’t seem to quit talking about the phenomenon of Presidential Candidate Donald Trump.

Regardless of your political leanings, Trump is fascinating to consider from a PR/branding perspective. While on the one hand he seems to be breaking all the traditional campaigning rules, he’s clearly figured out what it takes to make headlines on a daily basis and sell the Trump brand. Consider some of his more successful tactics:

Concise, consistent, and often provocative messaging. Trump speaks in soundbites that can be easily quoted in a 140-character Tweet. He is, after all, the guy who mainstreamed the expression, “You’re fired!” Along the campaign trail he’s delivered one quotable comment after another as he has called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” his fellow candidates “liars” and “cheats,” and himself “really rich” and “very handsome.” His promise to supporters boils down to the simple statement that he will “make America great again.”

Authenticity. Trump seemingly says what he thinks and does not sugar-coat it. He is who he is, bad hair and all, and makes no apologies for offensive remarks. Whether true or contrived, he talks bluntly off the cuff, repeats himself and his message often, and remains consistent.

Controlling the story. Trump has learned how to control the story of the day to his benefit. Rather than discuss how he didn’t win Iowa, Trump shifted the messaging and focused on Ted Cruz and his campaign’s fabrication of a story that Ben Carson was dropping out. Instead of talking about his decision to miss a debate, Trump orchestrated a benefit for veterans to occur at the same time as the missed debate. Trump spins the news to put himself in the best possible light.

KISS principle. As in, keep it simple, stupid, Trump keeps his speeches on about an 4th grade level versus the 8th grade level of his competitors. Sure he’s short on details, but Trump knows his audience doesn’t want to hear about the minutia of an economics program; they just want to be assured that Trump will make America great again.

Whether The Donald would make a great president is a great topic for debate. However, when it comes to self-promotion, Trump is already a PR king.