Online vs. Offline Marketing Efforts: Yielding the Best Return for Your Dollar

by Victor Sirgado, CEO, Paramount/MD

I used to think first impressions counted for everything. As a healthcare marketing expert, I thought that when I was called to visit a vein practice for the first time, I needed to appear with an arsenal of preformed ideas for my new client. I thought that if I didn’t research at least three or four of the clinic’s competitors, scour their local media outlets, and analyze their website’s Google ranking that it was unlikely I would ever have much of a meaningful marketing strategy to share with them.

I’m wiser now. Through experience—the parallel of which I’ve not found for engendering true teaching—I have learned to trade in my take-no-prisoners attitude—one based on precision, heavyweight marketing—for more of a lean-andmean, streamlined approach. It’s a new world for doctors. Unless you’ve been sitting on the sidelines for the past five to eight years, you are fully aware that marketing yourself as a vein specialist has become centered around branding. That includes branding yourself as a leader in the field and branding your practice as the trusted paragon of quality care in your region. Since branding necessitates consistency, clarity, and communication, developing an integrated marketing system—one that fits your business model as well as your budget—is the fast-track, the feeder, the primary focus for success.

Spring has always been a perfect time to start new projects. What about the website you’ve always wanted to have represent your practice but never knew how to effectively develop? Actually, why think small? How about developing a 12-month communication strategy—from overhauling your current marketing plan (that’s if you even have one), to rethinking how you and your team should be communicating to your ideal target audience. Is your staff trained to convert leads? Are you using marketing techniques to capture online conversions, and have you modernized your ability to track leads? These are just a few of the questions modern vein specialists are now navigating and learning to answer effectively—both in word and in action.

In my profession, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to keep an open mind. It isn’t what many physicians and practice managers want to hear—maintaining my honesty here, it isn’t even what I want to hear—but the truth is that there is no one formula that will guarantee success. There is no single prescription that will dramatically boost the health of a practice, secure loads of new leads and amplify profits with strings of zeros. What I have learned is that an intelligently organized, cohesive marketing plan is the only strategy that will absolutely help you develop sustainable practice growth. Thus, my goal here is not to convince you to change your current marketing efforts. My goal is simply to share with you my knowledge of how practice growth is being achieved—across a variety of vein practice types, sizes, styles, and geographic locations throughout the U.S.—using online and offline marketing efforts.

There’s no denying that the healthcare arena is changing— or perhaps it has already changed. The Affordable Healthcare Act is a reality for all of us who are passionate about and who earn a living working in this field. Unfortunately, as we all know, reimbursements are steadily decreasing. But the eternal optimist in me would like to point out that there is actionable advice to glean from this: Diversification with any marketing system is therefore not just intelligent, but wise. True, the vein care arena is growing—but for how long? Perhaps you’ve relied exclusively on physician referrals to grow your practice, or maybe you’ve had a good run at flooding your local market with print ads. You might even be that guy who loves to outspend everyone on Google AdWords. I leave this for your own private self-reflection.

One thing is for certain and is out in the open—the tools being used to spin the marketing wheel have evolved. Doctors are now heavily branding their practices, whether through message-rich ideas or SEO content. It’s time to open your playbook and get in the game. Vein specialists will need to get off the traditional template of marketing and adopt a newly streamlined system. It is an undeniable truth that some people just do not believe that advertising will work for them and will hold on to the only thing that has brought them business—the trusted referral pipeline. Others embrace every new form of communication. From reputation management to social media efforts, print advertising to television—the options can seem overwhelming, confusing, and the stakes very high. Where should you be focusing your marketing efforts, and what will yield the best return for your dollar?

Let’s dive into what I hope will be an eye-opening, positive experience and discuss some fundamentals. Remember, a vein specialist in a small market will tend to have a little more flexibility than a practice in a big competitive market, but defining your specific marketing system will help you achieve positive results regardless of your geographical or financial position.

Offline Marketing: Advertising and Professional Referrals

As most of you know, the majority of new patient leads for medical practices flow through two main pipelines: patient advertising and physician referrals.

First things first; let’s talk advertising. I recognize offline advertising in three tiers. Tier one is the core and consists of advertising in primary print (i.e., newspapers and telephone directories), on television, and on the radio. Tier two is advertising in secondary print, magazines, direct mail, business to business, and second language advertising when applicable. Tier three encompasses all the other advertising venues such as billboards, flyers, employee books, college planners, playbills, promotional items, etc. No matter what your choice for offline efforts you simply must have a tracking system in place for your dollars spent.

Tier one advertising may be the most familiar to physicians, and these mediums certainly have their advantages. For example, print advertising in a region’s major newspaper will consistently yield calls from prospective patients—in good and bad economic times, as well as in small and large markets. Targeting this advertising even further, with strategic placement in specific sections of the paper, produces an even bigger yield. This is not to convey the notion that generating leads is a fast and simple process. Branding a practice takes time and a system. Thus, in addition to newspaper advertising, a well-produced TV commercial targeting the vein demographic will also yield excellent results, as well as broadcast your brand to a large audience. Following this with radio exposure also nicely increases brand exposure. Tier two advertising, including magazine ads, is a marketing angle that I only advise bringing in once a vein practice has systemized and secured its tier one advertising and the returns are flowing nicely.

