Guerrilla Marketing Your Practice

Gone are the days when you could advertise in the phone book. Here are some new and effective ways to bring in patients.

Adam Alpers knew a Web site would help promote his practice and introduce him to new patients searching online for a family physician. But he also knew it needed to be more than what he calls a “Hi, how are you?” site with simply his practice name and address.

“The most important part isn’t who you are, but what you have to offer, content-wise,” says Alpers, a family-practice physician in Ocala, Fla.

So Alpers developed a robust site, adding answers to questions his patients frequently ask, information on common medications, and links to outside information. Next to the Yellow Pages — a marketing staple to reach many patient communities — and word of mouth, an Internet search is a top way patients find his practice, Alpers says. “If you type in ‘primary care’ and ‘Ocala,’ I’m No. 1.”

But Alpers doesn’t stop his marketing efforts there. He sets up a table at the annual community health fair, sends an e-mail newsletter to his patients each month, and occasionally runs a brief commercial on a local cable network. “You have to put yourself out there,” he says.

Physicians are increasingly finding that a phone book ad or highway billboard isn’t enough to drum up new patients. Instead, many practices are adopting guerrilla marketing tactics — taking a page from the unconventional marketing approach originated more than 25 years ago.

Many practices are now using modern, effective, and cheap approaches to promoting their practices, and it’s time to get on board. Welcome to Guerrilla Marketing 101.

Commit to a new plan

Guerrilla marketing for a medical practice essentially means that the practice tries out a variety of different marketing tactics that are cost effective and flexible, says Marlee Ward, president of Rx MD Marketing Solutions. As healthcare becomes more consumer-driven, practices are really having to tune into what patients want and build relationships, rather than rely on the old school approaches. Where traditional marketing strategies are based on the principle of interrupting your audience with a “Hey, look at me” ad, Ward explains, guerrilla marketing engages the audience with a “Hey, how can I help you?” message.

“This is going to require that practice owners effectively communicate their value to the patients they want to attract,” Ward says.

Traditional marketing isn’t dead, she says, but instead is being supplemented and supported by some rogue methods.

Any marketing path you embark on requires a commitment, Ward says, so your first step is to develop a consistent strategy — and stick to it. Marketing in “spurts and fits” won’t work, she says.

“You can’t just send out a one-time postcard mailer and expect people to come beating down your door, or just run a radio ad once and expect people to call,” she says. “You have to be committed to your strategy and it has to be well thought out.”

It also has to make sense for your practice. Consider your practice’s offerings, patient base, and goals, Ward says. Your marketing plan should be carefully tailored to the services you provide and types of patients you want to reach.

Embrace some alternatives

Here are a few guerrilla marketing strategies to consider:

Use the Internet. From social media to online ads, the Web offers a whole new marketing world. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. First things first: Does your practice have a Web site? If not, you could be losing countless patients who are Googling for a primary-care physician in your city, town, or county.

Developing a site doesn’t have to be a major investment, either. Take Alpers for example; he built a site on his own that’s chock full of useful information, and he even admitted to not being that Internet-savvy. Consider free Web site design software and a few bucks a month to host the domain name.

“Most people nowadays are taking their first steps online,” Ward says. “The Yellow Pages is predicted to decline by 35 percent in readership over the next five years, so not being on the Web is just leaving a huge chunk of your target market out of the picture.”

But just as important as having a Web site is having a good one. That is, one that communicates information about your practice, what you have to offer, and how you can help prospective patients. That’s why Alpers wanted to go beyond an address and phone number and actually post useful, patient-friendly information.

Having a Web site out in the ether also won’t guarantee that you’ll be found. Search engine optimization requires a little more work on your end.

For example, when creating a site, you shouldn’t call it Dr. Smith’s Practice. Very few patients will key in your name during their search for a new doc. Instead consider a few key words in your title that denote your location and specialty, like “New York City” and “podiatry,” says Evan Bailyn, founder of First Page Sage, a search engine optimization firm in New York. “This small detail will dramatically change the results.”

Also take the time to list your practice in Google’s Local Business Center, a free listing that allows you to provide business information that will be seen when someone searches for a physician in their area, Bailyn says. “That’s a great way to get your practice front and center for anyone looking for a doctor,” he says.

Get out into the community. Once you’ve thought critically about how patients come to your practice, you can determine what people and groups you need to influence to direct more patients your way, says Linda Pophal, a marketing consultant and head of Chippewa Falls, Wis.-based Strategic Communications.

For example, if you’re a specialist and need to reach primary-care providers, try hosting an event to connect you, she says. This could be in person, such as a luncheon or an after-hours meeting, or virtually through a social media network.

