Exclusive Interview with Steve Simcox, Managing Partner, HealthTalker

Game Changers Live: Exclusive Interview with Steve Simcox, Managing Partner, HealthTalker

Norm Sherman: Hi, welcome to Game Changers Live. This is Norm Sherman and I’m here today with Steve Simcox, the Managing Partner of HealthTalker. Steve, how are you?

Steve Simcox: Doing great today Norm, thanks.  Nice to see you.

NS: I’m interested in hearing about HealthTalker. Would you give our audience a little overview?

SS: Sure, and thanks very much for your time today. HealthTalker is an innovative, word of mouth marketing company focused specifically in healthcare. Within healthcare we work in three sectors. We work in the pharmaceutical sector, the public health/advocacy sector, and then working closely in the provider sectors.

What we really do is we connect like-minded patients who have a passion for a cause, condition or even a treatment option and we motivate these patients to participate in authentic grassroots movements and we ask them to spread the word to their friends, family and networks and what we do is provide compliant, off line and online resources to fuel their conversations. It’s worth knowing that in healthcare what HealthTalker does is provide trust and credibility and receptivity that consumers have for receiving and acting on information that they get from somebody that they know and trust.

These HealthTalkers then go out and have tens of thousands of face to face conversations that average roughly 14 minutes and the call to action is pretty simple which is to have their conversation partner  talk to their doctor to see if a treatment option might be right for them.

NS: So you’re really a word of mouth marketing company in the healthcare space, is that fair?

SS: That is absolutely right.

NS: And word of mouth is an incredibly powerful tool, but nowadays when companies talk about word of mouth they tend to talk about it in the digital space. You’re obviously operating in both on and off line. I want to hear your perspective on that.

SS: There’s a couple of points there Norm. Let’s first talk about the stats behind word of mouth because I think you’ll agree it’s pretty compelling. Nielsen does a trust in advertising report every year and when you look at some of those statistics – 92% of Americans will trust the information they get from somebody they know. I think even more importantly is 84% of Americans will act on that information. And it’s not just information they get in consumer goods its information in all things which includes healthcare.

When you look at some of the other heavyweights, like McKinsey says consumers are 50 times more likely to take action from a recommendation they get from a friend.

NS: That’s amazing.

SS: Isn’t it? And then the Keller Fay group out in New Brunswick who measures word of mouth- really talking to your point about digital – 90% of all word of mouth conversations are face to face and about 8% split between Facebook and Twitter and various other areas. So I think the opportunity for healthcare executives and marketers to take advantage of word of mouth are big. And I think the final straw is what the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, the study that they just completed in November of 2014 where they did a huge study and what it really showed was that 13% of all consumer sales are a result of a word of mouth conversation which is over six trillion dollars in revenues.  I think and we’ll talk a little bit more about why healthcare is underserved by word of mouth but it really comes back to the more important the subject, even the more expensive the subject,  the more likely it is to have a word of mouth conversation around it. And what’s more important than your health Norm?

NS: Healthcare is interesting. There are so many illnesses and diagnoses and indications and so forth that people suffer from that they just don’t have the opportunity to talk to people. You know, what is an average doctor’s appointment nowadays – 8 minutes? Then they’ll go on the internet and read like crazy. And the more stuff they read the crazier they make themselves because you’re really reading more about the complications and death rates and all of that.

SS: All the scare tactics.

NS: Yeah, it’s all the scary stuff right? Talk about, if you would, the opportunity to talk to a like-minded person who shares some of your issues. How do people feel about that?

SS: Yes, let’s talk about that. One of the things that HealthTalkers really want to do is they want to help people like themselves. In some of the well written books – one of them being network theories that Fowler and Christakis have done the word is homophily – you know birds of a feather flock together. So what you see in networks what you see is people who are happy are happy with each other and people who are sad are sad with each other and so people want to belong to something bigger than themselves. And at HealthTalker we allow them to join a program, join a movement and share their information. Part of what we do is we give them bite size bits of information that are shareable and lead a conversation, start a conversation.

NS: So who are these people? Who are the HealthTalkers?

SS: Yeah, we get asked that question a lot. One of the things that is really important for HealthTalkers is that they are the hand raisers. It’s not for everybody.  It’s not the hundred percenters; it’s probably the five percenters. They really want to help their friends and family and people in their network find the answer and probably find answers faster.

