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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.