Your phonebook ad, stellar credentials, and good looks simply aren’t enough anymore. You need new patients, but reaching them poses new challenges these days.
First and foremost, please understand one very important concept that is critical to the rest of this article: You are not the patient. Put your personal experiences, habits, and tastes aside.
We live in a digital world now. Some of you may still use a paper phonebook, own a rolodex, and love picking up the phone. However, the vast majority of consumers have turned to the internet as their number one source of information and communication. We aren’t just talking about finding contact information either; the web is now the go-to destination for peer reviews, personal recommendations, background information, payment questions, procedural information… the list goes on. Consumer expectations about your online presence are already extremely high, and this demand is growing even faster. Unfortunately, some dental practices still aren’t catching the drift.
Modern day dental practices simply cannot afford to have a subpar presence on the worldwide web. In this day of unwavering reliance on the internet, a powerful new mentality exists among most potential patients: If I can’t find you on Google, you don’t exist. If you have ever tried researching a particular business and were unable to locate them online, you likely questioned their credibility or even their very existence. Not finding a business online is detrimental for many reasons, but what about those businesses that are showing up in search engine results? Does simply having a website and being found online actually translate into new patients for your practice?
The Big Picture
All successful plans have clear goals that are backed by strategies to reach these goals, followed by specific tactics. The following article focuses on four big-picture goals that are all part of the “New Patient Cycle”.
1. Discovery: Being found in online search results is a top priority, and efforts should be made to optimize your website for high quality rankings (a process called Search Engine Optimization, or SEO), but you cannot stop there. A highly optimized website is only useful if it helps grow your practice.
2. Conversion: Once you’re found online, your website (and other online tools) must convert these visitors into actual patients! This concept is the core focus of this article.
3. Loyalty: Creating loyalty in a digital world starts in the office and is enhanced through the use of social media engagement, the key ingredient in this new realm of social sharing and “e-referrals”.
4. Referrals: The holy grail source of new patients is the personal (and professional) referral. An old concept, now with digital speed and “viral-ity”.
The “Brick and Mortar” Experience
Most doctors and administrators don’t fully understand the importance of their website because of its “virtual” nature and an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality. This has to change.
I would like you to think of a website as a physical brick and mortar space that people actually visit in person. In the case of a retail storefront, customers find your location, walk in the front door, explore the aisles, and talk to your employees to learn more about your products. There are a multitude of factors that influence the decision-making process in this retail scenario. Some are quite obvious, while others are more subliminal.
Obvious factors might include things like product selection, availability, features, benefits, and so on. However, the subliminal factors are much more subtle and can be even more influential. These are things like the perceived knowledge of the staff, the attitude and enthusiasm of the employees, the overall environment, the organization and layout of the store, ease of access, cleanliness of the facility, and especially in today’s high-tech society, the “up to date” factor of everything in and around the operation.
The second you set foot into that establishment, each of these elements is immediately processed and interpreted by the subconscious brain to form an extremely influential mental profile of the business, product, or individual in question.
This is directly analogous to how patients view your website and entire online presence.
Let’s take a first-time visit to a doctor’s office, for example. You walk into the waiting room. The lighting is dingy and flickering, awkward decorations pepper the walls, and mid-procedure photo albums grace the coffee tables. You approach the reception counter and a monotone voice rattles off what is clearly a scripted line she’s been delivering for 15 years. You take a seat to wait for the doctor and cannot help but notice the peeling wallpaper partially exposing the once-so-hip green, yellow, and orange paint job from the 1970s.
Now at this point you might not know anything about the doctor or his or her abilities, personality, education, or even appearance. However, you have already started forming a rather vivid profile in your mind about this doctor based on a multitude of external factors. Everybody judges a book by its cover. Unbeknownst to you, the yet-to-be-seen doctor could actually be the most well respected, highly accomplished, lovable, likable, and compassionate doctor in the whole country. Sadly, that’s not the image being conveyed to the patient.
Websites: Your First Impression
Your website and online presence is likely the very first thing many prospective patients will use to build their own profile of you or your entire practice. How can you be certain that this very crucial engagement point is properly conveying the right message, tone, credibility, and assurances you wish to convey?
Everything from the color palettes, the graphics, photography, wording, videos, to the emotional gravity of your message plays a dramatic role in the evaluation and decision making process of every potential patient visiting your website. Again, remember that what you like or dislike about a website might not be the same as your patients.
