How to Create an Effective Practice
Combine marketing and patient education with your own publication.
BY TIM MILBURN, O.D., Medina, Ohio
What if patients could learn all about your practice before even stepping through your door? Wouldn't it be nice to have patients in your chair who asked you to fit them in
your preferred contact lens? What if your phone started ringing with dozens of patients over the age of 40 asking about multifocal contact lenses?
Does this sound like optometric utopia, wishful thinking or a complete fantasy? It sounds to me like a practice that just mailed a first-rate newsletter to 5,000 potential patients. A crisp, polished newsletter offers potential patients a taste of what your office is all about. When done right, your practice newsletter can serve as an effective and efficient means for both internal and external marketing. When done wrong and without careful planning, a bad newsletter is an expensive, time-consuming piece of junk mail. So read on to learn the crucial steps to creating an effective practice newsletter.
ILLUSTRATION BY LISA MANNING
Take the right approach
As you start your project, follow these steps to determine the focus and tone of your newsletter.
Define your goal. What's the purpose of your newsletter? Do you have a small practice that you want to grow or are you trying to keep a huge patient base well-informed? Either way, potential patients will judge your practice by the type of newsletter you place in their mailboxes. It's better to send no newsletter than to send something that is poorly written.
If you have a mega-practice, then your patients have come to expect excellence from your office. Make sure your newsletter reinforces the professional image that you've spent years trying to build; pick articles that highlight the expertise and services that a large practice can offer.
If you're trying to grow a smaller practice, then remember: First impressions are everything. Use newsletters to introduce yourself to the community.
Determine your style. Some doctors want a newsletter that reads as though the
New York Times sent its top reporter to evaluate the practice. Such news-letters ooze sophistication and deliver only the facts. Or maybe you'd rather give your readers a warm, fuzzy feeling. If so, promote your practice with informative articles, but throw in a comic strip that's relevant to eye care or a recipe from your staff.
Some practices include a coupon or special discount with their newsletter while other offices prefer to keep things upscale. Decide which style is appropriate for your community.
Define your audience. Before you get too deep into the planning of your newsletter, stop and consider who is most likely to read it. Are you targeting a certain type of patient from a certain age group or income level? If your newsletter promotes cosmetic contact lenses and back-to-school eye exams, then it would be a waste to mail it to patients over the age of 70. Write and design your newsletter so that it appeals to your target audience. Then make sure your mailing list has the addresses of people in that demographic.
Set a realistic budget. Producing a newsletter from start to finish occurs in six stages:
The final cost of your newsletter depends on how many of these steps you do yourself. You can hire someone to do all six or you may do some of them.
Contact several printers or mailing houses (either locally or through the Internet) and seek quotes for each stage in the process. After you get your quotes, decide which stages of the newsletter you can handle on your own. You may need a professional printer, but perhaps your staff can help with the folding and labeling. Or maybe you have the time and energy to do the whole project on your own. Try to develop a solid estimate for what the newsletter will cost per piece, including postage.
Once you know your cost per piece, decide how many homes you can afford to include on your mailing list. Keep in mind that if this is your first newsletter, you may have additional, one-time start up costs. For instance, you may need to buy computer software or hardware and you'll definitely need to purchase your mailing permit, but these costs are an investment that will pay off down the road each time you create another newsletter. With a firm grasp on what your project will cost, it's now time to see if you can find some sponsors.
Seek co-op dollars from your vendors. Did you know that almost every vendor sets aside a portion of their marketing budget for use in co-op advertising? Often times, this money goes unused all year long because no one requests it. But some vendors have small co-op budgets that are used up early in the year. Contact your vendors in January if you think you might like to take advantage of their co-op dollars. Just because you're a small account doesn't mean a vendor will deny you their co-op dollars. If the big accounts don't want or need the money, vendors will usually offer it to whomever calls first.
You'll have many ways to use co-op dollars. Some vendors will purchase an advertisement in your newsletter, while others may want you to write an article recommending their product to your patients. Some vendors require no mention of their product, but offer a 1% to 2% co-op advertising benefit based on your annual purchases.
