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Cost-effective marketing for a start-up

May 1, 2020
Every start-up doctor has heard this from every consultant and advisor, over and over again: Marketing is the holy grail.

Every start-up doctor has heard this from every consultant and advisor, over and over again: Marketing is the holy grail. Marketing is the lifeblood of the practice. Marketing is the magic key that will unlock the secret to get your practice from zero patients to a full-blown, bustling, multioperatory dream . . . Talk about pressure!

It is undeniable, especially for practices that are being built from scratch: marketing is an essential component for success. But for many doctors, marketing is also an enigma. It is something we know almost nothing about. Our schools usually do not cover it, and if they do, it is not sufficient to understand the subject comprehensively. Like many other business services, finding a “dental marketing specialist” is easy to do. But although there are hundreds of businesses that offer these services, vetting them is close to impossible. And then comes the matter of budget. Marketing can be one of the most expensive investments for a start-up, especially when it doesn’t bring the expected value. 

Therefore, like many other doctors, when I did my dental start-up, marketing caused immense anxiety (and anxiety is not in short supply during a dental start-up). Through trial and error, countless mistakes, and endless pivoting and adjusting, I learned a thing or two about marketing a practice. One of my most surprising finds was that, often, some of the most inexpensive (and rewarding) marketing methods would yield the highest ROI. Some of these techniques, integrated into a comprehensive marketing plan, can change the trajectory of your dental start-up.

In today’s dental marketing world, a lot of the strategy that major marketing companies advise is very “cookie cutter.” The prescription is very similar from one proposal to another. But that is the catch-22 of marketing. They offer these services because they have worked, but in order for marketing to truly be effective, it has to be unique. That is why, with some creativity, marketing techniques that sway from the norm can be integrated into a more comprehensive plan to create some pretty astounding results.

Community engagement

One of the pulse points of low-cost, high-efficacy marketing centers around community engagement. Dentists, by design, are relationship builders. It is one of the most important parts of our job for many of us, and we usually are naturally good at it. If we lend this skill to the arena of marketing—building relationships in our communities to spread the word about our practices—not only can it be very effective, it can also be very rewarding.

The age-old argument of direct mail 

When discussing dental marketing, nothing will polarize a room like the discussion of mailers. They have a reputation for being very expensive, often thrown away or disregarded, and rarely working. That is why, in my practice, I targeted the audience and the messaging to make the direct mail technique more effective in money and results. Dental start-ups are usually strategically set in a location with a high growth rate. With many people moving into the area, they will naturally need new resources, including a new dental office. A great way to introduce your office is direct mail targeted to new movers. 

Local companies can sell a list of new move-ins that can be narrowed by price of home and even families and ages. Where to attain these lists is very regionally dependent. I would recommend starting with the post office and local real estate firms. They may have the list or will be able to direct you to private companies that can sell them. These lists are usually very cost-effective and not too expensive (usually ranging from $60-$120). 

The content of the mailers needs to be less about your dental practice and more of a warm welcome into the neighborhood. This can be a greeting card with a short welcome message, a neighborhood welcome newsletter, or anything else (get creative!). You can include a list of recommended local restaurants and businesses and even partner with these businesses to include coupons. Open rates for mailers tend to increase if the mailers are hand addressed and the envelope or ink are a unique and outstanding color. 

Because this “old-school” method of marketing has decreased in the past few years, its uniqueness (and thereby efficacy) has recently seen an upturn. Research by the Data & Marketing Association shows that direct mail, when done correctly, has the highest response rate out of selected media and has increased by 190% since 2015.1

Community philanthropy

Recognizing needs in your community, solving community problems, and giving back (especially as a team) are exceptional ways to contribute to your marketing efforts and team-building. In my practice, this was the most rewarding way to market since it hardly felt like marketing at all. It spoke to the philanthropy and contribution desires that drove me to become a dentist and open a practice in the first place. Some ideas include:

Call your local fire department and ask the fire chief if your team can prepare and deliver a meal for them one night (make sure to ask about allergies and diet restrictions!). A spouse of a firefighter once told me that they are often called to fires in the middle of dinner prep, so having a ready meal is a treat for them. Be sure to include toothbrushes and toothpaste so they can keep them on hand at the fire station. 

Find the local Girl Scout troop and buy a large supply of their cookies. Bonus: You can go with the troop to donate the cookies to local homeless shelters! 

Find your favorite local eatery and run a Facebook competition. You can encourage your patients and their network to like and follow your page to win a gift card to a local business to create alliances and relationships in the community. 

Create a mutually beneficial campaign with a local business. For example, partner with the local optometrist for a special such as “free whitening with the purchase of two eyeglasses” or “free smile makeover consultation after LASIK.” You could also connect with a local salon and offer a “free blowout with purchase of whitening trays.” The great thing about these campaigns is they are beneficial to both businesses and also help patrons find their needs. 

Attending local events such as farmer’s markets, school and health fairs, and community events to offer health screenings is a great way to help make your community healthier while helping garner attention in the community for your business. 

