Subtleties of contemporary dental marketing

March 1, 1996
I don`t wish to argue. All dentists market. We always have. We market ourselves and our services by our choice of office decor and location; the clothes we wear; the words we use and in countless other ways. Sure, there are choices. We can market deliberately and well or unconsciously and poorly. We can focus on marketing as an integral part of our total patient-care package, or stumble along in ignorance, hoping patients wander in-as a random fly might stumble into a spider`s web or a blind hog

Effective marketing strategies strive for consistent singles rather than dramatic home runs.

John A. Wilde, DDS, PC

I don`t wish to argue. All dentists market. We always have. We market ourselves and our services by our choice of office decor and location; the clothes we wear; the words we use and in countless other ways. Sure, there are choices. We can market deliberately and well or unconsciously and poorly. We can focus on marketing as an integral part of our total patient-care package, or stumble along in ignorance, hoping patients wander in-as a random fly might stumble into a spider`s web or a blind hog might find an acorn.

Why do we, and every other individual and business, market? Books have been written on the topic-many of them. I believe, at the most basic level, marketing is our displaying to others how we choose to position ourselves and our business. It is the sum total of the efforts we use to represent ourselves and, hopefully, gain credibility within our community and with our prospective patients. By our marketing, we define who we are and in what we believe.

There is a critical component to successful marketing which seems to have eluded our profession: The essential ingredient to any marketing strategy (or business success) is a well-conceived plan which is consistently applied. Marketing is a series of inter-related efforts, each of which creates tiny rivulets of positive office positioning. These coalesce into streams which, over time, fill the rivers that flow to the oceans-of dental practice abundance.

We don`t want marketing strategies that strive for dramatic home runs, but rather consistent singles. We aren`t playing to win a single game. Our goal is consistent success, season after season.

The typical dental office, if it considers marketing at all, often focuses on such topics only after a slowing of the office creates plenty of "leisure time" to reflect on such strategies. Are we wise to wait for an office slow-down before implementing a marketing plan? God sends rain to the just and unjust. Surely, we will face feast as well as famine in our careers. The poor times will come, whether led by HMO, PPO, a strike in a major business or the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Virtually every other industry comprehends this. General Motors doesn`t put an ad in the paper when things get a little slow. Consistently, positive posturing of their company and its products are an essential part of their daily business life.

It seems mandatory to discuss marketing as internal or external. OK. I define internal marketing as an entire dental team living by the Golden Rule. Be polite, considerate, smell good. Treat others as you`d like your own oral health needs to be treated. Simple enough in concept, and something at which even the most inept of us labors to excel.

External marketing-the things we do to enhance our business image outside the office-is where the controversy and sporadic efforts reside. This might include Yellow Pages ads, newsletters, direct mail, newspaper or even television and radio advertisements. They all have in common a significant element of expense and a slightly less-than-palatable taste to all of us-a lingering aftertaste of unprofessionalism-even to those who proclaim otherwise.

I`d like to focus this discussion on some areas where the line between external and internal blurs or, in some cases, co-mingles. We`ll use as examples a number of patient-enhancement activities we have performed in our office for years with outstanding results. Each of the ideas we examine will hold to four consistent criteria:

1. The efforts will range from virtually without cost to very inexpensive.

2. Each will position your office in the best possible light of enhanced credibility.

3. While outside the office efforts will be employed (external marketing), none of these projects will be perceived by the public as advertising.

4. Each activity will be fun for all involved, and require little effort from busy office staff.

Every two months, our office sponsors a coloring contest. We select a picture from a coloring book and make duplicate copies for each contestant. Crayons are provided in the office, but the "serious competitors" take this important work home. We split the entries into two groups-basically those who can stay within the lines and those who can`t.

Our office displays two beautiful, stuffed animals which will be awarded as prizes. The "works of art" are posted on our office wall and add a wonderful personal or family touch, not to mention a profusion of color which would embarrass a maple in its full- autumn splendor. At the end of two months, two winners are chosen by whichever brave soul within the office is currently acting as resident art critic.

The second event we`ll consider is our annual Seniors` Appreciation Month. Every senior citizen who has an appointment that month is photographed. The pictures are placed on display in our office beneath a caption extolling the beauty and health of their mature smiles. At the end of our designated month, the photos are placed in a container and one is selected at random. The lucky winner is rewarded with dinner for two at a local restaurant as guests of our office.

Our final contest, and by far the most exciting, concerns our "no-cavity" club. A huge, stuffed animal is displayed in our reception area. It proudly wears a sign, proclaiming to one and all, that it will soon be the favorite possession of some girl or boy who wins our no-cavity-club contest.

The rules are simple: Each child with a perfect checkup, or who has his/her mouth restored to ideal health, places his/her name in a box. Every three months, one lucky winner is selected and awarded the large prize.

What we have described so far are three examples of highly-effective internal marketing. As promised, each is fun for all involved, requires little time or effort and an expense of under $100, while celebrating and rewarding our patients. Now, let`s apply the twist that increases these programs` effectiveness geometrically.

At the conclusion of our three events, the winner is photographed and his/her picture, the name of every contestant and a snappy little message composed by myself, appears in our local paper. We never pay a penny for this invaluable coverage. Because this reporting is presented as news-not advertising-our office credibility is greatly enhanced.

Our office has averaged a photo and/or story in our local daily paper at least once a month for years. What most dentists don`t comprehend is that newspapers are black holes that must be filled anew daily. There is a perpetual demand for newsworthy items. We are assisting the paper in local news coverage.

After each event is concluded, a reporter arrives at our office at a designated time and takes a photo of the winner with the prize and a smiling member of our staff. The journalist is given a typed list of all other entrants and a line or two of appropriate copy which compliments the photo.

I agree, the New York Times may not be interested. But, if this is your local paper, at least give them a chance. I would suggest you focus on area daily or weekly papers. Most large cities have community-based editions or separate publications that thrive on local news.

We have staff members arrange and prepare all the materials, as I feel awkward and self-serving presenting it myself. Our office manager has developed an excellent relationship with a local reporter. For the newspaper, office and patients, we have created a win/win/win situation.

A few other topics have resulted in one or more photos and articles concerning our office over the years:

- A story about our "virtual reality" glasses.

- Coverage of our intraoral- camera system.

- A photograph of me shaking hands with an associate doctor just joining our practice.

- A photograph and article about a new staff member.

- Notices of continuing-education courses we have taken.

- Articles on books and stories I`ve had published.

- A dental-health column I wrote for two years for a weekly paper in our area.

The key to marketing success is attitude. If this type of marketing is perceived within your office as fun, creative and inventive, the sky is the limit. Gather your team to create your own unique concepts to add to these few examples. Select an enthused staff member to champion the marketing projects.

Ms. Helen Keller once said, "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature . . . life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

Go create a daring adventure. Inform the people in your area about the excellence and compassion you offer.

The author has a private practice in Keokuk, IA. He is the author of Bringing Your Practice Into Focus, a PennWell Books Publication, as well as a new book, How Dentistry Can Be a Joyous Path to Financial Freedom.

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