In this article, I’ll discuss patient acquisition for private paying patients and insurance practices and for people running their own fully private dental practice. I’ll give you some preliminary advice and then get into where you can find the best ROI for patient acquisition from each of the main marketing channels.
As a digital marketing professiona,l I get asked the same questions a lot. I’m sure every dentist reading this has been asked for advice about (or even to perform improvised examinations of) broken fillings and dodgy veneers at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs.
Professionals give advice and when people meet a professional they always want a tip—and professionals are always proud (and a little bit flattered) to be the one with the answer.
As a dental marketer, the question I typically get asked is, “how do I get more patients?”
I thought I’d clear the issue up so we can focus our family gatherings more on trying to guess the price of the venue or where they got the wine from.
Do You Need More Private Patients?
For many practices, the answer is “no.” I know this sounds crazy but it’s true. More businesses go bust by growing than in any other way and although more patients usually mean more revenue, it also brings increased costs of servicing that revenue. Sure, patients are the lifeblood of your practice, but—just in case you didn’t notice—they are also the cause of all your problems and sometimes extremely expensive to find.
If you don’t have a clear financial picture of what’s going on in your practice, then you are doomed. Patient acquisition is a stressful, fruitless and downright dangerous business for many…and here’s why.
Learning to Calculate ROI
When people think of ‘getting more patients’ they think this can only be achieved by advertising. This is a fallacy. Most people think along the lines of;
“Hey I spent £500 on Facebook and got £1,000 back in revenue. I’m winning at Facebook!”.
In my business, our net profit margin can be anywhere between 20% and 60% depending on revenue levels. In a slower month (those months when you usually decide to advertise out of necessity), here are some hypothetical numbers for a couple of new whitening patients.
Marketing spend £500
Revenue £1,000 – if you’re lucky
Associate fees £500
So, you lost £600 acquiring your patients. Do that a few times and you’re heading for real trouble. I hope you can see from this simple example how ‘overtrading’ can cause you to run out of cash quickly.
Going back to the example above, many inexperienced marketing agencies will tell you they are making you a 100% margin because they’re just looking at marketing spend and revenue. They assume the rest is up to you. I see this absolutely everywhere and it’s causing eight out of ten businesses to fail within the first 18 months, says Bloomberg.
To calculate return on investment or ROI, you need to always use the net profit in your calculation, not the revenue. For that, you need monthly management accounts (or a decent advertising agency)—because if you’re losing £100 per patient for a whole year before your end of year accounts show up you’ll already likely be unable to pay your bills or cash-flow insolvent.
What Type of Patients Do You Want?
This is another preliminary issue to get cleared up before we get to the main issue of how to get more patients. What sort of people do you want in your dental chair? I ask this question to all the dentists I meet and the answer I get is usually:
“People with money who have loads of dentistry that needs doing—and they want me to do I for them.”
Another fallacy. Those are the people who are:
- If they are not nice people: going to land you in trouble with the regulator
- If they are nice people: they already have a dentist.
You want motivated patients sitting in your chair. Patients who value what you do and who have healthy mouths and look after their teeth. Unfortunately, they also probably also have a dentist but you’re going to learn to be better than them and advertise effectively if you read on.
Someone who has not been to the dentist for 20 years and wants 20 veneers is a complete nightmare and we—as an industry—have got to stop thinking so much about short-term gains and money and start thinking about the solemn promise we made to heal people and to look after them.
Remember ‘healthcare’? That’s the business we’re in.
You need to avoid the patients who don’t care about dentistry and don’t be tempted to take a King’s Ransom (do you have an Americanism for this English idiom?) when the case is completely out of your competency and might risk the health of your patient and your entire livelihood.
So, to answer the question, ‘how do I get more patients?’ you first need to be aware of what good looks like and who to turn away and who to refer to another practice. Where does this process start? Marketing. That’s where. So does your digital agency understand what good looks like for a dental patient? Just ask them.
So, How Do I Get More Dental Patients?
So, assuming you have financial clarity and a half decent practice, let’s get down to some serious media planning for your dental practice. Here are your options;
So you think everyone reads the local paper in your city and your banner or half page is going to get the phone ringing. This can certainly be true…but only in some circumstances. For this to work, you must be aware of the principle of reach and frequency. Reach is how many eyeballs can potentially see the ad and frequency is how many opportunities you give them to see the ad in any given time.
There’s a sad story about the US Superbowl that demonstrates my point. Literally hundreds of millions of people tune into the Superbowl and the ad space is premium beyond comprehension. In the past, a doomed SME in the 1990’s spent two years’ ad budget on a Superbowl ad. They were an unknown brand and figured, “If we can reach 114 Million people in the USA then our sales are going to explode”
Sounds pretty sensible—if not a little risky.
Of course the ad totally bombed because nobody had heard of this brand and they only had enough money to run one ad, one time. They had the reach but not the frequency. So, to ensure success in the local paper, you need to be:
- A known brand—ie,not new or unheard of
- Reach enough people
- Reach them enough times in a week that they will start noticing your ad
The company ‘Cards Against Humanity’ amazingly made the same mistake just last year with the Superbowl and lost millions. You can read about that spectacular fail here.
