Article Date: 8/1/2010

Learning from Marketing Mistakes

Learning from Marketing Mistakes

There are no books on how "not to market," but we can often find gold in what doesn't work.

GINA M. WESLEY O.D., M.S., F.A.A.O., Medina, Minn.

While it's great to see various opto-metric publications covering so many marketing and networking programs that work, I think it's worth mentioning programs and ideas that may be worth avoiding. Why focus on what doesn't work? The answer is this: You often gain a better understanding of what tactics strike gold only after you find out which of them "bomb."

The following article details five marketing and networking bombs that I experienced in my practice. My one caveat: What didn't work for me may very well be effective for another practice in a different setting with a different demographic. (Note: I practice in a suburban metro area that has many residential neighborhoods mixed with small town centers and businesses. These different communities comprise a large "regional" feel and mix.)

1 Advertising in local newspapers

Communities across the country have long hailed the local newspaper as a mainstay of both information and advertising. In my case, the 10-mile radius from my office was served by approximately four different local newspapers and two large metro newspapers. To add to this complexity, newspaper advertising is not cheap (at least in my area).

However, even in knowing this, I decided to try advertising in newspapers. The reason for my decision: I reasoned that if other eye clinics did it, it must be effective.

The ad, which I placed in one small newspaper and one large one, announced my office's arrival into the local business arena and marketed a frame sale/open house. After submitting my information and dealing with the last-minute rush of the presses (even though I gave them plenty of time to finalize the layout), I was ready and excited for the demand this ad would create.

Imagine my disappointment through the next several weeks when I asked patients how they found out about our new clinic, and less than 1% replied they saw the newspaper ad.

Even with this utter failure chalked up to experience, I tried advertising in newspapers one more time. About a year-and-a-half after opening my practice, I advertised another frame sale. I figured that as I was now busier than before, my office name may be more familiar to those in the community, so people might pay more attention to the ad. I was wrong. Several hundred dollars later, I found I still had a very poor response from the newspaper ad.

Practice tip: To avoid similar results in your marketing plans, I recommend you truly evaluate how much the newspaper is actually utilized in your specific setting. I can understand the benefits of advertising in local newspapers in smaller communities, as there is a greater likelihood of personal connection and interest — as well as reader support for advertisers — but it just didn't work for me.

2 Networking with the tried and true chamber of commerce

Unfortunately for me, the two closest chambers of commerce merged just before I opened my office. This larger chamber covered a radius of 20 miles — almost all directly north of my practice. I thought becoming a member would still be an effective way for me to connect with other area businesses, so against my better instincts, I joined.

The problem of networking with this chamber was that the majority of active members were located about 15 to 20 miles from my office, which may as well be light years from the suburban area in which I'm located. Roughly 10 optometry offices are located between this active group and my practice. Although I was able to meet and gain patients through chamber events, my success was limited due to the aforementioned geographic hurdles.

Practice tip: The chamber of commerce I joined was comprised of a great group of businesses — just not a group located in my immediate area. With this in mind, I invite you to examine the proximity of your local chamber members in relation to your office location before considering such a networking opportunity.

3 Taking the do-it-yourself approach to bulk mail

The one advantage of my membership in the chamber was that it authorized me to use a bulk mailing permit. I'm a fan of bulk mailings for many reasons: First, you save hundreds of dollars every mailing because of cheap postage rates. Second, you don't have to purchase pricey mailing lists, as the names of individual addressees don't appear on bulk mailing labels. Thus, you don't need to print specific address labels for each piece.

Yes, your newsletter or postcard may end up in homes that don't meet your desired demographic, but, in my opinion, the advantages far outweigh the few disadvantages.

My issue with bulk mailings: After my staff spends valuable time printing the newsletters at a local office store (which provides great discounts) and sealing the newsletters, they organize the newsletters by zip code, or mailing route. This organization and mailing process can become quite cumbersome and time consuming. With each mailing, we must phone the post office to obtain updated numbers on postal patrons in each mailing route. If the post office staff isn't familiar with the rules for bulk mailings, these phone calls can become quite lengthy.

