For Immediate Release
Date: Oct 18th, 2011
Contact: Dr. John Thompson
Word-of-Mouth on Steroids!
There are still quite a few practicing dentists that take exception to advertising dental services. I guess you would be able to count me as a bit uncomfortable with the full yellow pages ads or billboards, but times have changed. Having graduated in 1971, I think my class has seen the entire gamut of dental marketing. I remember when Larry Elliott and I were advised in 1974 that the size of the letters on our new office sign could be no more than two inches in height to comply with the Board of Dentistry and state regulations. Later we were advised that “family dentistry” was not an acceptable term for the practice of dentistry. We were in fact “general dentists” and that was the appropriate term with which to designate our practice. I guess we were considered trouble makers for that time.
To say that the next generation of graduating dentists embraced advertising would be an understatement. The Federal Trade Commission changed all the rules regarding professional advertising and it has not been the same since 1976. It is not uncommon for some dental practices to budget ten percent of revenues for marketing. Marketing has by now included every possible giveaway item and every possible media. Since I make my home in Lexington, I am familiar with the most pervasive, expensive and now (statistically) least effect yellow pages … all seven of them. I know what the cost of a full-page ad is and to have one in each of the directories is a very significant budget item by itself. The quality of our phone books is now so poor and the category “dentist” is so fragmented that there are several of the directories that have multiple full-page ads for the same practices and I hope they are not paying for the duplications. I have been left out of most of the “yellow pages” for the past several years and no one has noticed…take that anyway you wish.
Even I can now appreciate a well done dental practice advertisement when I hear it on the radio or see it during an evening newscast. There are some very classy ways that dental practices have been presented over the years. However, most that I have heard or seen have a very amateur sound or appearance and many have been simply embarrassing for the profession, in my opinion. Having just said that, it is obvious that I still retain a certain bias regarding how a dental practice is marketed. I am not oblivious to the effect of positive public exposure on the economic health of a dental practice. When I helped to introduce lasers to dentistry in 1990, I experienced a phenomenal growth in new patient referrals and case acceptance. That boost would not have occurred without significant multimedia exposure, the dollar value of which certainly exceeded the high cost of the technology when it was first brought to the profession. That was an event that was unique in its time, but any way you look at it, it was marketing.
Regardless of the year you graduated from dental school and regardless of your views on advertising, word-of-mouth has always been regarded as the best and most economical source of new patients. The referral of family, neighbors and friends by a satisfied patient remains a very gratifying event in any dental practice. It also remains very cost effective, especially if it occurs with satisfactory frequency. Let’s face it, if you don’t have patients and you are starting a practice it is a very hard to gain traction in the marketplace. Karl Lange and I have for many years taught a management class for UKCD fourth year dental students. It was about ten years ago that we brought active marketing into the curriculum over the raised eyebrows of quite a few of our peers.
If dentists were evenly distributed across our commonwealth and every community had a graduate dentist returning there would be little requirement for active marketing. The statistics I have seen and the reality is that we have a distribution problem in our profession. Dentists seem to prefer to practice in more metropolitan areas. Graduating dentists returning to their home communities have a support network of family and friends that can readily become dental disciples and provide a jump start for the new practice. Choosing to practice in a community where you are a relative unknown requires marketing for success. Effective and ethical marketing deserves a place in the dental curriculum if the new graduate is expected to survive and thrive in what has become a contracting economy.
While I have always loved technology and embraced the personal computer from its introduction, I have, in a word, hit the wall. I have a cell phone and I will not use texting. I have an iPad that I dearly love, but I refuse to become involved with any social media and I had looked at Facebook as a fad with no possible real applications. Now that I have lost all credibility for anything else I might say, let me tell you what I see happening.
Last year I had a conversation with Dr. Hal Laswell who still handles continuing education at UKCD. He was telling me about a CE course presented by Dr. Tom Larkin, who had recently joined the part-time faculty. Tom had provided a program on the use of social media for marketing a dental practice and it got rave reviews. Hal and I had a very circular discussion because neither of us had a clue what Larkin was talking about, but I decided it was something to explore. I asked Dr. Larkin to provide a one and a half-hour lecture late last January. I have no idea what my students were doing as I took seven pages of single spaced notes. I was having an epiphany. I still had more questions than answers, but there was something here that had a truly significant potential impact for the dental profession.
I began to investigate how social media was being used in dental practices and realized there was something I was missing about what Tom Larkin had said in that lecture scenario. This summer I invited Tom to meet with myself, my partners and the key staff members that manage our website and internal marketing programs at my office. It was during this luncheon meeting that I realized that dentistry may have come full circle. My practice career began with word-o- mouth being the only acceptable method of building a practice. The course of time brought garish yellow page ads and every conceivable media, including billboards as methods of acquiring recognition and the solicitation of patients. All at a high cost to the practice and most with no tracking and limited success per dollar expended. Now there is Facebook and it has the potential of being word-of-mouth on steroids.
I am not the one to take you there as I still don’t text and I don’t and won’t have a social media page, but this is what I know. *Walter Hailey thru his innovative Dental Boot Camps introduced dentists to N.E.E.R. (Naturally Existing Economic Relationships) marketing. Old school marketer, Dan Kennedy, has spoken to dentists for decades about personal and professional “spheres of influence”. Both individuals focused extensively on the development and maintenance of relationships in one’s personal and professional life and how to leverage one’s word-of-mouth reputation. This was a very slow, extremely time consuming effort that often took years to accomplish.
Social media (specifically Facebook) today presents today’s dentist with some unique opportunities and challenges. An amazing number of young people today carry personal spheres well in excess of 1,000 people. These are truly staggering numbers and these people maintain some level of contact on an almost daily basis. The ability to interact, ask, advise or complain is remarkable.
1. Facebook is emerging as a marketing platform of unheard of proportions.
2. The ability to “hypertarget” a market is unprecedented.
3. The cost involved is a fraction of traditional advertising media.
4. Accountability is built into each marketing campaign and the cost benefit is easily ascertained.
5. The management of your personal and professional reputation is a growing concern for all professionals.
Times are rapidly changing and I hope this hasn’t ruined your day!
*My thanks to Dr. Tom Larkin for his help with this commentary.