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Why dental professionals need to get on Instagram

April 11, 2022
Instagram is no longer just a platform for sharing filtered photos of living our “best life.” Learn why you should be on this platform, and steps for getting started and growing your presence there.

It was the morning after Thanksgiving several years ago, and my wife and I were discussing whether our favorite restaurant would be open for brunch.

I searched their name in my internet browser, which informed me that their hours of operation could be affected by the holiday weekend. Then I clicked on their website, but there was no new information to be found. Instinctively, my wife had opened their Instagram page. Not only did she find out that they were open for brunch, she also found a picture of the pumpkin spice pastries they were serving that morning. We were soon on our way to give them some business.

This experience taught me that Instagram is no longer just an app for sharing filtered photos of living our “best life.” It's an essential platform for businesses and organizations to stay connected with their digitally inclined customers and members.

Related reading: Practice-building social media strategies

Instagram was released in 2010, six years after Facebook and seven years before TikTok. It is a visual-centric social media platform that has become a staple for many millennials and Gen Zs. Posts consist of one or more images or short videos. The text that accompanies the visuals is often of secondary importance. Here are some of the different reasons dental professionals should participate in Instagram, and how to organically grow a dental Instagram account.

Defining a purpose

Before investing time to create a professional Instagram account, first determine the purpose of creating your account. Some dental practice accounts are focused on patients. Others are created more for networking with other dental professionals. The purpose of the account will drive your content.

For example, if a periodontist creates an account to demonstrate her surgical proficiency to potential referring dentists, the pictures on the account may show perfectly reflected gingival flaps or videos of her suturing technique. However, if the account is meant to be patient-facing, the sight of pushing a needle through bloody gums may scare patients away from a procedure. The content focus would need to shift to accommodate this audience. Similarly, a cosmetic dentist will impress their dental colleagues with pictures of pristine, conservative tooth preparations in an Instagram post. However, my nondental wife has often told me that she finds the pictures on my computer of natural teeth taken with the lips and cheeks retracted to be “disgusting.” She prefers pictures that show full faces with big, natural smiles.

Defining the purpose of the account will also determine which types of audience members should be attracted to the account. If the account is for a practice, then it would make sense to try to engage users in the local community who would want to visit the practice. An account for a dental practice in Texas with 50% of its followers in Egypt may not serve the purpose of its creator.

Developing a following

Methods to grow a local following would be to ask patients to follow the account, tag local businesses in posts, collaborate with local influencers, or use hashtags specific to your local area (example: #MagicCity, #NOLA, #SoHo). Other dental accounts are created for the purpose of becoming a dental influencer; these
accounts may have a national or global reach. For example, a dentist who desires to promote a brand of scrubs or electric toothbrush may wish to have influence wherever those brands are sold. Creating content that has a greater reach means that posts should be relatable and the visual content should be engaging without the need for text (reliance on text limits the engagement of users who speak a different language).

When starting a new Instagram account, many new users seek advice on how to grow their following. The day that the new account opens, there will be zero followers and any content shared will be viewed by a very small number of people. I started an educational dental Instagram account with some of my fellow faculty members in early 2018. By the end of the year, we had gained about 500 followers. As of this writing, we now have around 83,000 followers.

My advice here is the wisdom gained from growing an account organically without the help of professionals. It was a tedious, slow process, and it was only possible because I enjoy creating visual content (photography and animations) and genuinely enjoy spending time on Instagram learning from other creators. If these tasks sound unappealing or outside of your skill set, it may be best to delegate the operations of your Instagram account to someone else on your team.

Quality followers and engagement

Growing the number of followers on an account is not nearly as important as gaining quality followers on an account. For example, when we first started our account, I would try to gain additional followers by showing my account handle at the end of my continuing education programs. When the program was over, three or four people from an audience of 40 might follow my account. On the other hand, a big part of our account growth occurred when larger Instagram accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers would repost our content, leading to hundreds of new followers for us.

Once the serotonin-inducing new-follower high wore off, I realized that the people who had followed our account because of some personal interaction were the core group of engaged followers. This group of followers would provide insightful comments in posts or send personal messages to participate in off-line activities. These interactions are also known as engagement and are likely a better indication of the success of an account than the so-called vanity metrics (i.e., followers or likes).

For a dental practice account, an equivalent example would be to request your patients [who like you] to follow your Instagram account. They can become your own influencers or advocates when they tag you in a post or show your account to their friends and family.

Practical tips

Here are a few small, practical tips for growing account followers:

  • Post regularly.
  • Tag or collaborate with larger accounts.
  • Create personal, engaging content.

In our case, regular posting means at least once a week. When our account posts less than that, we start to lose more followers than we gain. Collaborating with bigger accounts is the fastest way to gain followers. These collaborators do not need to be dental accounts. For example, a holistic dentist may collaborate with the account of a vegan restaurant, or a cosmetic dentist may collaborate with a plastic surgeon.

Finally, potential patients do not want to see stock photos or cartoons of a smiling tooth on your account page. They want to see pictures of you, your staff, your clean dental office, and your happy patients. And unless you are creating an account to network with fellow dentists, my wife reminds you, “less bloody gums, please.” 

Editor's note: This article appeared in the April 2022 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.

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