Small Business Lessons for Physician Practices – Part 2 of 4: Getting Started With Marketing

Laurie Morgan November 14th, 2011

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Marketing is an intimidating subject for many physician practice owners and office managers.  If you’re not sure whether or how you should market your practice, or whether the marketing you’re already doing does more harm than good, you’re not alone.  Small business owners and managers of all stripes often find marketing a source of anxiety.  Those fears about not being able to get it “right,” wasting money or even damaging your reputation with bad marketing can lead people to opt out of marketing altogether – perhaps the worst thing you can do.

Intentionally or not, you’re already marketing your practice

One of the things we tell our clients is that even if you believe you’ve opted out of marketing, every patient interaction – whether with a physician, a staff member, your phone system or website – contributes to the patient’s experiences and impressions of your practice.  What’s more, today’s patients are more empowered than ever to share their opinions about those experiences – amplifying what they perceive as positives or negatives about your practice.

So, what happens when you’ve paid no attention at all to marketing?  Patients today have many choices, and often mistake the quality of their interactions with your practice as a whole for quality of medical care.  When patients come to your practice and there is no sense of identity (no common logo or color scheme), when they look for your website online and it doesn’t exist or appears to be fallow, when they search for you in a directory and find a disconnected phone number, when patients call your practice and aren’t handled in a consistent way – these are not neutral interactions for patients. By not managing these experiences, you’re sending a marketing message – and not a good one.

Take control: start small

One of the reasons many practices procrastinate about marketing is that they confuse it with advertising and selling.  They don’t want to invest a lot of time and money in buying services that could be inappropriately “salesy” and cut into existing practice revenues.

The reality is, though, marketing a medical practice isn’t about “selling” so much as communicating what your practice is about, reinforcing your commitment to quality care, and making it easy for patients to find you and interact with you.  And, the good news is, there are many very easy steps your practice can take to do a better job of marketing that require little or no out-of-pocket expense.

First steps: take a look at the patient experience.  How are patients greeted when they arrive at your practice?  Do you have signage with a color scheme and logo that reflect your practice’s personality and mission – and do you use the same branding elements elsewhere, for example on letterhead, nametags and cards?  If your staff members wear scrubs, are they coordinated? 

What about your phone system – are you offering friendly health tips in your automated greeting?  Ditto for your email messages – are you including tips in your email signature?

Most of these things can be done at little or no additional cost to your practice – they just require a little more attention to detail.

Make it easier for patients to find you

We’re always surprised by how few practices take advantage of the wide variety of free ways to be found by prospective patients online.

For example, many practices shy away from physician rating sites like Avvo, Vitals and Healthgrades because they’re uncomfortable with “grades” from patients.  But, regardless of whether you ignore them or embrace them, you’re likely listed on these sites, and prospective patients will see your listing – and the information they find could be incorrect or outdated.  By visiting these sites and claiming your listing, you’ll be able to correct any errors.  Plus, in some cases, you’ll be able to add your website link – a big plus for your Google search ranking.

Insurance directories also sometimes make mistakes – be sure to check that all the plans you accept have you correctly listed, both online and in print.  (Imagine the damage to new patient flow that could be caused if a key carrier incorrectly states you’re not accepting new patients!)

In the last year or two, a service from Google called Google Places has become increasingly important and useful.  A Place record for your practice pulls together existing data online (often from physician rating sites – another reason to claim and monitor your listings there) including your location, practice type, website address, map info and reviews.  These Google Places records often appear near the top of the search results for local practice types.

It’s easy to search for your practice and find and claim your Place record (or start one if none exists).  Once you’ve claimed it, you’ll have the chance to customize it with your own description of your practice and even add your own photos.  This can make a huge difference to the image you present to patients looking for a new practice.

 Compare the two records below from a “San Francisco pediatrician” search.  The first – verified by the practice, but not customized – offers the basics, ensuring they can at least be accurately found.  But, the second example – which the practice customized with photos and a description – is undeniably more inviting, and gives a prospective patient much more incentive to call.

Learn how a simple ad like this one can be easily improved--an important part of your medical practice marketing

Adding some additional information and an image turn this listing into a useful part of your medical practice marketing strategy

For new practices that haven’t yet established websites, an optimized Places page can also provide a little glimpse of your practice’s personality and mission – while not a replacement for a website by any stretch, certainly much better than having no personalized identity online at all.

Recognize your referrers

Another simple, feel-good form of marketing that many practices often overlook (or underdo) is recognizing referring physicians and patients.

Take the time to ask patients how they came to your practice.  Keep thank you notes on hand – customized for your physicians and practice – and send them out immediately to patients and clinicians who refer new patients to you.  It’s amazing how much your referral partners will appreciate being appreciated by you – and it costs almost nothing.

Keeping track of referrers systematically allows you to do a little something extra for the most important referrers occasionally – maybe invite a key physician referrer out to lunch a couple of times a year, for example.  Nothing too expensive – just a bit of personal recognition.  Keep track of email addresses for referrers, too, so you can stay in touch with them and send them tidbits about your practice area – you’ll be simultaneously sharing useful information while also helping fellow clinicians know which patients to refer to you.

Methodically tracking referrals also allows you to learn over time which geographic areas and which referring practice types are not well covered by your practice – so you can refocus attention to areas of unmet opportunity.

The next level

Once you’ve taken control of these areas, you’ll be ready to take on the next level – which for your practice might include more outward promotion like community events and promotions, creating or updating your website, creating patient surveys and using social media like blogs and Facebook.  But, even if you do nothing more than these initial steps, you’ll go a long way towards making it easier for patients to find you and presenting an image that reflects your practice’s mission and philosophy.

Small Business Lessons for Physicians Practices is a four-part series.  Next installment: Financial basics.

Laurie Morgan is a management consultant with Capko & Company. She specializes in marketing, management and technology for medical practices and blogs about practice management issues at www.capko.com/blog . Laurie has a BA in Economics from Brown University and an MBA from Stanford. Her most recent article for Getting Paid was the first installment in this series, Small Business Lessons for Physician Practices – Part 1 of 4: Human Resources.

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