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Place your practice in the public eye

To grow your practice in 2019, resolve to up your marketing game. Here’s how.

In light of today’s challenging health-care landscape, chances are your ophthalmology practice could benefit from a resolution to up its marketing practices in the new year.

It’s true. Whether you’ve just launched a new practice or services, such as LASIK or retina surgery, or you simply face growing competition, the difference between thriving and just getting by could come down to the strength of your marketing campaign.

“Marketing influences patient decisions, so to stay in the game you must market your practice because every other practice is doing it,” says Marguerite McDonald, MD, FACS, with New York’s Ophthalmic Consultants of Long Island. Patients have choices, she points out, so you must take steps to lead them to your practice. “Moreover, they need reinforcement to stay in your practice.”

Keith C. Borglum, CHBC, a health-care marketing expert with Professional Management & Marketing in Santa Rosa, Calif., agrees. “Reimbursement for insured medical services keeps getting reduced, so practices have to be more efficient and effective in all aspects of their practice to remain solvent or to maximize profits.”

An effective marketing campaign helps achieve these objectives. Herewith, a primer on how and where to best maximize your marketing dollars.

START WITH A PLAN

It’s been said that failing to plan is planning to fail. Regardless of the size of your practice, a successful marketing campaign always starts with a comprehensive marketing plan. In its most essential form, this plan should cover your marketing message, which audiences to target with it, how best to reach them and, of course, a budget.

“A practice should never do marketing without a plan, which should always include a budget,” says Mr. Borglum, who notes that marketing budgets for ophthalmology practices typically range from 1% to 5% of collections for practices maintaining a given level of business; 5% to 10% of collections for practices wanting to grow; and 10% or more for practices in highly competitive markets or for those looking to add new services.

“During the recession, it was common to see marketing budgets of 15% or more of targeted collections for elective services like LASIK and blepharoplasty,” he says.

Other factors to consider in formulating a budget include your practice location and your choices of marketing vehicles and platforms. “There are regional differences in marketing costs — i.e., it takes a higher percentage of revenues to be heard above the marketing noise in LA than it does in Fargo, N.D., and ophthalmology may be different from other medical specialties in that we offer an unusually high percentage of elective treatments,” Dr. McDonald says.

CONTENT IS KING

With respect to marketing your practice, there’s no way around it: Content rules supreme, and determining the message is the first order of business. Every other aspect of your marketing effort — targeted audience, as well as your media and platforms — derives from this step. In this regard, virtually everything related to your practice is grist for the marketing mill.

“Patients have no other way to know what subspecialty services a practice offers,” says Cynthia Matossian, MD, FACS, founder and medical director of Matossian Eye Associates in Doylestown, Pa., and Hopewell, N.J. “Just because you are an ophthalmology practice does not mean you offer subspecialty services such as retina, oculoplastics, glaucoma or dry eye treatment. An easy-to-understand description of your specialties has to be clearly communicated to the potential patient.”

The landing page of her practice’s website, for example, features three large, prominent tabs labeled “Cataracts,” “Glaucoma” and “LASIK,” leaving no question what services are offered by Matossian Eye Associates. The website of Ophthalmic Consultants of Long Island highlights its services in similar fashion, along with tabs for financing options.

It also helps to highlight uncommon specialties your practice might offer — pediatric ophthalmology, for example. These specialists are less common than cataract specialists, but be forewarned: their marketing efforts require a much broader geographic reach because the density of patients is lower, Mr. Borglum explains. You can also zero in on the quality of your practice’s technology, the skill and experience of its physicians, any honors, awards or other recognition it has received, and beyond.

“Any publications, any ‘firsts,’ any charitable deeds (free surgery for the indigent, etc.), and heartwarming stories are all good,” says Dr. McDonald. “These are all great media hooks, too, which can also lead to free marketing.”

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE TO CHOOSE YOUR MEDIUM, PLATFORM

While content may be king, your target audience and the vehicles and platforms you leverage to reach them share the castle. What good is the most compelling message if it doesn’t reach its intended target? As with the message itself, your choices should reflect the services you aim to promote.

“Each subspecialty targets a different population; to succeed, your tactics need to be geared toward each unique population,” says Dr. Matossian. “The various audiences use different methods and sources to obtain information and make medical decisions.”

Most cataract patients, for instance — baby boomers and older — still rely on traditional media like TV and radio, along with community outreach and the recommendations of friends to help them choose their providers.

For this older demographic, advertisements and listings in properly targeted traditional media — such as ads in newspapers and local magazines, even roadside billboards — can still be effective, according to Mr. Borglum. Also, he notes that physician referrals continue play an important role with all groups. “One good professional referrer, such as an optometrist, is worth a dozen referring patients,” he says.

Marketing your practice: Do it yourself or hire an expert?