Elements of Effective Websites
A pretty looking website with the latest bells and whistles is not what converts visitors into patients. There is a heavily studied science behind the art of effective website design that requires a trained professional to identify and assess. While this article is not about to address every aspect of successful website design, there are a few core elements that can make a website more effective and compelling to the end-user (the patient).
Usability is the study of how effectively and efficiently a user understands and navigates your website to reach an end result (i.e., clicking on a “Schedule Appointment” or “Contact Us” tab). A good website must be easy to navigate.
Credibility must be conveyed throughout your entire website and online presence. Doctors have invested a lot of time, effort, and money in their credentials; it is important for the website to properly communicate this in a clearly organized and concise manner.
Educational Resources are very beneficial for the end-user as well as in the eyes of search engines. In short, if a patient searches for “dental crowns” and your website contains a section devoted to educating people about dental crowns, then there is a better chance that your website will be displayed in the search results. Additionally, it is very beneficial to an existing website visitor because they won’t have to navigate to another website to learn about “dental crowns” — instead, they can learn everything right within your practice website, which will increase the likelihood of an appointment inquiry.
Engaging websites are ones that have an ability to draw a visitor in and keep that individual’s attention long enough to fulfill an end goal, as previously mentioned. The use of compelling multimedia is a great tool to captivate your audience.
Power of Video for Your Website
If a picture is worth a thousand words, video is easily worth a cool billion. Online visitors simply don’t like to read, but that’s only part of the reason video is so essential to your dental practice. Original video content on your website is noticed by major search engines and can greatly enhance your search engine rankings (how high up your site appears on search engine result pages). This is becoming more evident as consumer demand for engaging and interactive experiences increases at incredible speed. Note: YouTube.com is now ranked as the second largest search engine in the world, further reinforcing the notion of increased multimedia demand.
Not only are there technical benefits to original online video, there are very strong emotional reasons to consider. Everyone says the same thing on their practice website: “compassionate, caring, personal touch, voted top yahoo by this, top dog by that”. The emotion and personality behind your practice simply cannot be conveyed in text short enough for a website. A professionally produced video is your ultimate secret weapon for capturing the intangible factors that drive decision making.
As you know, trust is an extremely important factor in long-term relationships and patient loyalty. According to a 2009 Pew Research Center study, when people are able to see and hear an individual via video, they are five times more likely to trust and relate to the individual when compared to the same message in text form. The study focused on trust-based decision making in online shopping scenarios, but it is certainly reasonable for us to draw a similar conclusion in the dental industry.
Here are few ideas for effective video segments that have been shown to increase conversion and loyalty in new patients:
• “New Patients: What to Expect” A common factor leading to dental neglect is based solely on the fear of the unknown. A well produced video that sets their minds at ease can do wonders for your practice! Let your patients know what to expect on their first visit; walk them through the process in a very condensed format that helps to simplify the process and take the anxiety out of this first visit phobia.
• “Meet the Doctors/Meet the Staff” In our experience, among the most frequently viewed videos topics have been short segments about the doctors themselves, the hygienists, or anybody else with which the patient is likely to have an ongoing relationship. This type of video allows the patient to get to know the people behind the masks, not just their education and affiliations. Again, remember that in the eyes of a patient, dentistry is just as much about trust and relationships as it is the technical aptitude of a doctor. Let them get to know you. Chances are you may share many of the same hobbies, interests, and beliefs as your patients. This “connection” can do wonders for patient loyalty and even case acceptance (trust).
• “Emotional Energy and Excitement” Let’s be honest, there is nothing all that fun for the patient about going to the dentist, at least in most circumstances. A powerfully fun, upbeat, and energizing video about the dental practice in general is a fantastic way to relieve the stress of dental procedures. Let them see you and your staff having fun outside of the office, enjoying each other’s company, giving back to the community - the list can go on.
Video Production: Words of Caution
It is not advisable to produce videos like these on your own, unless you just happen to have a professional background in such work. High quality video cameras and editing software are now coming within reach of the general public, which means you probably know a friend’s son or a neighbor’s daughter who is an aspiring “filmmaker”. Be careful here. Just because somebody owns a camera, an Apple laptop, and enjoys editing the family vacation videos does not mean he or she is the best choice for producing these kind of videos for your practice. Developing, shooting, and editing video segments that are not only emotionally compelling and powerful, but consistent with your brand, is a craft that takes years to master. Your time is money, so don’t cut corners by trying to produce these “in house”, or you may be left with a lot of wasted time, and nothing to show for it. Seek out professionals who are capable of producing high quality material that is consistent with the quality of dental care your practice offers.
