Article Date: 3/1/2012

When Being Social Is Good Business
online marketing

When Being Social Is Good Business

Optometrists share their top online marketing strategies, including how they use social media, for gaining and retaining patients.

Lee Ann Murphy, contributing editor

Once considered an add-on, online marketing is now an integral part of the overall marketing strategy in many practices. Without an online presence, you are invisible to the growing number of people who use the Internet to search for doctors. And today, the more dynamic that presence is, the more likely you are to attract new patients and keep them engaged.

What will grab their attention? They are looking for legitimate, useful content from you and honest, current information from patients about you and your practice. A static website alone isn’t enough. For the greatest impact, your online presence should incorporate social media, blogs, articles you have written, your posts to industry discussion boards, information guides for patients and reviews by your current patients, say those interviewed.

Although Internet-based marketing can be inexpensive, it does require a comprehensive plan and a time commitment to manage the various components. Most of the doctors interviewed here tell us they need only about 30 minutes to an hour per day of their own or staff time devoted to online marketing. What many skeptics really want to know is: Does this investment in online content — including doctor and staff time — actually bring in patients? According to the doctors we interviewed, the overwhelming answer is yes. In this article, these doctors share some of their most successful online marketing tactics.

Search engine optimization

Nearly 85% of people now search for medical information online, and when they do, they use Google, says Rockville, Md., optometrist Alan Glazier, author of Searchial Marketing: How Social Media Drives Search Optimization in Web 3.0(Author-House 2011). Google’s goal is to give searchers the highest quality, most credible information first. So to ensure that your practice appears at the top of the list when someone searches for eye doctors in your area, you must provide high-quality content that people will want to share with their own online communities, Dr. Glazier says.

“You must create content online, whether you’re blogging or participating in a social media forum, on a topic you want to be found for,” Dr. Glazier says. “You have to be involved in the conversation online to be placed more prominently by the search engine.”

The most efficient way to do this is via spreadable media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and location- based services, such as Foursquare and Yelp, say those interviewed. Let’s take a closer look at these social networks and online tools and find out how you can put them to work for your practice.

Facebook and Twitter

Through status updates on Facebook and tweets on Twitter, people share information with friends and followers, who can share with their friends and followers and so on. You can take advantage of this widening circle of sharers. If you’ve posted on your blog, for example, you can link to it on your Facebook page and then tweet the link and a message, such as, “Great new info about extended wear contact lenses. Find it here.” Your followers can click through to the blog from Twitter, link to the content on their own Facebook page and re-tweet it, thus creating a snowball effect.

Participating in industry forums — not just reading them, but posting comments and linking to content on your site within those posts — is another great way to help your practice advance in the Google rankings, says Dr. Glazier. He has done this with his industry page, ODs on Facebook, an online community with more than 600 professional members. Here, you can discuss the constantly changing world of Web marketing with other optometric professionals while also beefing up your online presence.

Does this virtual socializing really bring in new patients? Dr. Glazier is a believer. He says a total of 80% of his new patients found him online through a Google search, social media or location-based media.

Yelp and Foursquare

Location-based services, such as Yelp and Foursquare, are the newest ways for people to connect and share information online, mostly using their smart-phones. These services use GPS technology to allow users to “check in,” find friends and post reviews everywhere they go, including restaurants, retail stores and doctors’ offices. Doctors who actively promote themselves here are seeing more patients who found them through these services. Justin Bazan, O.D., of Park Slope Eye in Brooklyn, New York, is one of those doctors.

“I’m making six figures off Yelp, and I’m not paying a cent for it,” he says. “That’s a pretty good return.” As Dr. Bazan explains, about two patients a day say they found his practice on Yelp, so in a year’s time, he estimates revenue from those new patients will easily total six figures.

Dr. Glazier’s ODs on Facebook page not only keeps him connected to an online community of more than 600 professionals, it also helps his practice advance its Google rankings.

Learning how to maximize the power of Yelp is key, Dr. Bazan says. For example, reviews are ranked based on how frequently the reviewer uses the service. Solitary reviews are filtered out, while reviews from frequent Yelpers are given higher priority. So if you want to use Yelp to market your practice, you need to encourage more patients to become Yelpers. Dr. Bazan does this to great effect.

First, he is a Yelper himself, and he talks about it with his patients. He can send them information about a local restaurant through Yelp if it comes up in casual conversation during or after an examination. This encourages occasional Yelpers to become more frequent Yelpers, but Dr. Bazan’s approach is even more strategic. He builds awareness by linking to Yelp on his practice’s homepage.

“If someone is first exposed to it on our homepage, when we ask him about it in the office, it drives it home,” he says. “We know it takes multiple exposures to create a reaction to something new, so we want patients to see Yelp at several points during their visit.”

When patients arrive for their appointments, Dr. Bazan’s front-office staff asks whether they use Yelp. If they do, his staff asks them to “check in.” If they don’t, they are encouraged to start now by downloading the free app. and checking in.