So, demographically when we looked into purchasing the company we knew that they were smart and educated. We knew that 90% of them have high school degrees and above. They say they’re the center of their network and frequently being asked for advice. They like to belong, they’re empathetic.  One of the things that we did is we asked them why would you help others, why would you do this, why would you do this for free and the answer was pretty spectacular at least from our perspective and what they said is – If I had known then what I know now  I would have made different decisions. So the whole idea goes back to let me help somebody get to the right answer a little bit faster because I have experience.  When you think about it – think about the patient who has to get approval for reimbursement who better to give them advice than a person who has already done it? Who has already said here’s how you go about doing this and can say – you need to ask about that and when you fail on that then you get to try this.  That’s what HealthTalkers do and it’s the paying it forward part that they feel really good about and which frankly makes the staff at HealthTalkers feel really good about the work they do.

NS: Do you actively go out and recruit HealthTalkers for particular illnesses or do you already have a universe that you cover the variety of illnesses?

SS: Very important question Norm. What we do is we recruit patients based on the program. So if the program is for ADHD then we find caregivers and patients who are being treated for ADHD have been treated who have raised their hand and volunteer for the program. If it’s moms for immunization program or it’s HPV or if it’s colorectal cancer you find people who are passionate about the cause who want to raise their hand and then go out and have conversations with people.

NS: Is there gratification from the individual conversation or do you hold them up and say HealthTalker of the month? Where does their gratification come from?

SS: I’m smiling as I say this – the HealthTalkers get the gratification because they’re helping. They’re helping people that they know and like and they know they can trust.  Sharing their story is part of the power; it’s part of what helps them manage and cope with the conditions that they have.  The fact that they know they’re helping people is very gratifying to them. Also what we do is we’re able to share with the HealthTalkers the impact they’re having together.  The number of conversations they’re having, the impact they’re having with patients who are seeking the right treatment.  The intrinsic value of belonging is one of the things the HealthTalkers tell us all the time.

NS: That’s really good.

SS: An example would be – we have Viking Man who was an immunization HealthTalker. He would stand in front of parent groups for rugby and football and talk about the need to be immunized, not to share water bottles and all the things that somebody really cares about. He’s a coach who is really communicating to make sure his teams are protected. Those are the type of guys and HealthTalkers that participate.

NS: How do HealthTalkers know who to talk to? So let’s say you’re doing and I’ll make it up – - if you’re talking to an irritable bowel syndrome program – how do you know who to talk to?

SS: The average persona has about 8,000 people in their network that they can influence or are influenced by so people self- identify. So interesting story, we were at a prospect and we were talking to one of the brand guys and he was saying how do we educated somebody about this condition and we were like we don’t really educate somebody about the condition because somebody who has the condition and has lived with it for six years they know all about the pain they know about the sleepless nights. They know all about the things that work and don’t work and they’ve read up so we’re not going to educate them about the condition because they live it what we are going to do is give them pieces of content that they can use to have conversations with people and be aware of when those triggers are that someone wants to talk about a condition.  My own experience was when I had a double hip replacement.  For 51 years I never talked to anyone about hip replacement.  Within a week of getting out of the hospital I probably had 10 conversations in that first week and then another 10 and another 10 because people in my network were aware that I had the operation. They wanted to know how it went; they wanted to know about the doctor, about the hospital, they wanted to know about the rehabilitation. They wanted to know why I was crazy enough to do two at once. So it becomes aware and apparent to the HealthTalkers.

NS: So in other words you’re not just the Managing Partner at HealthTalkers you are a HealthTalker in real life.  Is that it?

SS: Yes, I am and it’s part of paying it forward. It’s part of being in this industry.

NS: How long have you been in this business?

SS: We acquired HealthTalker in August of 2012. Prior to the acquisition it was a business that was almost 100% digital and we modified and evolved the programming to be both online and offline. And really it’s a function of what HealthTalker solves. It’s a function of saying hey when a HealthTalker raises their hand and joins what they’re really joining is the idea that they’re going to have face to face conversations. As the Keller Fay group reports 90% of the conversations are face to face and that’s what they sign up for. We give them the tools and resources to facilitate those conversations.  It’s no longer just the digital a large part of it is offline and being able to communicate and share information that way.

NS: How has the universe of potential healthcare clients been receiving what it is that you’ve been doing over the last three years?