Once we have the mailing route numbers, we've found that preparing the trays that hold the mailings can be tricky, as the U.S. Postal Service has very specific guidelines on how they want pieces labeled. We must fill out very detailed forms, and if any information is incorrect, the mailing process is slowed tremendously. Combine that with the fact the postal staff doesn't always understand the their employer's requirements for bulk mailings, and you can imagine the delays and confusion we sometimes face.

I've analyzed the bulk mail process at my growing practice many times, and I believe we still save money compared with letting a printing company do the work for us, even when adding in the hours the staff takes to prepare the mailing. (We are getting pretty good at figuring out all the fine details of bulk mailing at this point.)

Practice tip: As my practice grows larger and becomes busier, I'll consider handing bulk mailing tasks to professionals. My suggestion here is to analyze your costs either way (staff or professional printer/mailer), and balance what is of most value to you and your practice.

4 Expecting a fast payoff from regional magazine advertising

Several regional magazines or magazine-like publications exist in my area. Some are more professional-looking than others in terms of features and advertisements, but all have a good distribution radius from my office. Living in the area, I receive these publications at my home and have perused their contents on a regular basis. If their content caught my eye (and I'm a particular finicky person when it comes to mail of this type), I thought it would catch other readers as well. As a result, I decided to advertise in these publications for a couple months. While advertising in this type of publication did catch people's attention, it was not at a very measurable rate. Even though I put a deadline on the offer my ad featured, only two people took advantage of it.

Practice tip: The point I like to make with regional magazine advertising is this: The impact may not be immediate, and people may notice the ad and remember you when they do need eye care or products. However, it's nearly impossible to know when that is, making a return on your investment very difficult to calculate. This sort of marketing isn't bad, in my opinion, it's just very unclear as to how efficacious it really is.

5 Networking to all transplants

The idea of marketing to transplants is not a new one. However, as my experience will demonstrate, you should modify the transplant strategy to fit your situation.

Upon advice from colleagues, I purchased mailing lists that included all new transplants within specifically targeted neighborhoods surrounding my practice. I heard that repetition was needed to grab the attention of said transplants, so my staff prepared a series of letters that would be mailed through the course of roughly six weeks. These letters introduced my office and the staff, as well as our products and services.

After a few months, I realized:

► The mailings were costly, in terms of stationary and postage, as we sent out about 1,500 letters each month.
► My staff was spending an inordinate amount of time hand-addressing these letters in the hopes they would be opened and not tossed, as recipients often discard letters that are addressed with computer-generated labels.
► Transplants included part-time renters and people transi-tioning from home to home — two groups that typically are not searching for eyecare services (except in cases of emergency).
► Some people became annoyed at the repeated mailings, in turn, alienating them from becoming new patients.
► Most important, people who scheduled appointments to visit our office because of the letter were few and far between.

I decided that our new transplant efforts required more focus. So, I revised the list to only include new homeowners (not renters or those in transitional housing), and I reduced my mailings to one letter per household. The letter included a warm introduction, information about my office and a nice discount on glasses for the homeowner and their family members for the next month. We also enclosed several business cards in each letter. This cut back our mailing to around 150 to 200 letters per month — a much more manageable number.

I was pleasantly surprised that compared with the new transplant campaign, we received a much greater response rate from targeted recipients who received the single letter.

Practice tip: For this marketing attempt, I would advise that you really consider to whom you want to market your practice. We've all been bombarded by a million fliers from that one business. I didn't want my practice to be included in that category.

Lessons learned

What ended as failures for me may work wonderfully for other practices in other settings. Regardless, my advise for you is, don't conform to what others have done before you, just because "that's how it's been done." Think outside the box, be creative, and don't be afraid to try something unconventional. You may surprise yourself and find gold in your marketing and networking efforts. OM

Dr. Wesley practices at Complete Eye Care of Medina, which she opened in 2008. She also edits Optometric Management's monthly e-newsletter, New O.D. E-mail Dr. Wesley at

Optometric Management, Issue: August 2010