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Marketing in a crisis: Lessons dental practices can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic

June 1, 2020
Embracing the new normal can mean broadening your practice’s toolkit when it comes to digital marketing and patient outreach. Here's a look at how marketing changed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and what lessons were learned.
Kristie Boltz, Founder and CEO, myDentalCMO

In March and April 2020, the United States ground to a halt in a desperate attempt to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19. Most dental practices across the country became severely limited in how they could serve patients and were instructed to postpone nonemergency and nonessential care.

According to an ongoing biweekly poll conducted by the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute, during the final week of March 2020:1

76% of dentists surveyed said they had closed their offices to all but emergency patients due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

19% of dentists indicated their offices were completely closed.

80% of dentists said revenues during their office closures were less than a quarter of what was typical in their practices.

How can dental practices survive such a crisis, and how can you work to maintain contact, plan for reopening, and stay connected with an audience that has been through such a traumatic event?

Remember that every dental practice is different

During the early weeks of the crisis, there seemed to be one message and one message only being shouted from the marketing rooftops as offices closed their doors: shift to marketing emergency dental treatment services. 

Word was out that both Google’s cost-per-click (CPC) and social media advertising rates were declining. Pay-to-play models are easy to ramp up and down, making it easy for practices to shift ad spends. But with everyone in the same bidding pool, the CPCs for emergency terms increased. On social media, individual practices boosting nonrelevant content ran the risk of being seen as tone deaf and having their voices muffled in the chaos. 

Moreover, converting one-time visitors into lifetime patients proves challenging when they aren’t your target demographic. One size does not fit all, and this is especially true when it comes to the individuality of dental practices and their patient bases. 

Beware of dumping money into any marketing tactic trying to attract new patients to “save” your practice without a clear long-term marketing plan that focuses on your brand, patient experience, and retention. You’ll spend much more money and time than is necessary and you risk ignoring or alienating your more stable existing patient base.

The 70% rule of existing patients

The basics of dental marketing still apply, even in a crisis. Your dental practice is a business, and in most healthy general dental practices, the 70% rule applies:2

At least 70% of your income should be coming from existing patients.

It is 70% easier to market to existing patients than to new ones.

Does this mean you should ignore new-patient acquisition? Not in the least. Growing your practice happens when you attract new patients, preferably via word-of-mouth referrals. To continue to obtain these referrals, you need to nurture your existing patient family. 

Estimating the value of your patient base 

Ask yourself:

Who are your highest value patients?

Where do they spend their time?

What form of communication do they prefer?

How much is your average existing patient worth annually? 

How long do existing patients stay in your practice?

How much revenue do you lose if you don’t see patients for six weeks, 12 weeks, or six months?

How much is a new patient worth annually? 

How much does it cost to bring in a new patient?

If you don’t know the answers to these, you don’t know what your pre-COVID numbers were. Trying to return to that point can be difficult when you have no frame of reference. You must do the math.

Your dental software holds data that can identify and track key performance indicators (KPIs). Once you understand these data points, you can do the math to see where your real hit is, what is likely to be recoverable, and most importantly, who you should focus communicating with as you reopen.

Patients who recently came in for preventive hygiene therapy or other treatments and weren’t scheduled for another six months or longer may not incur a loss. The patients you had to postpone upcoming appointments for during the COVID-19 shutdown are the ones who are most at risk. 

Since you haven’t been able to create great experiences for them in your office while you’re shut down, did you try to create great experiences for them outside of your office using modern marketing tools such as video, social media, and email? Did you use old-school marketing tools such as letters and phone calls? Staying connected with your existing patients during a crisis is just as important as how you reconnect with them after the crisis. If you didn’t stay in touch, your investment of both time and money is now going to be significantly greater to keep these patients as part of your practice.

Marketing amid a crisis

Marketing during a time of upheaval can be challenging. Tying marketing messages into the crisis can seem opportunistic and may be drowned out by thousands of others doing the same thing.3 However, conducting business as usual may be seen as callous and may make people view you as irrelevant. 

Be authentic and empathetic

You, your team, and your practice must deliver a message of hope that hinges on your community coming together to effect positive change. Empathy is key in times of crisis;4 opt for warm, calming positivity over a cheap laugh, and strong, supportive messaging over fear-driven communication.

Shift your hierarchy position

People who will be remembered long after the crisis is over are those who managed to pivot from providing things at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (luxuries) to providing things at the base of the hierarchy (must-haves).5 Figure out where your practice fits on the hierarchy and what you and your team can do to meet your community’s most urgent needs in times of crisis, regardless of whether or not it’s connected to your most profitable services.

Seek ways to be active and visible in your community

Start with the winning combination of “grassroots meets digital” approach. Partnering with other local organizations can open doors for you to help benefit your community. Being hyperlocal is the best thing organizations can do in times of crisis, and dental practices are often extremely hyperlocal.6

Marketing in the aftermath of crisis

Embracing the new normal can mean broadening your practice’s toolkit when it comes to digital marketing and patient outreach. 