SS: This is one of the challenges in innovation, right, which is to continue to demonstrate the value of the program, the value of treating patients, your best patients. A lot of companies, Norm you’d be surprised, don’t know who their best patients are or they don’t value their best patients because they don’t know how to treat them in a way that makes sense. You think about your background in consumer marketing, think about how Mercedes Benz and BMW or Ford Motor Company treats their best customers. Think about American Express and the last time you had an experience with them. They know who you are, they know how much money you spend, and they know how valuable you are.

NS: I have a friend that bought a Breitling watch and when you buy a Breitling watch you get a Breitling hat. You can only get the hat if you buy the watch and it’s his prize possession. I was so jealous I was going to steal it from him. They take care of their customers, right?

SS: Exactly right, think about in every other industry except healthcare – do we value the customer?

NS: Or even who is the customer?

SS: Part of the work that we’ve done is when you ask some marketers who is the customer we got some feedback that said well, you know the patient’s important but the physician may be more important. Or maybe it’s the payer is more important. And so we asked the question – so what do you do to make your best customer feel good about you? We all know we’re operating in an industry where healthcare, pharma and payers the respect that we deserve and the respect that we get are probably not in sync and so part of what HealthTalker does is to try and embrace the best patients and treat them and make them feel something good about all of us and the pharma company, about their provider and we don’t do a very good job of it and therein lies the opportunity and therein lies the opportunity for HealthTalker and therein lies the opportunity to embrace these patients in a way that normally we can’t do and that’s to treat them like superstars, like rock stars and tell their story. Telling their story is good for us. I think that one of the things that makes a lot of sense is that the more try to help and the less we try to sell the more we really do sell.

NS: That’s very well said.

SS: That’s the message that we’re sending with HealthTalker. You don’t have to hit somebody over the head with a brand a message because they’re already on brand.

NS: You’re doing what’s right, aren’t you?

SS: Yeah, we are.

NS: So give me a sense of what clients you work with. Who’s embracing you?

SS: Let’s talk a little bit about programs that we’ve run; we’ll talk about that in a second. We’ve executed programs in Attention Deficit Disorder, Colorectal Cancer, Adult and Childhood Immunizations, HPV Cervical Cancer, Antifungals, rare diseases, Chronic Migraines, just to name a few which leads to customers like Sanofi, Sanofi Pasteur, Merck, Pfizer, Allergan, Shire, Valeant, Glaxo, we just signed a new contract with the Center of Disease Control and the Center of Disease Control Foundation and we are really excited about that. We are also working hand in hand with a number of promising providers in the Medicare Advantage space and also in the integrative health network space really advocating for physicians and networks and treatments there. Where we’re going with HealthTalker is about finding the best customers and giving them the opportunity to share their story.

NS: Here we are it is April 15th, 2015 – let’s look at April 15th, 2018 – three years from now. You’ll have owned the company for six years. What’s it look like? What’s HealthTalker look like three years from now?

SS: That’s the crystal ball. This is what I think – I think as the industry starts to appreciate the innovation that can take place. One of the things that we’ve spent the last two years doing is the measurement piece. We all get asked the same question – intuitively Steve we know this really works it’s logical, it’s common sense but I need ROI information. And it used to be that in our industry we’d experiment and then in four months we’d modify and change and create value but we understand how it works today and so we spent two years measuring program- a program that was around immunization.  A program that was for kids aged 10-18, caregiver moms, the goal was to be protected and 2/3’s of the mom’s didn’t know if their child was or wasn’t protected. So over a two year period of time we measured the impact of the program four times using both prescription level data and dose data and CDC data and were able to demonstrate that these conversations – almost 1400 HealthTalkers would lead to close to 300,000 conversations over a two year period of time and would have a market impact that would return in excess of 5:1 on the program.  So, the measurement piece was really important. We just published a case study on it.

So when you look out three years part of it is continuing to demonstrate the value that we’re creating, the value that the HealthTalkers are creating, the value of helping people get to the right answer faster is part of that mix. So wherever we are three years from now we’ll be doing good work for good people who understand the value of engaging and empowering their best patients.

NS: Well Steve, I’d like to thank you for participating but I’d also like to thank you for what you are doing. People often say the reason they go into healthcare is because it gives them the opportunity to really do something good  – and you’re really doing something good and I commend you for it and I’m sure our listeners would appreciate it as well.

Game Changers Live this is Norm Sherman. I’ve been with Steve Simcox the Managing Partner of HealthTalker. Steve, thank you, it’s been great talking to you.

SS: Thanks Norm – great talking to you.