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Neuromarketing and the effective dental practice website

Oct. 1, 2020
Surprisingly, an effective dental practice website is based more on emotion than marketing copy, credentials, or even logic. David A. Hall, DDS, AACD, wants to change the way you think about your practice website; read on for more.

I want to change the paradigm for how dental professionals view their practices’ websites. We like to think that we are rational beings who make decisions founded in logic. However, in light of our newfound ability to delve into brain activity with magnetic resonance imaging and other recent research developments, we’re finding that to be an outdated, quaint notion. I want to get you in touch with the reality of how human decisions are made.

Logic versus emotion

Let me illustrate with a famous experiment that was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 1999. 

Researchers used a supermarket that featured a display of French and German wines. Over a two-week period, they played French and German music on alternating days. On the days they played French music, the French wines outsold the German wines by three to one. On the days they played German music, the German wines outsold French wines by the same margin. But the most intriguing finding of the study came from questioning the customers. By a margin of seven to one, the shoppers denied that the music had any influence on their purchase.1


The application of neuroscience to marketing is called neuromarketing: the study of the influences—particularly subconscious ones—that affect our purchasing decisions. Dr. Terry Wu, who has a PhD in neuroscience, gave a presentation last year in which he said that 95% of our decisions are made subconsciously and are based on emotion. To illustrate, he told about a stroke survivor he called Frank who sustained damage to the limbic system in his brain, which is the center of emotion. Since our decisions begin as emotional activity, Frank now struggles with the simplest daily decisions.2

There are dozens of published studies that all bring us to the same conclusion—our buying decisions start subconsciously and can be influenced by factors that are so subtle we don’t even notice. Indeed, they occur very early in the decision process, heavily influenced by first impressions. We then use logic to confirm or validate the decision.

You may have thought that the purpose of your practice’s website, once you draw traffic, is to use logic to convince visitors to select you as their dentist. You would be much more effective if you thought of your task as an emotional one. This is the paradigm shift I want you to make. 

To cement the previous statement about decisions being subconscious, let me share one more study, this one by Max Planck Institute neuroscientists. Participants were asked to choose to push a button with their right or left hand and to record the moment they made that decision, while researchers imaged their brains with magnetic resonance. Interestingly, the researchers were able, using the imaging data, to predict the decision a full seven seconds before the participants were even aware that they had made a decision.3

An emotional connection

How can we apply this to your practice’s website? Once it is found by prospective patients, your website’s task is to create a feeling of comfort and trust so that patients will be receptive to your marketing message. Let’s address why and how to achieve that.

Douglas Van Praet, a highly successful marketer and a pioneer in neuromarketing, is also author of one of the most influential books on branding strategy, Unconscious Branding. In that book, he devotes a chapter to the importance of creating a feeling of comfort with the customer. Using successful examples from companies such as General Motors, Nike, Southwest Airlines, and Amazon, he explains how effective this can be.4

One study he cites is an experiment by researchers in the Netherlands. They asked waitresses to mimic the behavior of half of their customers by repeating their order back to them verbatim. For the other half of their customers, they repeated the order in their own words. When they mimicked customers, tips doubled.5

In another study published by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, researchers learned that people tended to favor brands that shared the same first letter as their own name.6

Van Praet summarizes the branding task this way: “This connection of people and brands is part of a much deeper identification. To achieve this connection, marketers need to tap into the part of the brain that seeks to merge with others. Just as people unconsciously seek a deep connection with people, brands become modern surrogates for this desire for connection. Great brands act as people that see the world as we see it, bonding us at the core of our being, as if to say, ‘That’s me!’ or ‘You got me!’”7

Why do so many television commercials these days consist of silly jokes? For some, that’s all they are. For others, the joke is the focus of the commercial while it delivers one simple benefit of the product or service. Van Praet explains, “[Laughter] is a signal we send to other people that synchronizes the brains of speaker and listener toward greater emotional attunement, the hallmark of successful communication. . . . Funny ads are more likable, and ad likability has been identified as one of the single best predictors of advertising success.”8

Common pitfalls

Your website should aim to create a feeling of familiarity, comfort, and likability. The header of your site is instrumental in forming the all-important first impression of your practice. Neuromarketing research tells us that visitors decide in a matter of seconds whether or not they like your practice, and that decision is heavily based on subconscious signals they glean from their first impression. It’s very important that the header of your website establish rapport. A common mistake where dental practice websites are concerned is to show a photograph of dental instruments or dental treatment. Such imagery makes many people nervous. Also, little is accomplished with a beautiful photograph of your city. Instead, choose photographs that your target demographic can identify with. For younger adults, post a photo of younger adults. For cosmetic dentistry where the target is overwhelmingly female, look for a woman with a beautiful smile. For family dentistry, show a family; for a more mature audience, an older couple.

