Dental Marketing – Referrals Trump Everything

Online marketing, direct mail marketing campaigns, or patient referrals? Find out which are the most efficient methods of grabbing patients’ attention in this article by Dr. John Tucker and Elias Kalantzis.

Patient referralsby John Tucker, DMD, D.ABDSM, DICOI, and Elias Kalantzis

Got an extra $33 million lying around? That’s what Chanel paid for the most expensive advertising campaign of all time. More than $3 million of that budget was paid to the famous actor, Nicole Kidman.

Marketing and advertising are vital to a business’ success. However, during a down economy or uncertain times, it’s common for firms to cut back on marketing. Every successful businessperson, every entrepreneur, and every marketing company will tell you that is exactly what you should *NOT* do.

Guess what? They’re right.

In 1927, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) published an article showing that companies who maintained their investment in branding and marketing through the Great Depression came out 20% ahead of where they were at the start of the collapse. Before you chalk that fact up to a different time with a different business environment, an August 2020 article by Nirmalya Kumar and Koen Pauwels in HBR stated, “Companies that have bounced back most strongly from previous recessions usually did not cut their marketing spend, and in many cases actually increased it.” This principle hasn’t changed in nearly 100 years.

Increasing marketing spend has been proven to multiply profits during troubled times. It seems counter-intuitive. Let’s take a look at how advertising costs are determined by supply and demand. We’ll demonstrate it with a quick thought experiment. If you were going to place radio ads 3 weeks before a November election, would air time cost more in October or January? Of course it will be more expensive in October because the demand is high and the supply is low. During tough economic times, the supply is higher and the demand is lower which means you can stretch your current marketing dollars further. Due to the higher supply and lower demand, every dollar you spend in excess of your current budget will therefore exponentially increase profits. Simply stated – You get more bang for your buck.

So, what kind of marketing should you invest in? Perhaps a new website, Facebook ads, or Instagram. Maybe SEO, PPC, SEM, LMNOP? There is no doubt that online advertising is effective, scalable, and available. However, dentists aren’t online marketers. We’re dentists. So, what’s the problem? Just hire an online marketing firm, right? Ah, the innocence of ignorance. When hiring an online marketing firm it’s up to you to make decisions about whether you want your website to be dynamic/mobile friendly. The onus is on you to consistently create new engaging content, to be active on social media, to engage social media followers, determine which platforms to advertise on, establish your adwords budget, and figure out how to get positive reviews and glowing testimonials.

Identifying the right digital marketing partner is a slog. You’ll need to vet, interview, and hire the company and then cross your fingers hoping for a desirable return on investment (ROI). In fact, most practices cycle through an average of 4 online marketing companies before experiencing any semblance of desirable ROI. Unfortunately, due to variability of gatekeeper algorithms, even those companies who specialize in this area struggle. The average cost for a small business’s successful online adword campaign is over $10k per month. Again, there are benefits to online advertising and you should certainly have a presence, but perhaps there are other ways to maximize your marketing efforts.

Let’s look at some offline marketing strategies.

Do you scan every single email you receive? Do you actually look at every paid ad that pops up on your screen? 86% and 78% respectively, answered negatively to these two questions. Conversely, do you go to your mailbox, bring the mail in and mindlessly dump it into the recycle bin or do you first flip through each item – even if only briefly? After scanning each item and realizing that much of it is actually junk, then, and only then, do you discard it.

If you’re like most, you probably regard direct mail as mere junk mail. When developed, designed, distributed, and tracked properly, it’s not trash. It’s treasure. It’s effective, personalized, memorable, and trackable. Pay attention to your mailbox. You probably receive 2-3 postcards from different dental practices. They’re interchangeable. They look the same. They sound the same. They probably even have similar offers and – surprise, surprise – they are now accepting new patients. Or maybe the offer is for “FREE cleaning, FREE xrays, FREE exam” which sounds more like a monster truck rally than how most dental practices want to be perceived. Additionally, when the emphasis is on giving away free treatments, it’s no wonder these promotions attract low value, price-shopping patients which leads to more churn. The cycle continues.

