It seems like every day there’s a new article about the latest trendy social network or other shiny tools that you, as a physician working to build your practice, simply have to start using. Last year, it was Pinterest, then Instagram, then Tumblr, and tomorrow…who knows? On conference stages and in the halls, attendees discuss which marketing tactics they should or shouldn’t be using. But here’s the problem: They’re asking the wrong question. This is why.
Turning Strangers into Loyal Patients
The best forms of marketing aren’t one-time, periodic bursts. Rather, they’re continuous, ongoing, and comprehensive efforts. Therefore, before diving deep into the individual channels and tactics, it’s helpful to put all the contributing factors in context and look at the buying stages people pass through. Patients don’t always just turn up at your door and sign up for the next decade. Instead, they become aware of a need, develop interest in a range of solutions or alternatives, research and evaluate their options, and finally commit to making their first appointment. Only after that happy first visit do they even think about referrals and repeat appointments. No single tactic or individual channel can affect each of these stages. It typically takes multiple touch points over time and across channels to generate more demand for your practice.
For this reason, the key question shouldn’t be about whether to use SEO or social media, but rather how to use specific channels to target each buying stage and how, then, to integrate them all to provide one cohesive, customer experience. For example, if you’re overloaded in one stage, and don’t have anything in another, then your marketing will be lopsided and results will be dampened. For the purpose of brevity, we’re going to focus on a few key stages that arguably have the biggest impact (or the 80/20 if you will).
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Key Point #1. Awareness
Most people don’t become patients for two reasons: They don’t yet know who you are. And they don’t yet understand they have a need for your service. The first one is easy to fix; we’ll get to in a minute. But the second one is not so obvious. Because everyone has a need for medical attention – right?! Of course. However, prevention doesn’t sell.
Case-in-point: I can’t remember the last time I went to the dentist. I’ve recently moved cities, so I would be a new patient. This means I don’t have a routine in place. I’m not creating one, not because I don’t want to, but because I have work obligations, family obligations, etc. I know I should go, but until a tooth starts killing me I probably won’t get off my butt and make an appointment. Translate this to any medical specialty. In each case, from a physician’s perspective you would need to really motivate me and the millions like me by focusing on the gain (or reward) and what I call the pain of loss – the drawbacks of not making the decision in question. How? Speak about concrete outcomes and end results. Focus on the pain points (or symptoms) of not seeking medical attention from you today. Then get into the benefits and features.
All this is, in essence, establishing your identity as a practitioner and a brand. From there, increasing awareness of who you are and what you do is a straightforward process. Advertising (both online and off) is always the easiest way to reach consumers.
Social media is incredibly useful as well, as it is a cost-effective way to have a wide reach. Specifically, it helps re-engage patients and expose your brand to new people through “friends of friends,” influencing search results, and building your platform in your market. Importantly, social media doesn’t just stop at updating your Facebook page. It’s also about thought-leadership, which includes everything from regular content creation to running promotions, getting online press, increasing peer and patient-driven reviews on influential websites, and more.
Key Point #2. Acquisition
One of the best ways to generate new patients is to capitalize on those showing intent (the ones who are already interested and evaluating their options). These people are typing in exactly what they’re looking for, and they are so motivated that they’re actively searching for the best solution to their problem. Paid search (like Google AdWords) is relatively well understood, so I won’t belabor the point beyond saying that it works amazingly well. However, the downside is that it’s getting more expensive.
SEO, on the other hand, is often misunderstood. It’s not about gaming the system or using a number of inane tactics you’ve probably heard and read about. There is a big danger and hidden cost of cheap SEO. Effective SEO is actually all about what matters most – who you are. This in mind, optimizing your website for search engines can be roughly broken down into three easy steps:
1) Provide a better overall experience: Improve how your website is organized, looks, and functions for all users.
2) Show your relevance: Think about who your patients are based on your speciality, and think about how this particular demographic’s questions would be best answered and needs best met.
3) Build your audience: Increase the amount of people who like, respect, and recommend your brand to others. That’s basically it. No tricks or gimmicks. Create a good user experience, and provide enough information (read: content) to answer people’s questions and position yourself as the solution.
Key Point #3: Retention
The best patients today – the ones who pay their bills, remain loyal, and willingly refer you to more people like them – have the ability to shop around. They’re not stuck with a doctor or practice that they don’t like. So even if the first visit goes well, it’s still not enough. Marketing 101 says that keeping past customers around is much easier and more cost effective than trying to acquire new ones. The essence of retention is by following up with the right person, at the right time, with the right message.
Social media is a great way to drive this sort of follow-up engagement over time. It’s relatively easy, and is only limited by your imagination. However, when it comes to re-engaging repeat patients to make additional appointments, email marketing is still king. The beauty of email marketing comes down to (a) automation (b) segmentation and (c) scale. So besides sending out a regular company newsletter, you can begin incorporating more lifecycle emails.
You can start grouping patients down into specific demographics, interests (like the purpose of their last visit), and more. Then you can send follow-up messages every month, quarter, or year, reminding them that it’s time to make another visit. Set these campaigns up once, and all you have to do is to monitor and adjust their performance over time. Indeed, B2C marketers report an average 256% ROI from email marketing – pulling in $256 for every $1 invested, according to market research company Marketing Sherpa. Not a bad deal, right?
Brad Smith is a digital marketing consultant and the editor of The Doctor’s Journal, an online publication that chronicles how healthcare is changing and evolving. His advice has been featured in well known online media properties like the New York Times, Business Insider, and more. This is one of a series of posts on The Doctor Blog about marketing for physicians.