Social media—it’s a small world 

Social media has been an absolute game changer for cost-effective marketing. It is a great way to create a community and quickly and easily send messages and brand yourself. Although the world of social media has evolved significantly in the past few years, and some experts state that the game has become more “pay-to-play” (paying for boosting posts and advertisements to be seen by your audience in their feeds), luckily the costs to participate in paid posts is relatively low. For example, a $10 boost on Facebook can increase viewership by hundreds of people, and your audience can be targeted by age, gender, interests, and location.2

Consistency is key

Algorithms on popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram dictate visibility, and an engaged audience thrives on consistency. Frequent posting has shown to increase the audience’s engagement significantly.3 According to CoSchedule’s analysis of 10 data-driven studies, the following are the recommended intervals for posting to five major social media platforms:3

Facebook: 1 post per day
Twitter: 15 tweets per day
Pinterest: 11 pins per day
LinkedIn: 1 post per day
Instagram: 1-2 posts per day

Although the numbers may seem incredibly high, there are ways to achieve these numbers. First of all, choose the platforms that are most important to your intended audience. For example, Instagram is a better way to engage younger audiences than Facebook, and LinkedIn is a great way to build coreferral relationships with other businesses and providers including MDs and primary care physicians. Creating a vision board (yourself or during a team meeting) to define the practice’s ideal patient—and that patient’s ideal messaging—will help define your marketing and social media strategy. Then you should focus only on the platforms that give you the best ROI.

Second, don’t be shy to repurpose your content and cross-refer. If you post a picture of your local community engagement activity on Facebook one day, you can use it for LinkedIn or Instagram a week from now. If you post a picture on Instagram, you can encourage followers on another platform to go to Instagram to like the picture and follow you on that platform. 

Third, scheduling tools and content calendars can be life-saving for social media that is self-managed. If you create a monthly calendar that outlines the posts you want to create, and then use a dashboard such as Hootsuite or CoSchedule (there are many others) to schedule the posts for optimal times, it will take the brainwork out of social media management and free you up to focus on other elements of your business. Following a monthly theme is a great way to inspire yourself for content creation.

Track, track, track

The most important element of marketing, especially marketing that you manage yourself, is to track ROI. This is one of the most challenging components to marketing strategies. Not only does this take a lot of intention, good systems, and consistent follow-up, but sometimes it is hard to trace where a patient came from. Sometimes the referral source is very straightforward, like when a new patient walks in with a direct mail coupon. But if your new patient saw a post on Facebook, then saw your booth at the local farmer’s market, and then finally was persuaded to come in when their MD referred them, who gets the credit? 

One solution to this dilemma is to outline the goals for each marketing campaign. For example, if you are doing a Facebook contest to collect likes, this is done with the intention of increasing your online followers and building a marketing community. The tracking for this marketing effort should not be measured in new patients in the office, but by follower size. If you have sent a new mover campaign, you should evaluate if this is to make them more aware of your office (branding and recognition) or to drive them into your office (in which case, they may need an incentive, such as a coupon or offer). 

In the game of marketing, goals are key. If you know who you want to attract and what you want to accomplish, there are unique, rewarding, and fun ways to incorporate low-cost marketing into your business plan. Get creative and have fun!


1. Patel N. 13 reasons why direct mail isn’t dead. NeilPatel.com. Accessed March 1, 2020. https://neilpatel.com/blog/direct-mail-effectiveness/ 

2. Vahl A. Boost posts or promoted posts on Facebook: Which is better? Social Media Examiner. Published January 8, 2019. https://socialmediaexaminer.com/facebook-boost-posts-promoted-posts/ 

3. Shane D. How often you should post on social media, according to 10 studies. Inc. Published June 8, 2018. https://inc.com/dakota-shane/how-often-you-should-post-on-social-media-according-to-10-studies.html 

AMISHA SINGH, DDS, is a clinical assistant professor and the acting director of diversity at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine. She serves on the Colorado Dental Association (CDA) house of delegates, the American Dental Association (ADA) dental well-being advisory committee, and the ADA national advisory committee on health literacy in dentistry. She is the CDA new dentist committee chair for Colorado. Dr. Singh is also a blogger and professional speaker who works with IgniteDDS to inspire other dental professionals.

About the Author

Amisha Singh, DDS

Amisha Singh, DDS, serves on the Colorado Dental Association (CDA) House of Delegates, American Dental Association (ADA) Dental Wellness Advisory Committee, and the Metro Denver Dental Society and CDA Membership Councils. She is the CDA New Dentist Committee chair-elect, as well as a blogger and professional speaker working with IgniteDDS. Dr. Singh is the Advanced via Individual Determination (AVID) health-care liaison for Denver Public Schools and a workforce diversity consultant for the Colorado Department of Public Health. An ADA Success speaker, she participates in the ADA Institute of Diversity in Leadership and is the founder of the CDA Diversity in Leadership program.

Read Dr. Singh's DE Editorial Advisory Board profile here. 

Updated April 8, 2021

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