HOW TO PROFIT FROM... cyberspace

Well-designed Web sites create tremendous practice identities in the minds of site visitors when they are interesting, full of content, and relevant. Web sites are not just glorified Yellow Pages, and they are a waste of money if they are not created for a specific marketing purpose.

Is a Web site something you should do?

Frank A. Weir II, DDS, MBA, MSHA

Well-designed Web sites create tremendous practice identities in the minds of site visitors when they are interesting, full of content, and relevant. Web sites are not just glorified Yellow Pages, and they are a waste of money if they are not created for a specific marketing purpose.

Web sites are vastly different from static print media or television. They are interactive and content-driven. Dentists who want to create sites where they simply post practice hours, location, practice philosophy, and services should save their money. Such sites offer very little practice-building opportunities, because real differentiation of your business is not taking place.

Web sites increase demand for your services when people come back to your site for more information and updates. Most dentists, on the other hand, want the site to generate increased demand for their services. Whether it be for information, filling out an online practice survey, or finding out what you have to say about a recent "20/20" program on amalgam toxicity, return visits to your Web site, like hygiene recall, are critical to site success.

Why consider a Web site now?

In two years, some sources estimate that over 75 percent of the population will use the Web for getting information or making an online purchase.

"Costs for creating and hosting Web sites have fallen dramatically in the last three years," according to Artie Romero of Citystar Online (www.citystar.com) in Colorado Springs. Romero has been following the market closely for more than three years. He says, "In the spring of 1996, the best deal for hosting [a Web site] in the Denver-Colorado Springs area was $100 a month for a moderate site. Now, you can get site hosting in many places around the country for $30 or less a month."

Another consideration is the ease in updating your Web site. To be effective, sites must be changed periodically. Adding new information creates reasons why people want to come back to your site. Today, it is easier than ever to update and maintain Web pages.

It is now relatively simple and cost-effective to include visually striking graphics. Java™, Java scripting, and Microsoft`s ActiveX™ technology have made it easy to create amazing effects at low cost. Some of these effects include hover buttons, scrolling marquees, animations, changing banner images, scrolling text or drop-down boxes, and image-mapping, to name a few.

How can a Web site be of much help in promoting and marketing a local dental practice? Two things have to happen: you have to get local people to your Web site and the site has to be interesting and relevant to them. If your site is interesting and relevant, people will visit more than once. When you have people returning to your site, whether they are existing or potential patients, you have a captive-market population that will be influenced to purchase your services and products. Demand will rise.

Getting people to your site

People in your area will find out about your Web site in four principal ways:

(1) piggy-back marketing

(2) internal marketing to patients

(3) word of mouth

(4) search engines

Piggyback marketing means you put your Web-site domain name (known as URL) on all business cards, brochures, stationery, and bills. Internal marketing involves telling your patients about your Web site and what it has to offer them. Word-of-mouth discussion of your site occurs because people like to talk about their doctors and how good they are. It is a very natural extension to expect that people will talk about your Web site, if it is an exciting and interesting place to go. People feel very good about being associated with a practice that is progressive and on the cutting edge of technology.

When your site is first put up, you can register your domain name with more than 700 search engines, such as Yahoo, Alta Vista, and Excite, for about $40. Once your site is up, search engine "spiders" or "robots" will peruse all of your pages for repeating words, such as: cosmetic dentistry, gentle, orthodontics, endodontics, restorative, etc. These repeating key words effectively make you an expert to the search engines. It is these repeating or key words on your site that causes your domain name to come up in the results listing, when local and national searches are done on a particular dental subject that you have covered in some detail on your site.

This is one area where new-patient opportunities at the local level are very real. This also is why Web-masters say, "Content is king." Do not underestimate the power of search engines in helping you with new-patient flow. Remember, for search engines to be of value to you, you must talk about what you like to do in your practice. Local awareness of your Web site is what matters the most. National awareness is relevant for people who are moving to your area from another part of the country.

Practice-specific marketing

Web sites are highly interactive and visual. This means that clients (people who visit your Web site) can send you information, retrieve selected information, and choose what and where they go on your Web site, including hyperlinks that send clients to other parts of your Web site or away from your site altogether. Your site can gather data about people who visit, request their e-mail addresses, and offer a host of other interactive options.

While Web marketing is in its infancy, it is not too early to see the enormous potential for drawing new patients and promoting services to existing patients. The following are specific marketing and communication techniques that you can do now on a Web site. Individual Web pages can be created for each of the headings listed.

Never has there been an easier or more cost-effective way to get patient feedback than through a Web site. At the conclusion of their appointments, all patients should be invited to visit the Web site and tell you their opinion about the care they received.

Wide varieties of survey questions can be asked. Radio buttons, check boxes, and scrolling text boxes allow for lots of patient feedback direct to your e-mail box. If you have patients who are not yet on the Web, now is a good time to ask them to have a friend take them to your Web site on their computer. That way, you get "double exposure." One last point: allow patients to fill in the surveys anonymously.

News about your practice and dentistry

All dental Web sites should have a news page. Updated monthly, this page tells patients new things that you are doing in your practice. It can cover such areas as new equipment, new staff members, continuing-education courses you have taken, and new services your practice is offering. On this page, you can have a scrolling, drop-down text box with a question that asks patients what additions they would like to see in your practice. Patients can type in their answers with as much text as they want and e-mail it to you.

While in the office, have one of your staff members invite your patients to tell the world what they like about your practice and the doctor. Ask if it is OK to publish their comments on your Web site. New comments should be added regularly to this page. It`s a guarantee that your patients will go to your site to see their own name in "e-print."

Once there, if your site looks interesting, they will check out the other pages. This is great exposure and, if patients discover new services and procedures you offer, they likely will tell someone about it ... especially if your Web site asks them to do so!

What other items of interest can you put on your Web site? OHappy BirthdaysO always are good to use and can be posted easily. Specific sections of your practice can be targeted, such as a cosmetic page with image maps that show ObeforeO and OafterO results. One more click and patients can fill in a questionnaire on their cosmetic concerns and ask you to contact them.

A page or two with a game theme can be created for teenagers who like to be amused when online. Amusement, combined with dental education and the chance to win something from the practice, is a good marketing tool. Teenagers tend to talk and send friends to OcoolO sites. You want your name and site buzzing around e-mails, instant messages, and hyperlinks.

Web sites are well worth considering to promote your practice. They have great marketing potential at the local level. To be effective, though, they have to be worked like any other marketing project. The unique and interactive features about a Web site make it a particularly appealing option for dental practices looking for new marketing opportunities.

What Web sites cost

To create a site that accomplishes the three marketing goals (i.e., interesting, relevant, and full of content), you should expect to spend between $1,800 and $3,500. Some sites can be created for less. You should not have to spend more unless you are creating a very sophisticated site.

Some low-cost, get-your-name-out-there companies will give you from one to three pages for under $100! But these low-cost companies do very little in the way of practice promotion.

Hosting (parking fees for your Web site) should cost $25-$100 a month, depending on who you work with.

Maintenance involves both staff time and paying a technical person to update your pages. Technical updates can be done routinely for less than $50, depending on the complexity of your site.

Other costs include registering your domain name with Internic every two years for $70.

More in Practice