Evaluating Your Website
Again, please keep in mind that you are not the patient. If you are reading this article, you are probably too close to your practice to be objective and therefore will be inherently blinded by what you already know about your practice. Talk to a dental marketing expert who is seasoned in website design, usability, SEO, online multimedia, and specifically, dental marketing.
There are a few free tools out there that can help you identify some glaring technical problems with your site (i.e., woorank.com), but these tools still require a basic understanding of website structure to interpret the results.
Reviewing your website’s analytics with a web professional is key to understanding how your website is performing. If somebody walked into the waiting area of your practice, looked around, then walked right back out the door, you would certainly wonder what just happened. This happens daily on most practice websites. Visitors go to a website, click around, and leave just as quickly as they arrived. Nearly every single behavior and action of visitors is tracked on websites through free tools like Google Analytics. (Note: The data being tracked is completely anonymous, meaning nothing is stored that could personally identify visitors.) Analytics are able to tell a webmaster how many people are visiting your site every day, what cities they’re coming from, what keywords they used to find your site, which pages they viewed and for how long, and most importantly, where they abandoned your site. This is only a miniscule sample of the types of data being tracked. Studying these analytics will help a webmaster identify problem areas of your website that could help stop the bleeding and make your website a patient-generating machine.
Creating Patient Loyalty
Once your website is up to par, you will be in a much better position to start leveraging the whole social media movement. Using these social media tools to build loyalty is all part of the “New Patient Cycle” mentioned earlier. To fully understand how social media (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, etc) fits into the private dental practice world, I refer readers to my article “Social Media: The Word of Mouth Revolution” in the November-December 2010 issue of Northwest Dentistry.
In a nutshell, you will be able to take advantage of social networks like Facebook and Twitter to create a voice and personality for your practice that patients will be able to identify and connect with on a more personal level. This engagement creates real life patient loyalty and by the very nature of social networks, encourages personal referrals and recommendations by satisfied patients.
Referrals in the 21st Century
Social networks are built around the open sharing of information within groups of people (friends, family, co-workers, classmates, etc). Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have been making personal recommendations and referrals to others within their communities. Fast-forward to 2011, and the only thing that has changed is the level of openness, ease, and rate at which we now disseminate and consume this information. Your patients truly want to share their experiences with others. All you have to do is encourage it via social media.
When your patients are able to become “brand evangelists” for your practice in this digital realm, not only are you fulfilling the referral step in the “New Patient Cycle”, but new patients will no longer need to spend as much time in the discovery and conversion steps of this cycle. The discovery barrier is greatly reduced because they are already online, and the very nature of sharing via social networks generally involves sharing website URL links. Barriers to conversion are also lowered because the recipient has already been “sold” to some degree simply by receiving or reading the review/referral. At this step, the recipient will undoubtedly visit your practice’s website to learn more. If your website is conveying the same positive message and tone upon which the referral was based, your conversion step is complete and the cycle continues.
Big Picture Benefits
The most common question I get from dentists and clinic administrators is this: “What is the ROI [Return on Investment] of social media, websites, and this whole online landscape?”
The best answer I have heard so far is clear and profound: “You’ll still be in business five years from now.” (Erik Qualman, author of Socialnomics.)
You must recognize and understand that your current patients, regardless of their age, have either been using social networks for years already or will be joining them in the very near future. You need to prepare your practice for this new realm, sooner than later. To be blunt, if these concepts are still foreign to you and your practice has not joined the digital world, you’re already late to the party. Luckily for you, the party is just getting started for the dental industry.
Value in Selling Your Practice
All of these concepts contribute to your brand’s marketing mix and truly create real equity for your name and your practice. A quality website that you own and an established online presence that is tied together with consistent and thoughtful branding all add up to actual dollars and cents when the time comes to sell your practice. Because these tools take time to build equity and recognition, that effort is held in high regard when it comes to valuation of your business.
*Joseph J. Garven is the Digital Marketing Director at J. White and Associates, Ltd. Email is Joseph@jwhiteandassoc.com.