More patients: Discover 15 unicorn startups’ favorite marketing channels

“Roman doesn’t lend itself to the typical Instagram unboxing experience.” Unlike many other modern direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands, Ro never had a chance of really going viral. Instead, the brand focused on areas where it knew it could win. Word of mouth on social media was out. Word of mouth in locker rooms and personal conversations between guy friends was in.

That’s what Zachariah Reitano, the co-founder of Ro, said in an interview with AdRoll on marketing and getting more patients.

Truly meaty marketing insights on where (and how) to get more patients are hard to come by. In this article, we’ll look at those who “made it” — 15 unicorn startups that offer care to patients — and we’ll explore what has been shared about them publicly related to marketing and what external marketing “spying” tools can dig up, for all of us to learn from.

How do these 15 clinic unicorn startups get more patients?

HolonIQ has been kind enough to compile and share an updated list of healthtech unicorns. Not all 94 unicorns made this mini deep dive as only some work directly with patient care, so the first order of business has been to figure out which startups were relevant. That leads us to this list of 15 unicorn startups in the healthtech industry:

Startups list

  1. Doctolib 
  2. Lyra Health 
  3. City Block 
  4. Ro 
  5. Cerebral 
  6. Carbon Health 
  7. Kry 
  8. Virta Health 
  9. ZocDoc 
  10. Dispatch Health 
  11. K Health 
  12. Pristyn Care 
  13. DentalMonitoring 
  14. Sondermind 
  15. Let’sGetChecked 

Any traditional marketing channels that businesses use tend to be difficult to come by and one would have to discover them by looking for case studies on a brand or interviews pointing out a particular strategy or channel being used. I’ve looked for them during my research for this article where I could find them. It required a little creativity.

On the other hand, digital marketing is a popular tool to drive patients these days and it offers us plenty of flexibility and room for spying on other businesses like a sneaky scientist. 

There are tools available to help find ads being placed by a desired brand on popular advertising platforms and elsewhere online. They’ll help us get a lay of the land while in-depth interviews with employees and founders may help us discover deeper insights on their marketing channels, but it’s a hit or miss in terms of what shows up in the end.

When doing an exercise like this I’ll normally start out broad, getting a lay of the land before diving deeper if relevant. You never know what comes up and the trick is to not expect certain channels or findings because it tends to lead us to look for proof to validate the idea rather than to find what’s true.

As you can imagine, getting hidden insights from other businesses for free and without doing any work is a promise that sounds too good to be true — and it is.

There is no way to get an accurate representation of how things really are at a startup except for working there and having inside access ourselves. However, some tools track analytics and data estimates for some metrics by deriving them from other data. We should not expect this to be precise but we can use it to get a general sense of what’s going on and the overall choices or direction that the team might be going in. 

The numbers will be the most useful to look at compared to other brands’ numbers to understand the general relationship rather than comparing them directly with our own numbers. In fact, to get a reality check, you might want to look at Similarweb’s data for your own site first and then compare it with your real-world analytics data to see how far the tool is off before you look at other sites.

Driving more patients: a deep dive into marketing channels

First I like to look at the different marketing channels driving traffic to the brand’s website or mobile app. There are good paid tools for this but in the interest of simplifying it, I’ve used Similarweb’s free tool so you can follow along.

For example, it doesn’t make sense to look at the estimated amount of traffic a site has, as it’s unlikely to be accurate against our own, but it does make sense to see which of their marketing channels are the most popular. You might also notice that it only shows you partial data on the free plan.

Let’s dive into the first startup!

Startup #1 – Doctolib

Doctolib offers tech tools for doctors and clinical staff in Europe. They have different websites with localized content for each market. A quick glance at their marketing channels overview for the French website in Similarweb suggests that they are big on search.

Direct traffic can be tricky as it can be a part of search or other traffic that wasn’t tracked accurately but it could also simply be people who went directly to the site.

Finally, email seems to be used a little too.

more patients with doctolib and their marketing channels in france

I wasn’t able to dig up any extra meaningful findings on marketing channels/growth from interviews or other relevant content.

In a quick dive into the keywords for the French site in a tool called SEMRush and we can see that they rank for. It appears as if a fair portion of the traffic is from branded searches, meaning that their customers already know about the name and are likely using search as an easy logistical way to reach their website rather than discovering the brand for the first time.

On the other hand, on the German sister site, we can see that they rank more for SEO-related keywords (first shown in German and then translated to English in the screenshots below).

Startup #2 – Lyra Health

Lyra Health is described as “Lyra is a digital tech startup that provides mental health benefits for large employers such as Starbucks, Uber and Morgan Stanley.”

Looking at their marketing channels, we can see that they follow the same pattern as Doctolib but skewed more towards direct traffic than search.

Since they focus on B2B, it makes sense that these keywords are branded – they likely have a corporate team that sells and then the employees go looking for the site directly to access their benefits.

The team at Lyra Health was asked about growth and their numbers in an interview:

“Are you able to quantify those goals? For instance, does Lyra have a target number on how many members and employers it wishes to add, and by how much it wants to grow its network?”

