Today’s most successful dental practices are capitalizing on the power of social media and the internet like never before. Some dentists are seeing record growth as a result, while others are still falling short. The factors contributing to success in this digital race are becoming clear, but interestingly, their underlying principles are actually pretty simple and old fashioned - based mostly on honest and open communication coupled with a down-to-earth human element. These novel business principles have been obscured over time by phony “corporate brochure talk” and “act now!” tag lines. Today’s consumers aren’t buying it. They are more connected, better informed, and more resourceful than ever before, due in part to the ever expanding power of the worldwide web. In other words, your phonebook ad, dental degree, and good looks simply aren’t enough anymore.
When I start talking about social media, I often hear doctors jumping the gun to ask, “What is the ROI of this whole social media frenzy?” The best answer I have heard is simple: You’ll still be in business five years from now. A little dramatic? Perhaps. However, do yourself a favor and just try not to be the last practice in town to join the party. Because, as my 76-year-old neighbor Helen has tweeted, “OMG, that would be totally lame...”
What the Heck is Social Media?
Social media, defined: Social media leverages the internet to turn regular communication into an interactive dialogue. Whereas old media traditionally pushes a message to the masses in a one-way monologue (think AMC’s “Mad Men”), social media is distinctly different because the marketing messages are now consumed, discussed, shared, and commented on by the public in an open exchange or dialogue. It’s like word of mouth marketing on an astronomical scale.
The vehicle that enables these open dialogues and exchanges is collectively called social networks, most recognizably Facebook and Twitter.
The following article focuses on the basics of social media, social networking, and practice websites.
Important Now, Critical Tomorrow
Nearly 2.5 million Minnesotans are active Facebook users. It’s not just about the kids anymore either! The fastest growing age group on Facebook are persons between 55 and 65 years old. At the same time, it is important to remember that more than 50% of the world’s population is under 30 years old. According to a Grunwald Associates study, 96% of Millennials (children of the baby boomers) have already joined a social network! By participating in the social media revolution as a dental care provider, you are setting yourself up to capture the biggest influx of new patients since the baby boomer generation.
A truly successful dental practice requires long term sustainability, and building such a practice calls for loyal lifelong patients. Trust is a key ingredient in any loyal relationship.
Some dentists with whom we have consulted have mixed concerns about trying to target the younger generations of patients, especially if their patient base has always been older. Their reasoning varies, but the one thing that continues to surface is an uncertainty about relating to them. As a great dentist, it is your job to earn the trust and repeat business of first time patients, especially the younger ones. Barriers to earning that trust are significantly lowered if you can relate to them in ways they understand. Participating in this social media landscape will undoubtedly earn you a real degree of credibility in the eyes of Generation Y.
A True Story
A colleague of ours recently needed to find an orthodontist for his 14-year-old son. So the father did a little research and came up with a list of three excellent candidates. Because he valued his son’s input, he handed the list over to his internet-savvy son for feedback. The young boy jumped online to Facebook (not Google or Yahoo, Facebook) and searched for the three names, finding just two out of the three had Facebook pages. He explored both Facebook pages and immediately noticed that 15 of his friends were connected to (or have “liked”) one doctor’s page, presumably because they were patients, while only one of his friends “liked” the other doctor’s Facebook page. Then the social aspect really kicked in: Using Facebook, the young man messaged a few friends connected to the first doctor and received extremely positive feedback. We are told this all happened in a matter of minutes. The decision was made.
This demonstrates, this is, the power of social networking for dental practices. The boy was instantly more connected to one doctor over the other because his friends shared that same connection and offered positive feedback about the doctor. It is worth noting that this particular orthodontist was the most expensive of the three options.
Where Do I Begin?
Before you spend hours “researching” what social media is, how Facebook works, or what the heck “tweeting” means, I have one profound piece of advice that will change your life and your practice: Sign up for Facebook or Twitter. Approach it as a regular Joe, not a dentist or a marketer. If my 76-year-old neighbor Helen can do it, I’m pretty sure you can too.