Maybe you get those envelopes with a ream of coupons or ads in them. They are usually stuffed with 50 businesses and an average of 5 dental practices. That means your practice is sandwiched between the local bistro and carpet cleaning. Is this what you want? No, your practice is a standout, but it’s not standing out.

According to the US Small Business Administration, “Direct mail campaigns generate purchases five times larger than email campaigns. Combining email with direct mail led to the best results of all: purchases six times larger than email alone generated.” Most marketing companies that offer both online and offline marketing will admit this little known fact. Not convinced? In the same way digital-first companies such as Warby Parker and Glossier have begun opening physical stores to create a special experience, sending physical mail is a way to stand out from the crowd. Direct mail has been proven to be more shareable and have a longer life-span. Retail Wire’s 2019 study found that email has a lifespan of just a few seconds, while direct mail’s average lifespan is 17 days.

The key differentiating factor with direct mail is you must grab the recipient’s attention. Creating a compelling offer is as important as utilizing high quality printed material. Consider printers that offer paper in various weights and sizes, as well as high gloss, embossments, and foil printing options. Taking this “Tactile” approach to your marketing collateral, will undoubtedly make you stand above the crowd. The better the quality, the more memorable your ad will be, and the greater your chances will be to acquire new patients.

Also consider the importance of referral marketing. We all search online for restaurants and pay close attention to customer reviews. 93% of respondents to a Trip Advisor survey said they have perused online reviews when making a dining decision. In that same survey, 99% of respondents said they visited a restaurant based on the personal suggestion of a friend or family member.

Now, let’s pivot to your practice. Which patient is more valuable to your practice –one that you obtain through a Facebook ad or one that comes via a patient referral? Have you created a successful patient referral system that allows your patients to invite their friends and family to your practice? Why not? A recent Dental Economics article showed that 92% of consumers trust recommendations from people they know, people pay 200% more attention to recommendations from friends, and referred patients bring in 25% higher profit margins.

There are marketing companies, like Viva Concepts, that print high quality referral gift cards that you can hand to your patients. Out of several hundred dental offices that utilize their “care-to-share” patient referral program, the average response rate is 5.1%. That response rate by far exceeds any online or offline marketing. Aside from beautifully printed referral gift cards, Viva offers a dashboard to track your results and identify where your patients are coming from. Whether you use an outside service or create your own internal system, obtaining high conversion patient referrals it’s an absolute must.

Lastly, when enacting your 2021 practice strategy, remember that marketing is an investment and not an expense. Like any investment, the time to buy is when prices are low. To quote Warren Buffett, “Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.”

Besides patient referrals, keeping in contact with other professionals is imperative. Find out how your peers develop and maintain relationships with referring physicians here:

John H. Tucker, DMD, DICOI, D.ABDSM, has maintained a private practice in Erie, Pennsylvania since 1982. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine. Dr. Tucker has a special interest in the treatment of Obstructive Sleep Apnea. As a Diplomate of the American Board of Dental Sleep, he is exceptionally qualified to manage this serious problem with Oral Appliance Therapy. He has been actively treating patients in the Tri-State Erie area for the past ten years. Dr. Tucker founded Erie Dental Sleep Therapy, LLC, in 2007. Erie Dental Sleep Therapy, LLC, became the eighth AADSM Accredited facility in June of 2012. Dr. Tucker is passionate about educating the dental profession; he has presented approximately 1,700 hours of continuing education on treating the PAP intolerant patient with Oral Appliances Therapy nationally and internationally over the past six years. Dr. Tucker has also published numerous articles regarding Oral Appliance Therapy for OSA patients that are unable to tolerate PAP therapy.

Elias Kalantzis is the founder/co-founder of numerous businesses that have become household names in the Dental Sleep Medicine industry including OSA University, Pristine Medical Billing, Transform Dental Sleep, and He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Elias has an extensive background in marketing and business development in the dental industry. His personal mission is to spread awareness of sleep-related breathing disorders, the health consequences when left untreated, and alternative treatment options. Off hours, Elias enjoys fishing, cooking, playing chess, refining his winemaking skills, and spending time with family and friends.

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