But wasn’t ready to share:

“We’ll keep those [numbers] to ourselves right now. But if you look at what we did in 2020, it gives a good sense of both the need and the opportunity. We roughly doubled our employer partners in 2020, and finished the year around 75 partners. We similarly expanded members with access to care to over 2 million.”

Startup #3 – City Block

City Block is a startup that provides care to Medicaid and low-income Medicare beneficiaries. They, too, are following the same pattern we are seeing from the two startups above.

more patients - marketing channels example with city block

A quick glance at some of their keywords suggests that they get the most interest within search from branded terms or specific addresses which might be the location of one of their clinics.

Again, this suggests that one already knew about the brand before searching and that it was simply the easiest way to find their website.

I did find some interviews with the founder and employees but they didn’t mention marketing or marketing channels.

Startup #4 – Ro

Ro helps with erectile dysfunction, hair loss, and other problems specifically for men. They appear to be more apparent on search than the other startups we looked at, but the pattern repeats itself.

ro, the unicorn startup and how they get more patients

If we look at the top keywords they rank for, we can see there are lots of branded traffic but also a portion of keywords that are discovery-related.

That makes a lot of sense as it was mentioned in an interview that “Ro is building a competitor to WebMD betting that educating customers will be worth it – even if people say SEO is dead due to more space for ads on Google now, healthcare content seem to follow the opposite pattern”.

An article by the founder also pointed out that: “As a patient, if I have a rash on my foot, I want to get it taken care of as soon as possible. But, I don’t know what treatment is necessary or where to look for it. Should I set up an appointment with a podiatrist, a dermatologist, or my primary care doctor?

That’s a question many patients find themselves asking. In fact, a survey of Ro patients revealed that 76% weren’t always aware which in-person provider to see for their specific health need before getting care through our platform.


For instance, our TV spots for hair loss will speak directly to patients about what they want, an affordable way to address their hair loss problem, and what they need, a high-quality treatment prescribed by a doctor they can trust. 

Our marketing directly answers the questions that patients are thinking about constantly: What can I do about my thinning hair so that it looks good at my wedding? How can I lose weight to be healthier for my kids? How can I stop seasonal allergies from ruining my vacation? How can I be proactive about my acne?”.

The same article also suggested that they do ads in the subway and around MLB (major league baseball) since it’s popular for their demographic.

Another article suggested that “Ro uses OOH ads again to diversity the risk from digital ads e.g. on Tiktok”. Finally, yet another suggests that Ro partners with Walmart.

Ro also said this to AdRoll about their marketing:

“Playing in a space where customers don’t want to be associated with the brands they use can be a tough proposition. Or, as Reitano says, “Roman doesn’t lend itself to the typical Instagram unboxing experience.” Unlike many other modern direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands, Ro never had a chance of really going viral. Instead, the brand focused on areas where it knew it could win. Word of mouth on social media was out. Word of mouth in locker rooms and personal conversations between guy friends was in.

And since most of Ro’s competitors at the time of their launch were shady, off-brand online pharmacies, many of which sold counterfeit drugs, they were able to leverage press and other publication mentions to win the SEO game. Rather than following the traditional D2C playbook, the brand took a very traditional approach to getting their name out and made it work.”

Startup #5 – Cerebral

Cerebral helps with anxiety, depression, and insomnia and offers prescriber visits, therapy, counseling, and prescriptions delivered to your door.

Once again the patterns in marketing channels continue.

more patients for cerebral

And lots of their traffic appears to come from branded keywords.

According to this article, they are being investigated by the DOH for some of their marketing campaigns. They specifically got flagged for Instagram and Tiktok ads, for breaching the advertising regulations around mental health.

Another article suggests that they’ve done TV ads too.

Startup #6 – Carbon Health

Carbon Health’s value proposition is a clinic network without subscriptions.

At this point, I feel as if I’m repeating myself with the marketing channels so let’s move forward.

carbon clinic and getting more patients

They also have lots of branded search terms driving traffic.

Some articles do suggest an offline partnership with John Muir Health in the Bay area and a partnership with the telehealth startup Hims & Hers.

Startup #7 – Kry

This one turned out a little tricky as the startup operates in several different markets, with localized sites and their main website seemingly for general brand purposes. This might help explain why there is no data:

Diving into each individual market and their website, this is what I found:


more patients - kry health example in the french market

The UK:




more patients for Kry in Norway

The pattern speaks for itself, with search being a big part of their digital side.

The main website didn’t get much traffic from anywhere, so the keywords aren’t that important:

…but the markets do:

Sweden shows a mix of branded and non-branded search terms:

Translated into English:

In the UK:

In Germany:

Translated into English:

In Norway:

Translated into English:

In France:

Translated into English:

Some articles or case studies suggest that they’ve worked with a few different partners on performance marketing and patient acquisition. Besides that, they’ve also been opening physical clinics as a growth project along with running offline ads.

Startup #8 – Virta Health

Virta Health works on type 2 diabetes reversal and it is pointed out in this article that their “Digital health consumers are still disproportionately middle aged and high income earners. Meanwhile, consumers who live in rural areas, are 55+, or are lower-income earners have been less likely to adopt virtual care solutions”.