Another common mistake is taking a braggadocious tone with web content. Van Praet warns in his chapter about bragging, saying that it can create social distance. “When someone tells us how great they are, we just see their flaws.”9 Of course, you do need to present your credentials, but present them using a less arrogant, more matter-of-fact tone. If you don’t have strong credentials, don’t try to embellish. That tends to feel inauthentic. Instead, focus on where you excel. Maybe it’s that you are affordable, or convenient, or gentle, or particularly friendly. Highlighting those aspects of your practice can be very effective because they will help prospective patients feel comfortable with you. Embellishing credentials, however, can put up barriers.

These tactics work. In a case study of a prominent dental group practice with a number one Google ranking in a major United States metropolitan area, the tone of their home page was changed from a pushy, braggadocious tone to a matter-of-fact, professional tone. Result: Their phone calls increased from 160 to 260 per month.

Most websites have pages explaining services offered by the practice. A common mistake is to see those pages as sales pitches. This stems from the erroneous thinking that the purpose of the website is to talk patients into making an appointment, using logic. If you approach this with the goal of increasing trust, you’ll dispense with the sales pitches and begin using these pages to enhance the trust people feel. Present good, quality, helpful information on these pages. Explain the procedures. Tell people what to expect. Don’t be afraid to share any drawbacks—doing so will actually enhance their sense of trust. Our visitor surveys show that good information here leads people to trust the practice and increases phone calls.

If you have a smile gallery, use full-face photographs so that visitors are able to identify with featured patients. Add a little warmth by using a first name and telling a little about the patient’s situation. Dentists who have been reluctant to post full-face photographs are often surprised to learn that when asked, many patients give permission.

Paradigm shift

This is the paradigm shift I wanted to teach you: For a more successful dental practice, use your website to create powerful feelings of familiarity, comfort, and trust.  


  1. North AC, Hargreaves DJ. The influence of in-store music on wine selections. J Appl Psychol. 1999;84(2):271-276.
  2. Wu T. Neuromarketing: The new science of consumer decisions. YouTube. June 6, 2019. Accessed July 16, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEtE-el6KKs
  3. Smith K. Brain makes decisions before you even know it. Nature. April 11, 2008. Accessed July 17, 2020. https://www.nature.com/news/2008/080411/full/news.2008.751.html
  4. Van Praet D. Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. St. Martin’s Press; 2014:115-145.
  5. van Baaren RB, Holland RW, Steenaert B, van Knippenberg A. Mimicry for money: Behavioral consequences of imitation. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2003;39(4):393-398.
  6. Brendl M, Chattopadhyay A, Pelham BW, Carvallo M. Name-letter branding. Kellogg Insight. November 1, 2009. Accessed July 21, 2020. https://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/name-letter_branding
  7. Van Praet, Ibid:134.
  8. Van Praet, Ibid:142-143.
  9. Van Praet, Ibid:123.
David A. Hall, DDS, AAACD, graduated with honors from the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry and ran a private practice in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for many years. In 1995, he launched a website promoting his own dental practice. After requests from other dentists for help with their websites, in 2009 he founded Infinity Dental Web, a marketing agency that provides digital marketing services for dentists. Contact Hall at (480) 273-8888.
About the Author

David A. Hall, DDS, AAACD

DAVID A. HALL, DDS, AAACD, graduated with honors from the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry and ran a private practice in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for many years. In 1995, he launched a website promoting his own dental practice. After requests from other dentists for help with their websites, he founded Infinity Dental Web in 2009, a marketing agency that does digital marketing for dentists. Dr. Hall may be contacted at (480) 273-8888.

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