“We Led with the Data” - Lessons Learned from a Digital Health IPO Veteran

Developing a successful pre-IPO communications strategy 

If you work in healthcare technology or digital health in any capacity, you’ve most likely heard about athenahealth and Livongo. But do you know the man who led the communications charge behind each, including their successful IPOs?

We asked John Hallock, vice president of corporate communications at Livongo, and former comms lead at athenahealth, about his experience at the communications helm during two of the biggest healthcare technology IPOs in history. What are some of the keys to a successful digital health IPO? What role does data and research play in proving a company’s salt to the investor community? And how should PR and comms pros work to tell the most compelling story across media channels and key audiences?

 John shares his perspective and advice in this two-part Q&A.

 1.       You are associated with two of the biggest digital health exits ever with Livongo and athenahealth. How has the digital health IPO landscape changed over the past few years? And, what are some of the imperatives for a successful exit today from a communications standpoint?

As it pertains to IPOs, it was much easier years ago to look at the financials and the business models of healthcare IT companies, like athena, Allscripts, Cerner and NextGen – they were all public and provided comps investors and financial media could leverage. You had a very clear, addressable market at that time, number for doctors or hospitals - the consumer was not in play as much. You knew how many buyers versus how many vendors there were, and then you’d have discussions on who had the best product, who had the best sales team, who had best marketing team, etc.

When it comes to digital health and the IPO market today, investors and financial media who cover companies like Livongo are looking for clear, consistent ROI studies that show, on a broad scale, what a company is developing is delivering results; in Livongo’s case, having measurable, scalable improved clinical outcomes for members and financial return for our clients.

 That was a key message in the narrative we created and one we stressed to media leading up to the IPO. On top of putting out strategic product announcements, we had data that showed that our solutions were working and working at scale.”

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2.       How did you approach crafting the narrative and overall communications strategy at athenahealth
and Livongo?

 “If you look at athena and Livongo, what they have in common is that they are disruptive -- though I don’t like to use that term -- in their business model or how they approach solving an existing problem. This was key in determining what we wanted to communicate and how we wanted to create a narrative pre-IPO at both athena and Livongo.

I think any communications leader needs to take a good look at the company if they are thinking about going public or about to debut as a public company; really lock in on the problem the company is trying to solve. How has it established a solution? Where has it succeeded and failed? How is it approaching the problem in a different way? This should all be part of the story you are looking to tell.

With athena, the problem was not new; the act of a doctor trying to deal with an insurer to get paid on time and appropriately was a longstanding issue in healthcare. And at that time, there was no shortage of companies selling practice management and billing software to help doctors and hospitals do that. There were a litany of companies doing the same thing.

So at athena, rather than talk about whether our software was prettier or had better functionality, we drove the conversation and our respective point of view with the media by focusing on why there were so many challenges for doctors in getting paid appropriately and on time, and why there was such an administrative breakdown. The way we did that -- and the competitive advantage that we focused on with media leading up to the IPO – we felt could really define the market and ultimately the company.

There were a couple of things we were trying to do with that approach: one was to raise awareness of company, and the other was to define the market. If we could do those two things, then we could educate the investment community as to why we were different and how we go to market with our business. We led with our data.

What was disruptive about athena was that we did not sell software. We sold results, and the result was a paid claim. The way we did that was by putting everyone on the same web-based platform. Most people would say, “that’s a no brainer,” but go back to 2005-2006. The idea that you didn’t buy the software, but you paid athena to get the claim paid -- that was a very new approach. And because everyone was on one platform, we were able to generate a lot of data. We could show where the drop offs existed. We did this through a variety of data-driven campaigns, the first being something called PayerView, which ranked all the insurers in the nation on how well or poorly they did in paying a doctor. At the time insurers were starting to rank doctors on cost and quality so we switched the tables on them and by doing so positioned ourselves a champion for the doctor. We generated tremendous media coverage but certainly did not get on many Holiday Card mailing lists of insurers that year.

The next logical question a reporter, analyst or influencer would ask is, “how did you get that data?”. With that, we could then talk about our business model and the narrative grew. We also issued it at every event, put it on every piece of marketing collateral, and shared across social channels -- it was everywhere we were. It also put an onus on our competitors to produce the same kind of data, and they couldn’t.”

When Rob was at Surescripts he did something similar in publishing all sorts of e-prescribing data that the industry, policymakers and advocates just ate up. Both were early and leading examples of what creating great content could mean to a digital health company. Keep in mind this is 12-15 years ago – the terms content marketing and thought leadership barely existed. That’s how we first met – we were both being very creative and proactive in what we did with content and how we engaged the media and market overall. Despite his being Philly sports fan, it was a mutual admiration society in the earliest days of healthcare technology.

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3.       Did you take a similar approach to crafting the narrative and overall communications strategy at Livongo? 

With Livongo, the costs associated with managing people with chronic conditions, like diabetes and hypertension, is not a new problem. What is new, and what Livongo is doing, is they are going at it differently and providing a new kind of experience for the person with the actual condition.

It’s a new kind of consumer-first model, as opposed to traditional disease management companies. And because of this, we have a lot of data, a lot of research, are looking at ROI for clients, and looking at clinical outcomes for our members using our solutions data.

When I came on board, we had a finite amount of time to build that narrative in the marketplace with media, analysts and influencers, so we had targeted news announcements that would support our new category with Applied Health Signals. We had financial outcomes studies put into the market that supported the narrative, which we combined with every strategic event we wanted our executives speaking at; and we would tie news to those events. All standard practice but the trick was to do it fast and at great volume. We did not use an outside firm so it required our internal team to be very disciplined and move very fast under tight deadlines.

We also spent a lot of time building relationships with the media we wanted to cover the IPO and leveraged our strong relationships to expedite that process and generated earned media leading into key milestones. We knew there’d be a definite time we’d have to stop once we filed, and that was not going to move, so there was always a sense of urgency.

Rob Cronin