“Once it’s part of the office routine, it takes no time,” Dr. Bazan says. “I had to be diligent in the beginning and consistently require that my staff ask patients about it. At first, they didn’t necessarily understand why asking about Yelp was so important, but now it’s a part of their routine. They ask patients their names, what insurance they have, the reason for the visit and if they use Yelp.”

The benefits of location-based services are that they are free and take minimal staff time. Asking patients to “check in,” having a link on your home page and posting a sign at the front desk that encourages visitors to “check in” are easy, inexpensive tactics. Getting the service to deliver patients simply requires an initial investment in diligence, Dr. Bazan shows.

Facebook advertising

By now, many practices have a Facebook page, where they post useful information for their fans, a.k.a. current patients. To attract new business, however, Facebook can do more. Facebook advertising is targeted, local and inexpensive, and the O.D.s we interviewed confirm it really does bring people to your door. In fact, many doctors believe it is more effective than traditional banner ads.

“I don’t think banners really work,” says Jeffrey A. Lewis, O.D., of Orinda Optometric Center in Orinda, Calif. “People either turn off ads or they’ve trained themselves to not look at them. Facebook is a different animal because the ads are like a bulletin board in a café. They’re local. They work for our niche, and they’re cheap.”

According to Dr. Lewis, you can create an ad easily and quickly with a picture, a headline and some text, and you can post it for $20 to $50 a day for three days. “If we get one appointment from that ad, it’s paid for itself, but we typically get three or four,” he says.

The key to Facebook advertising is targeting the audience, and that’s easy to do. For instance, you can send your ad to people who are friends of people who like your page. Dr. Bazan says he’s had great success with this approach. Through a Google alert, he says he learned a local blogger had written positively about his practice. That blogger had 12,000 readers. So for about $12, Dr. Bazan created an ad on Facebook that was shown to fans of that blogger who also had one friend who was already a fan of his practice. That sifted the initial 12,000 readers down to 1,200. Of that 1,200, 76 clicked through to Park Slope Eye’s online appointment scheduler. That is the power of Facebook. It’s like being able to read a person’s mind and know exactly what he likes, then create a flyer just for him, and hand it directly to him.

Online schedulers

One of the best ways to use Facebook advertising is to create a landing page from your ad that brings users to your practice’s online appointment scheduler. Of course, this means you must have an online appointment scheduler.

“I started online appointments two years ago, and patients love doing it,” says Kim Castleberry, O.D., CEO of Plano Eye Associates in Texas. “Two things happened. About a third of our patients are scheduling online at a time that’s convenient for them, and it dramatically decreased the number of phone calls to our call center. So we’ve been able to decrease our front-office expense by about one-half of a full-time equivalent. I wish everybody would schedule their appointments online.”

Dr. Bazan says he believes the convenience of online scheduling has definitely helped capture more potential patients. “On a sample day, more than half of the people making appointments with us are doing it after business hours,” he says. Dr. Bazan says he’s integrated his online scheduler onto his Facebook landing page, so visitors immediately know they can make an appointment right there. “That has been a huge business-builder,” he says.

According to Dr. Bazan, two patients a day say they found his practice, Park Slope Eye, through the practice’s Yelp page.

Online dispensaries

Have a specific opinion about online sales of eyeglasses and contact lenses? You’re not alone. Some believe keeping the business in the bricks-and-mortar shop is the best option. “I am not in favor of selling online because as soon as you do that, you open the door to helping people find these items cheaper elsewhere,” Dr. Bazan says. Others think it’s necessary to give customers the option. “We live in a high-tech world, and our patients like being able to shop online at 3 a.m.,” Dr. Castleberry says. “They don’t like being tied to the doctor’s office, so we learned to give patients their freedom.”

Plano Eye Associates has an online optical shop, and it no longer sells contact lenses in the office. “It was a little scary to do that, but it didn’t hurt the practice,” Dr. Castleberry says. “Our revenue plummeted 33% the year we stopped selling contact lenses, but our profits increased 3% that year. So we actually made more money by not selling contact lenses. Now, we have absolutely no overhead, and we get a check for $1,000 to $2,000 a month from our online optical.” Dr. Castleberry admits the online optical hasn’t sold many pairs of eyeglasses so far, but he believes his best bet is to be ready for when patients are.

Time to get social

It’s important to recognize that online marketing is fast becoming the primary entry point for new patients. Not every O.D. we interviewed is using every available online marketing tool, but each one has gotten behind one or two specific tactics.

The good news is the initial investment for many online tools is often minimal, and the return can be significant in terms of retaining and gaining patients.

If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to join the social network, and if you’ve taken the first tentative steps, it’s time to strengthen your presence. OM

Ms. Murphy is a freelance writer and editor based in Fairfield County, Conn. E-mail comments to optometricmanage

Optometric Management, Volume: 47 , Issue: March 2012, page(s): 30 - 36