Practices should be “thinking differently and being much more strategic in the things they are doing to reach out and connect with the right audiences,” Pophal says.

Also consider major employers in your area and how you might connect with them, such as through brown bag lunches or Webinars directed at a specific population.

“Too often we are just blasting out messages in a broad sense, and a lot of that time and effort and money is wasted because we aren’t reaching people who are in need of our services,” Pophal says.

Alpers says a number of patients come to his practice after he participates in the annual health fair hosted by the local retirement community. “We get exposure to literally hundreds if not thousands of patients,” he says, including his established patients who stop by at the health fair and introduce him to their friends or family.

Identify your target market — new parents, women, retirees, for example — and plan a public event at your practice with that market in mind. This allows patients to meet with you and your staff, see your office, and ask questions, Ward says. One of Ward’s clients offered a free skin cancer screening at an open house, and the practice was quickly booked out for two and a half weeks, she says.

And you know those packets of information and coupons that arrives at your door if you’re new in town? Those so-called Welcome Wagons are another place for practices to get their name out, says Shel Horowitz, marketing consultant and author of “Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World.” Contact the local Welcome Wagon distributor, hospitality association, or chamber of commerce, he says.

Be available to the media. Newspapers and television reporters are often looking for experts to comment on the health story du jour. Just think about the countless stories on the H1N1 flu virus, many accompanied by information about protecting yourself or getting vaccinated. Those local news stories are a great way to get your name out there. Consider what areas your practice specializes in, and put yourself out there as a knowledgeable source. Anticipate what kind of information the media might be looking for and be ready with some talking points.

“You want to do more than be there when they come calling,” Horowitz notes. “Send out notices that say ‘I am available if you need someone.’” A Web site can again be helpful here when reporters are poking around for local sources.

Pophal notes that being covered in the media can act as a third-party assessment of your practice and what you have to offer. That can not only put your name out there to prospective patients, but also lend a bit of credibility.

“Healthcare is such a popular topic these days; for those who are able to express themselves well and can offer something of real value, physicians in particular, there is a lot of opportunity out there,” she says.

Tap into the resources around you. Don’t forget that you have a 100 percent free source of marketing in front of you every day: your employees. A happy medical assistant who loves her job and knows the high level of customer service your practice offers will want to sing your practice’s praises. Educate and empower your employees to be ambassadors of your practice, Ward says.

Similarly, your patients can be a great — did we mention, free? — marketing force. Just like they do with a restaurant or a bank, your patients will share with their family and friends their experiences at the physician’s office. So take advantage of that by rewarding loyal patients who send referrals your way, says Ward.

“Physicians need to start looking at their patients as customers and their practices as businesses,” she says. Try a patient loyalty program, which provides bonuses to your faithful customers. If your office performs elective procedures, you could give a discount to those who refer you, such as 50 percent off a laser treatment, Ward suggests. “There are things you can do to encourage patients to reach out to friends and family,” she says.

Feel strange about asking your patients to refer you? You’re not alone. Stewart Gandolf, founding partner of the marketing firm Healthcaresuccess.com, says some docs get hung up on not wanting to look “needy or greedy or cheesy or sleazy.”

First of all, look for patients who are happy, and if they express their satisfaction, then seize that moment to tactfully suggest that they pass on the good word. Gandolf suggests this script: “I’d like to ask you a favor. If you like what we have done for you here, I’d like you to help someone be helped in the same way. I am sure they’d appreciate it, and we’d appreciate it, too. Would you do that for me?”

Patients tend not to refer others because it just never occurs to them to do so, Gandolf says. Sure, you could put a sign up in the lobby that says you’d happily take referrals, but that isn’t nearly as effective as a face-to-face suggestion. You can also rely on your staff to deliver a scripted request, he says.

But remember to only pitch referrals to your happy patients, and mark their charts after you’ve asked for the referral to avoid asking over and over, which will surely make you look needy.

“That’s Remedial Marketing 100,” he says of asking for referrals. “Yet most people aren’t doing it. Before you go off on all this crazy stuff make sure you are doing the basics.”

For Alpers’ part, he’s adopted a plan that helps him market his practice at a fraction of the costs he previously spent on advertising. He still relies on the phone book, but has cut the size of the ad and supplemented his approach with some guerrilla marketing tactics.

“I probably spend 10 percent of what I used to,” he says. “Today you don’t need to make a large investment. But don’t just look to promote your practice. You need to let people know you have an office that is running efficiently and [providing] excellent care.”

By Sara Michael

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