They are also getting a mix of direct and search traffic, like the rest of the unicorn startups we’ve examined in the pursuit of more patients.

virta health, favorite marketing channels and driving more patients

They have a balance of branded and non-branded keywords driving traffic but besides that, it was challenging to dig up any other meaningful details on their marketing channels.

Startup #9 – Zocdoc

ZocDoc is a platform connecting patients seeking a doctor with physicians nearby. 

As we can see, they have the usual mix of search and direct traffic:

more patients with zocdoc

They also appear strong in local SEO traffic (no branded traffic at the top):

The team mentioned in an interview:

“We have a pretty strong digital marketing team. We typically do a lot of bottom-funnel search and app download campaigns. We’re very user acquisition focused. We’ve been limited in the amount we could spend, so we typically went with cheap, lower-funnel channels.”

It has also been mentioned here and here (link and link) that they do TV ads to promote the brand.

Startup #10 – Dispatch Health

Dispatch Health brings the hospital or doctor to your home and describes themselves as “when you’re dealing with an injury or illness, we bring exceptional, same-day healthcare to your door. We’re in-network with the insurance companies above and many more, including Medicare and Medicare Advantage.” on their website.

The usual pattern emerges among the marketing channels:

more patients with dispatch health

In the search rankings, we see a mix of branded and non-branded traffic.

Some articles seem to hint at offline partnerships as expansion but with no meaty details while this case study suggests that the startup uses digital campaigns and call tracking.

Startup #11 – K Health

K Health offers affordable doctor accessibility whether digitally or an in-person booking via their mobile app.

As we can see below, they are also heavy on search and have a mix of brand and non-branded traffic.

more patients - K Health and their marketing channels

The branded search terms suggest that people might already know about the brand when they look it up to learn more, as suggested by the billboards ads here. K Health also does partnerships by offering its AI tech to other health companies.

Startup #12 – Pristyn Care

Pristyn Care is a care provider with a network of 80+ clinics in 22 cities across India. Like the rest, they also drive most of their traffic from search.

more patients - Pristyn Care's example

They appear to be getting both branded and non-branded traffic in their home market, perhaps as a result of their anti-smoking campaign for younger demographics along with their ad spots on radio, digital, and cinema.

Startup #13 – DentalMonitoring

Dental Monitoring ​​brings virtual tools to dentists and orthodontists so they can run their practice smoothly. At the same time, they also offer patients tools to connect with the right dentist, along with a whole lot more.

The marketing tools suggest that most of their web traffic is direct to the website

more patients at DentalMonitoring - marketing channels deep dive

But looking at the amount of traffic from search, we can see that it’s very little and it’s all branded/logistical, meaning that they either might be quite small (although I’d doubt it since they are a unicorn startup) or have found non-digital methods to acquire their clients.

I wasn’t able to find any other meaningful details about their marketing.

Startup #14 – Sondermind

The idea behind Sondermind is to match patients with the right therapist both for virtual and non-virtual sessions. As we can see below, they seem to be slightly more diverse than other brands with a little bit of email mixed in with the typical blend of direct and search traffic.

how to get more patients at Sondermind

They seem to have been getting most of their traffic from branded search terms but as we can see below, they recently began ranking for discovery keywords like “therapist near me” as well.

Even though I did find many job postings for marketing-related roles at Sondermind, I wasn’t able to dig up any interviews or articles with meaty insights.

Startup #15 – Let’sGetChecked

With a name like Let’s Get Checked, it’s hard to imagine the Irish startup being a serious business but after showing their $150 million dollar funding round in 2021, the at-home testing and diagnostics company clearly is.

They appear to have an almost reasonably balanced level of marketing channels with direct and search still being the most dominant.

let's get checked - unicorn startup, their marketing channels and getting more patients

Looking at their search terms, it’s mostly branded keywords with a few discovery keywords in there as well.

This case study, although feeling a bit one-sided, suggests that the startup used affiliate partners to drive a part of its growth.

They’ve also done TV sports like this one:

I did notice some coverage of other marketing activities, such as pop-up events, but they were hidden behind paywalls and I couldn’t access them.

Healthtech marketing channels and insights

There are patterns that repeat themselves in the examination of the marketing channels above. The key takeaways I noticed were:

  • Most unicorn clinic startups appear to be taking the same approach to patient acquisition with search or direct traffic being the biggest digital channels most often
  • A good chunk of the participants appeared to be prioritizing classic marketing channels like outdoor billboards and TV ads, some arguing that there is more trust in those channels which is necessary for our industry
  • It’s not that startups aren’t using popular marketing channels from other industries like ads on Google and Facebook but rather that it doesn’t appear to contribute the most impact compared to other channels

It’s out of the scope of this article but one could dive deeper by looking up who works in the marketing departments to see if there is a heavier focus on SEO vs paid ads, etc. to get a sense of what’s going on.


  • There seem to be a clear pattern of the channels marketers at healthcare and clinic startups that reached unicorn status prefer
  • Traditional marketing channels still appear to be going strong in the industry even though plenty of cash is being spent testing out digital channels

By Aske

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