Virtually every ophthalmology practice faces the question of whether to handle marketing itself, contract with a marketing consultant or undertake some combination of both. As with other aspects of the marketing plan, the answer depends on factors such as the budget and practice goals.

“Small practices should use a marketing advisor on an as-needed basis and pay by the hour,” recommends Dr. McDonald. Larger practices, meanwhile, might enter into a retainer relationship with a marketing consultant that specializes in ophthalmology and/or employing their own marketing executive.

“Outside help should always be considered unless the physician is an expert in marketing,” says Mr. Borglum. “An internal marketing director is unusual for practices of fewer than five physicians. Otherwise, an outside consultant and the office manager should suffice.”

Dr. Matossian takes the latter approach. “Some aspects of marketing can be outsourced so the practice does not have to bear the cost of a full-time, in-house employee. We have an outside consultant helping us with social media, pushing noteworthy accomplishments by our doctors to our business Facebook page, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram accounts.”

THE INTERNET RULES

All that said, a carefully curated Web presence is paramount to effectively reaching all demographics, even if it means reducing reliance on traditional media.

“The absolutely best way to market now is using the Internet, both with a search-engine-optimized (SEO) website and with social media activity,” Mr. Borglum declares, citing online review sites, such as Yelp, Google, Vitals, HealthGrades and WebMD, as growing in relevance to practice success. “Testimonials are becoming more important with patient selection of physicians, so be sure to maximize your testimonials at those review sites,” he says.

Millennials and other younger patients seeking LASIK surgery and other procedures rely most often on social media and the recommendations of friends to choose their providers, Dr. McDonald points out. She adds that this generation of patients also prefers to make their appointments online.

“Online resources are where we spend our marketing dollars now,” agrees Dr. Matossian. “We have never placed ads in newspapers, on local TV or radio. We actively manage our website and post new features such as weekly blogs to drive traffic to our practice. New patients search for an eye doctor using online tools and no longer rely as heavily on the recommendation of their primary care doctors or family practitioners.”

DON’T NEGLECT INTERNAL MARKETING

Most practices eventually reach acceptable patient and revenue volumes, and external marketing can be scaled back, Mr. Borglum says, but “practices still need to keep up with internal marketing to retain patients and encourage referrals.”

Dr. Matossian concentrates a significant portion of her promotional effort on internal marketing. For example, her practice provides every new patient with a “welcome brochure” listing all of its physicians, along with each doctor’s subspecialty and picture. The brochure is also shared with patients whenever they are referred to another specialist within the practice.

“We send a personalized ‘thank you’ note to every patient who refers a new patient to us,” Dr. Matossian says “We have pens with our logo and practice name on it, which we make available for our patients at check-in and at check-out.”

MEASURE YOUR ROI

Measuring the impact of marketing on your bottom line doesn’t have to be complicated; some of the best ways are among the simplest and easiest.

“Put a question on your patient registration form that asks, ‘Who may we thank for referring you to our practice?’” Mr. Borglum recommends. “Tally the results monthly, and drop marketing efforts that aren’t generating an acceptable annual return on investment.”

Web- and software-based tools are also available to help track and strengthen marketing results. For example, Dr. Matossian uses an analytics software package called “Conclusn” in conjunction with her EMR system to help characterize her patient demographics and why they choose her practice, as well as to improve her marketing to these groups.

“The marketing reports from this software have highlighted the educational levels and hobby preferences in the demographic subsets that utilize our various services,” she says. “Accordingly, e-blasts can be customized to make the most impact on the target audience.”

The software also allows her practice to track the number of new patients, the number of premium implant procedures and the number of aesthetics-related services performed over specific time periods. “These can then be used as comparative measures to determine future growth,” she says.

MARKETING NEVER ENDS

The power of keeping your name and practice in the public eye cannot be overestimated, according to Dr. McDonald.

“When I was a solo practitioner in New Orleans, I was also the medical editor for the local NBC affiliate,” she says. “I was on TV every week at least once, and frequently two or more times. The effect on my practice was enormous — new patients streamed in, saying, ‘I saw you on TV, and I feel like I know you!’ That was a powerful lesson.”

Not every ophthalmologist can get regular air time on local TV or radio stations, but all can — and should — make internal and external marketing an integral part of their business operations, says Mr. Borglum.

“Continuous marketing is best, so the marketing is visible when the patient searches,” he says, adding that “seasonality may apply in some subspecialties.” Retinal specialists, for example, might consider making a special push during National AMD Month in February. Dr. Matossian notes that marketing never really stops for an ophthalmology practice. She advocates formulating a practice “mission statement” that highlights customer service and training staff on details like smiling, making eye contact and making patients feel welcome during each encounter.

“Marketing is a mindset that a practice has to embrace to place the customer first and make it a patient-centric business,” she says. OM