Don't be shy about calling vendors and asking for their support. Whenever you advertise your practice, it benefits your vendors too, so it's only fair that your vendors help foot the bill in some small way. Co-op advertising dollars could easily cut the cost of your newsletter in half. With some careful planning and multiple co-ops, you could even do your newsletter for free.
Write articles/promote your practice. Enough planning -- it's time to start your newsletter. Write your articles about every aspect of your practice. What's new in contact lenses? What's hot in your optical dispensary? Don't overlook the medical aspects of your office. Include articles about glaucoma, eye emergencies and allergies. Remember that while some topics may not be new to you, they may be interesting to your patients. Write a column "From the Doctor" and sign your name at the bottom. Consider having your optician write a column.
Patients are interested in things that their doctors find routine or boring. For example, you're required to do 20 or 30 hours of continuing education each year -- do your patients know this? Patients want to know that you're up to date on the latest techniques and training. Patients also appreciate learning about the latest high-tech gadgets in your office. Anti-reflective coating is old news to us doctors, but a patient having trouble with night-driving for the first time could find it interesting.
Don't forget to include basic eye health information. Do you recommend an annual eye exam? If so, your practice newsletter is the perfect vessel to tell your patients why frequent eye care is important. Other article ideas could include tips for eye safety, ocular nutrition and the latest research findings. If you have a lot of aging baby boomers in your practice, for example, consider featuring the latest findings on age-related macular degeneration.
Seek input from friends and family. You can hire the services of a a freelance writer/ designer, of course, but the costs for your newsletter will be much higher.
Layout and design. It doesn't matter how good your writing is or how interesting your articles are if your newsletter looks dull. Layout and design is tricky and can prove time-consuming. Make your layout easier by using a design program such as Publisher, Quark, Adobe Acrobat or PageMaker.
Be sure to use a variety of headlines, pictures, captions, blurbs and graphics to create interest. Many patients won't read an entire article, but they'll look at your headlines and captions -- use them to drive home your main ideas. If you need layout suggestions, you only have to look as far as your local newspaper -- or any of the periodicals in your waiting room.
A major consideration is the size of your newsletter (number of pages and actual measurements). A two-page newsletter printed on one piece of paper is quick and cheap, but my personal favorite is a four-page newsletter using a single sheet of 11x17-inch legal paper. Fold this format twice and mail it as a 5.5x8-inch self-mailing pamphlet.
Look at your newsletter one more time after it's folded, sealed, labeled and stamped. Does it look appealing? It may look great on the inside, but if it doesn't look good on the outside, why would anyone bother to open it?
Manage your expectations
Most experts agree that a response rate of 1% to 3% is typical for unsolicited direct mail, but expect a much higher impact with your existing patients. Your patients know you and trust you; they'll be much more receptive to anything they receive from your office. If you bring in enough new business to break even on the costs of your newsletter, then you've actually come out way ahead. Each new patient you gain may stay in your office for years, generating word-of-mouth referrals and income long beyond their initial visit.
For best results, mail your newsletter on a quarterly basis. Expect a modest response to your newsletter within about two to three weeks of its mailing date. I've found that patients will continue to trickle in for up to six months after my mailings. It's not easy to gauge the response.
For example, a new patient who read your newsletter may claim that she picked your office because you take her insurance, but there were 10 other doctors on that insurance list. Your newsletter should be one piece of an overall marketing plan that keeps your name in front of your community. So you may not always know which patients scheduled because of the newsletter.
Do You Want More?
For additional tips on creating your own practice newsletter from stem to stern, read OM's "Online Exclusive" for March at
. . . And their perceptions
Does the average person in your community know what you can do for them? Do they know to call your office first during an eye emergency? Do your own patients know that you diagnose and manage glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy? Are your neighbors aware that their children need an eye exam long before they start kindergarten?
If you answered "No" to these questions, then it's time to start managing the perception of your office in your community with a well-designed practice newsletter.
When you're done, frame your newsletter and hang it in your waiting room or post it on your practice Web site. A practice newsletter is a lot of work and it's something you can take great pride in.
Dr. Milburn is in group practice with his wife, Dr. Annamarie Milburn. He is a 2000 graduate of The Ohio State University College of Optometry. His practice newsletter is posted online at
www.drsmilburn.com. Contact him at e-mail
Optometric Management, Issue: March 2005