Please understand that at this point I do not mean to suggest that you have to be glued to your iPhone, Blackberry, iPad, or laptop like your 15-year-old daughter is, but you do need to invest a small amount of time and effort into understanding the basics of social networking. You can read all of the “social media for dentists” articles and books out there, or attend all of the dental marketing seminars you want, but that will never help you if you don’t take the first leap of faith and join the conversation. Sign up for Facebook or Twitter, start searching for your friends and colleagues, start searching for companies and brands you like and add them as well. It’s not rocket science, I promise. If you need a little help, ask a young buck for some pointers.
When you create a brand new Facebook account, they do an incredible job walking you through the basics of creating your profile, finding your friends and family, adjusting your privacy settings, and much more. You will also see little tips and suggestions pop up as you start navigating the site.
Getting Started with Facebook, 101: http://facebook.com/help/?guide
Online guides to using Facebook & Twitter: http://mashable.com/guidebook
First-hand experience interacting in a social network is the vital first step toward understanding how your practice could benefit from social media in building strong loyalty and gaining new patients.
Set Your Goals and Stick to Them!
There are many interdependent goals within a social media strategy, all of which build upon each other to ultimately create growth and sustainability for your practice.
Through social media you hope to:
• Humanize your practice and establish a voice
• Establish credibility
• Provide content worth sharing
• Foster relationships based on trust
• Create evangelists and influencers
• Diversify your online presence
• Create top-of-mind awareness
• Increase traffic to your website
• Convert visitors into patients
If you go into this with the mentality that your only end goal is to get new patients, you probably will not be very successful. The point of social media is to connect with and provide something of value for people who share a common interest. It is not to sell.
How do you react when someone approaches you purely to sell you something? Do you turn the other way? Will you want to engage that person again in the future?
What about someone who approaches you merely to offer friendly advice, a helpful tip, or offer something else of value with no strings attached? Would you trust that person more? Would you be more likely to seek him or her out in the future? Absolutely. You will even be more receptive to whatever it is they are promoting.
In the social media world, this concept is king. Social media is about real people interacting, sharing, and connecting with other real people, not sales pitches, mission statements, or one-liners your ad agency came up with.
Big corporations, local businesses, national brands, and especially dental practices all have one thing in common: They are run by real people. They are real people with real personalities, unique backgrounds, interesting hobbies, strong convictions, and real emotions. The days of “corporate brochure talk” and phony mission statements are gone. Today’s consumers expect more. They expect real conversations, and depending upon the industry, they are looking for real answers and real solutions to their problems. Social media has created a vivid sense of accessibility to the people behind a company, and when nurtured properly, this accessibility has the power to create very strong relationships.
This shift in mentality is creating a unique opportunity for businesses. Consumers now want to connect with, support, and become brand evangelists for companies they use and like. Social media simply helps facilitate this process at lightning speed. It is still word of mouth, but now on a whole new level.
Humanize the Practice
As you begin to follow certain companies, service providers, and brands on Facebook and Twitter, you will start to see a pattern in the way they write, the messages they post, the content they share, even funny videos they found and so on. This establishes a voice and personality for what was previously just a company name, practice name, or brand trademark. It has become human.
Credibility is Everything (Almost)
The type of articles you share, the usefulness of your suggestions, and many other factors go into building a mental profile in the minds of potential patients. They are judging your expertise as a dentist by the scope and quality of your online presence. Do your website, Facebook Page, Twitter profile, local listings, and Yelp.com reviews all convey to the visitor that you are the best dentist for them? Do they believe that you are credible, both technically and emotionally? That is to say, do you understand me as a person as well as my needs as a patient?
Provide Something Worth Sharing
Many doctors and administrators struggle with the question of what to share via social networks. Do I have to spend hours writing my own articles and tips, or can I just find useful content online and share that?
Both methods are highly effective. The key is simply to share content that adds value. The content should be useful to your audience, which means it does not always have to be about dentistry. Besides, that would get very boring to non-dental professionals! The content could be anything that is newsworthy, relevant, entertaining, humorous, etc., etc. The list goes on.