Pivot with the trends

As the COVID-19 pandemic prompted community after community to shelter in place, ad spend on Facebook spiked slightly, peaking at 150% of the pre-COVID baseline at the end of March. Google spiked nearly 500% the same weekend, indicating that people were seeking information via Google rather than from their social platforms.7 

However, Google temporarily disabled new reviews and questions and answers during that same timeframe, allowing Facebook to become the more accessible option for patient feedback.8 This could mean your practice family is now more likely to leave Facebook reviews. As dental offices reopen, this is a perfect opportunity to encourage reviews to be generated.

Examine your ad spend

Is the internet your largest source of new patients? That’s a dangerous eggs-in-one-basket approach. If you had to conserve cash and pulled back on your search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising efforts for 90 days, your new-patient acquisition may likely be significantly lower than prepandemic levels. 

You’ll need to seriously capitalize in the third quarter and make a plan to replace that patient funnel with other sources. There are a limited number of people online searching for dentistry, and many may now go with a personal, word-of-mouth recommendation over a Google search result. Their friends are likely more trustworthy when it comes to telling them how safe it is to visit your practice.

Embrace social media

Social media is a powerful way to reach those seeking health-care advice online, as US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, pointed out during an appeal for young Americans to take COVID-19 seriously and practice social distancing to flatten the curve.9 

Guide your budget toward social media and focus on providing high value information. Spend time and money nurturing the valuable connections you’ve already made. Invest in your existing patient base, and let them be your ambassadors to their friends, family members, and peers.

Invest in teledentistry

According to a March 2020 study, 53% of the health-care practitioners surveyed said they were using telemedicine because of the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 but admitted they had not used telemedicine prior to the pandemic.10 Teledentistry is one avenue dentists can use to connect with patient populations anywhere at any time. A range of tools exists, such as virtual consultations, that can be quickly and easily implemented by dental professionals to provide remote services to patients.

Zoom, a video chat application, became the top-ranked business app in 141 mobile markets during the final week of March.11 People downloaded apps for every conceivable industry vertical as the idea of working, conducting shopping, and attending appointments from home became the new normal.

By being willing to shift your approach, even incrementally, you can adapt to the post-COVID marketing landscape and continue to grow your dental practice. You might even find new approaches you had never considered before.


1. HPI poll examines impact of COVID-19 on dental practices. American Dental Association.  April 1, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://www.ada.org/en/publications/ada-news/2020-archive/april/hpi-poll-examines-impact-of-covid-19-on-dental-practices 

 2. Rozen S. New vs. existing customers: Balancing your revenue mix. Optimove. April 24, 2016. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://www.optimove.com/blog/balancing-your-new-existing- customer-revenue-mix 

 3. Jennings KR. Where today’s hurt meets tomorrow’s hope. Business Grow. April 6, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://businessesgrow.com/2020/04/01/tomorrows-hope/ 

4. Fishkin R. Marketing in times of uncertainty. Moz. April 3, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://moz.com/blog/marketing-in-times-of-uncertainty 

5. Geffen D. For business to win in the coronavirus crisis, head to the bottom of the pyramid. Business Grow. April 6, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://businessesgrow.com/2020/04/06/coronavirus-crisis/ 

6. Ellis M. How your local business can be a helper. Moz. April 9, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://moz.com/blog/how-your-local-business-can-be-a-helper 

7. Retail pulse. Within. March 13, 2020, through April 13, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://go.within.co/retail-pulse 

8. Sterling G. Google temporarily disables local reviews. Search Engine Land. March 20, 2020. Accessed April 14t, 2020. https://searchengineland.com/google-temporarily-disables-local-reviews-331179 

9. Gandolf S. Coronavirus: 5 ways you can use social media and digital marketing to help the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare Success. April 5, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://healthcaresuccess.com/blog/healthcare-advertising-agency/coronavirus-5-ways-you-can-use-social-media-and-digital-marketing-to-help-the-public-during-the-covid-19-pandemic.html 

10. Han J. Telemedicine could be more widely adopted due to the Coronavirus. Emarketer. April 13, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://www.emarketer.com/content/telemedicine-could-be-more- widely-adopted-due-to-the-coronavirus?ecid=NL1001 

11. Hutchinson A. People are spending 20% more time in apps during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Social Media Today. April 3, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://www.socialmediatoday.com/news/people-are-spending-20-more-time-in-apps-during-the-covid-19-lockdowns-re/575403/ 

KRISTIE NATION is the founder and CEO of myDentalCMO, a marketing consulting firm that provides strategic marketing “treatment plans” exclusively for dental practices. The firm was founded with a mission to prevent dentists from wasting countless dollars marketing their practices ineffectively. She can be reached at [email protected] or (877) 746-4410.

About the Author

Kristie Boltz | Founder and CEO, myDentalCMO

Kristie Boltz is the founder and CEO of myDentalCMO, a marketing consulting firm that helps dentists make smarter marketing decisions and trains dental teams to execute on those decisions. As a result of her head for numbers and passion for teaching, people often say their practice marketing dollar has never been more effective. Schedule a chat with Kristie at mydentalcmo.com or call (877) 746-4410.

Updated February 2021

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