Some Examples

Now, most doctors are guilty of engaging in “spaghetti” marketing at one time or another. Spaghetti marketing means throwing various marketing strategies against the wall to see if anything sticks. It also often includes saying yes to every caller offering the latest “great deal.” These doctors advertise in multiple newspapers (local and main), on television (both in English and Spanish), in high schools, churches, small not-for-profits, magazines, playbills, program books, local directories, telephone directories, and need a system in place that tracks each and every marketing effort to ensure the best spend of their marketing dollars.

The first thing to do after setting up separate call numbers for each campaign is to start tracking caller volume. Assessing caller volume-versus leads generated is very important for each campaign. A system that allows you to listen and track the leads allows you, over a period of time, to accurately assess if the campaign is effective. When a clear pattern emerges, it may be time to test the waters and remove many of the tier three advertising approaches that you had been using. After monitoring the effects closely and seeing virtually no drop in office activity, you could see a healthy increase in your investment dollars. You can then go a step further and remove several tier two approaches, if you find poor results in conversion. Using a very systemized tracking system recording all results and tweaking over time is the best way to go when evaluating your marketing budget spend.

Most doctors see advertising as a revenue center instead of a cost center. You may choose to invest heavily to get the word out and into your respective communities that are here and here to stay. Branding isn’t just putting out an ad and expecting the phone to ring immediately—it takes time and a well-thought-out strategy. When using this approach it is best to evaluate and then scale back areas of low return.

We learned learned this concept in Marketing 101. Invest 25% out of the gate and eventually your business grows
to where you’ll be investing only 10-15% of your overall revenue. If you invest wisely in advertising, the phone will ring. When you pause effective advertising, for one reason or another, your call volumes will drop. It’s just the nature of the beast—the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon. The point being, if you are looking at offline marketing efforts, it is vitally necessary to employ a robust strategy and system, while remaining vigilant against the lure of spaghetti marketing. Targeting appropriate marketing partners is key, and a well-researched marketing analysis of your area should be done prior to making your offline marketing investments.

For the second pipeline, physician referrals, you must develop and continually monitor your relationships with referring physicians, online directories and direct mailers. This is indeed a core component in a well-systemized plan for bringing business to your doorstep. Thus, advertising to your peers as well as patients is an important and vital part of your overarching strategy and system.

Online Marketing

Now let’s look at online marketing strategy. Being a big advocate of online marketing, I highly recommend it, especially for 21st century success. Most doctors/practices today have a website (professionally designed or graciously created by their kid), and this is a good thing. For the .0001% that don’t, it’s time to leave the dark ages and head steadfast into the light.

Advertising online is a key component in all of our practices’ successful marketing plans. However, you can have a great-looking website that isn’t doing much for you on the web, which prompts one to ask: What are you doing to enhance your online visibility? There are a variety of online marketing concepts worth looking into. But there is one that stands above all others. Probably, even if you don’t know much about online marketing, you have at least asked yourself, “What is my ranking on Google?” Maybe you’ve even done a search to try to find out. Google is the primary driver for most online advertising. Google receives about 66% of all online searches, and this number keeps rising. So if you haven’t met Google, let me now make the introduction! Since Google is the primary driver, you have to get to know her. Further, like a good patient evaluation prior to a treatment plan, this is how you need to look at your online marketing as well, paying special attention to organic and paid search.

Returning to the development of your website—if you have a site, is it optimized for Google? Was it developed to be search engine friendly and easily found on the search engines like your new friend Google? While this is an important aspect of your strategy know that Google is a moving target.
You could rank number one at 10:00 a.m. and at 1:00 p.m. be found on the second or third page. You can’t simply rely on Google ranking to get your message out there, you will spend a lot of money trying and may or may not succeed as there is no “ranking guarantee” as some would have you believe.

Online advertising options are vast, that said, online exposure can also mean appearing on rate and review sites like Yelp, Vital, and Healthgrades, just to name a few, or directory driven sites. Rate and review sites are an area you need to pay attention to, as patients are increasingly searching for information about doctors online. And you might be amazed at what they are finding when they type in your name. I can confidently say that almost every client we have assisted has bits and pieces of the wrong information looming out there on the Internet. So I say to you—know what’s out there, and take the time to review and fix it. Negative reviews and information will hurt you and your brand, but that’s another story for another day. As for directory sites, this allows you an additional venue to post information regarding your practice, your staff, your appointment availability, etc. In some cases you may find that a directory listing may be found by Google long before your own website is found, the key here is to go with directories that can provide you proven results of leads generated to your office for conversion.

Now, let’s take a look at some charts. I selected 10 random practices from around the U.S. in all three-sized markets and I wanted to see what the percentages of leads were, as they pertained to online and offline advertising. I categorized based on online, tier one, tier two, and tier three advertising categories. I examined a three-year time frame spanning 2010, 2011 and 2012.

You can see that the online is, with strength, consistently the forerunner. Also note that these are properly designed websites of various origins, SEO -friendly websites with a comprehensive organic and paid advertising system in place. Yes, again, I mention the system and that it must be properly designed. This holds true for both hearing the phone ring from your investment and for building the brand appropriately so that you almost don’t have to invest!

Whether you’re sold on tier one, two, or three offline marketing—or online marketing is your gal—the common thread here is that you have a system in place and be involved in understanding your market. Following that, at the end of the day, it comes down to patient care—and there’s nothing better than getting great reviews from patients you’ve helped live better.