TIP: Looking for content? Try Google Reader http://www.google.com/reader and Google Alerts http://www.google.com/alerts to stay current on ANY topic or keyword you choose. Browse for Facebook Pages you find useful: http://facebook.com/pages
Foster Relationships Based on Trust
As stated earlier, social media engagement is about trust. You want to develop direct relationships with these people through the way you respond to their questions online or comment on their posts. What this is not about is sales pitches. If you follow the previous principles, this trust will follow naturally. Don’t think of your fans or followers as demographic numbers; they are people, people who have opted in to see the content or messages you publish. Don’t spoil that relationship. When was the last time you opted in to see a half dozen same-subject commercials during your favorite TV program? Social media is a dialogue, not a one-way ad campaign that screams ACT NOW!
Creating Evangelists and Influencers
I do not need to explain how well word of mouth marketing works. It is recognized as the single most effective form of advertising. This is where the fun part begins. Social media marketing is built entirely around the age old tradition of word of mouth marketing. These efforts rely on the natural tendency we have as humans to share information with each other. Everyone wants to know something that others don’t know. It allows us to be pseudo-experts for a moment. Think about all the small talk you engage in when you get together with your friends or colleagues. A majority of it generally involves telling somebody about an experience of yours, maybe a cool new product, an interesting technique you discovered, fascinating news story, or company that impressed you. This exchange of information is happening at incredible speed and unimaginable scale via social media.
Every 24 hours, well over a billion pieces of content are shared via Facebook and Twitter. An astonishing number of these posts relate to specific companies, services, and products. Further, many of these are about a recent experience with said company, service, or product. You need to enable and empower your patients to be “brand evangelists” for your practice. Identify patients who you believe are outspoken and have had positive experiences at your practice. Ideally, they would be patients who have formed a real connection with you or your staff. Once you identify these people, ask them to follow you online, and then engage them through Facebook or Twitter. Wish them happy birthday via Twitter, do something that will actively engage them and build your online relationship. Over time you will start to see something remarkable happen. You will post a special offer about teeth whitening via Facebook, and suddenly your evangelists will start reposting it for you and sharing it with their connections, typically with a personal endorsement as well!
Because sharing and re-sharing content via social networks is the norm, not to mention easy, the traditionally awkward referral barrier is eliminated almost completely. Sharing information within your personal social networks is really what social networks are all about. This level of openness and exchange of useful information is revolutionary for the dental community, a community that relies so heavily on referrals and recommendations.
Diversify Your Online Presence
Having an active presence in a wider number of online destinations makes your practice more accessible, more visible, and even more credible. Too often, I see doctors obsessing over getting their website listed at the very top of Google’s search result pages using “Search Engine Optimization” (SEO) techniques. While this Is certainly important, it is equally important to flood the search results page with your various online profiles and listings.
There are dozens of free ways to expand your online presence to make your practice more visible. Google Places is the listing that displays your practice’s information on their local map directory. Claim your listing and enhance your profile — it’s free! Search for your practice on Yelp.com and claim your listing there as well. To discover which sites you show up on, enter your info into this handy tool: http://getlisted.org
Create Top-of-Mind Awareness
Just like shopping for a car, dental care is not something that is on the top of most people’s minds. The reason you see so many car commercials is because when it comes time to start looking for a vehicle, they want you to already have their brand in mind. The same holds true for dentistry. If you are able to create top-of-mind awareness about your practice, you are more likely to be the first place a new patient goes at the onset of any ailment.
Many dental practices today find themselves uncertain about the new social media universe, and in particular with how to relate to younger patients. The power of social networking is its immediate access to the word of mouth exchange of information, and the word of mouth avenue itself is recognized as the single most effective form of advertising. To tap into that phenomenon, begin by investing a small amount of time and effort to understand the basics of social networking. Sign up for Facebook and Twitter. First-hand experience interacting in a social network is the vital first step. The bottom line is simply this: To begin to understand this new arena of communication, you first have to join the conversation.
*Joseph J. Garven is the Digital Marketing Director at J. White and Associates, Ltd. Email is Joseph@jwhiteandassoc.com.
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