Local radio isn’t much better and the same rules of reach and frequency apply, so you’re going to have to put aside about $4,000 a month to get any results. Because both readership of the local papers and listeners of local radio are dwindling, they are becoming desperate and will try to sell smaller (and more affordable) packages that have absolutely no chance of success.
The problem I’ve found with local radio (I advertised on Capital FM for International Women’s Day) is that they don’t stick to the brief and are only interested really in advertising themselves and not your business.
I won’t go into the gory details, but it cost me a fortune and didn’t advance the interests of either Smileworks or Women in Dentistry one bit.
Another worrying trend is that both paper and radio are now—like rats leaving a sinking ship—going online. I’ve had looooong meetings and “in depth strategy meetings” to gauge the understanding of their digital marketing teams and they are next to useless. Compared with a good digital agency, it’s a joke.
Here’s an extract from Trinity Mirror’s Director’s report available for you all to see on Companies House here in the UK.
If you want digital marketing then go to an agency, don’t let the ‘digital team’ at your radio or paper organize it because you’re literally throwing money down the drain!
Outdoor (busses, taxis & billboards)
I’ll be completely honest with you and admit I’ve never done this. I don’t pay any attention to buses, taxis or billboards so I figure neither do my patients. But I’ll use this category to give you a very important tip. If anyone asks you to work with them on anything, say “no.”
If anyone rings you up wanting to set up an “in depth strategy meeting” or goes for an ego-trap to get you on the front cover of their new magazine (that nobody reads) just say no. You choose where you advertise. Not some salesman in a call-center. So beware of cold callers. If they were good, you’d be approaching them…not the other way around.
Hire a Digital Marketing Agency
This is something lots of dentists do. The rules to follow are that you need a working partnership. Don’t just ‘abdicate responsibility’ to your agency. If you do this they’ll put you on the clock and rinse you just like all the rest.
We (obviously) use Disruptive because they understand dentistry. But more than that because they understand ROI and intangible benefits of PPC and UX (they don’t pay me to write for them by the way—and I’m an ex Barrister so I don’t tell lies).
They are also fairly priced and—unlike most agencies here in the UK (which are very, very difficult to choose between)—they have the dual benefit of PPC and UX services that most agencies don’t.
My problem was that good agencies who really get digital marketing don’t understand dentistry and the agencies that are dental focused are usually not that great at digital marketing. So this leaves you with the problem of having to find an agency who have a proven track record and are happy to share financials and testimonials and references with you.
Treat hiring an agency like hiring an employee. Interview them, take references and pressure test everything they say. I mean you wouldn’t just call up an associate and after they’d waxed lyrical over the phone about their achievements invite them straight in to start work. So why do this with your agencies? 9/10 are complete dummies. So, where agencies are concerned, it’s Caveat Emptor (that’s lawyer speak for let the buyer beware).
Organic Social Media
This can be very effective or bomb spectacularly based purely on how authentic, interesting and technically competent you (or your chosen agency) are. Please don’t hire a ‘social media consultant, though. They just use automation tools to post and repost the same old crap and it’s a 100% waste of money.
Amazing applications like Hootsuite and the like can automate social and your consultant can do six months work in half a day and you’ll get the bills as though each one was a five hour work of editorial and creative genius. It’s about as close to a scam as you can get.
The first thing to do would be to train your front of house on how to post on social and post just a couple of times a week about what’s happening in the practice. Post with authenticity when you get a bunch of flowers, thank-you card, selfie or a great review. Also, get a photographer to take some nice pictures of the place and post them.
That’s what people want to see on social media. Not gory mouths with the retractors in. That’s just nasty. Instagram has some very beautiful images on it. General surgeons don’t post images of their work—no matter how good it is—so neither should you. Imagine seeing a walk through YouTube video of a GP excising a cyst.
That’s not half as nasty as some of the dental implant videos I see splashed over Instagram!
Take a step back and think about what a social network is. It’s a place where people want to see pretty pictures, hear nice stories, discover new things and meet new people. I don’t see many of you comparing posterior restorations over dinner, so don’t do it on social. Compounding this is the diminishing reach of organic posts. It’s almost becoming an entirely pay-to-play marketing channel.
However, you can pay to get reach and frequency on Facebook (for most dental practices in the 200k-1M range). I’d say this should be your starting point along with PPC on Google Ads—which we’ll discuss in a minute.
There are now so many different and exciting ways to reach customers and they can be laser targeted unlike everything mentioned above. Targeting is important. Or at least planning your media campaigns so that you are reaching roughly the right demographics who are going to want your services.
You can get an agency to run your Facebook but I’d be much more comfortable either doing it myself or hiring someone in house. Hey what about front of house again? Can you not put them through a beginners social media marketing course? That’s going to save you hundreds-to-thousands of dollars month for a decent agency or freelancer and they’ll be more authentic, in your practice and thus able to do a much better job.
The problems with Facebook are that it’s getting much more crowded as more businesses are advertising there. Also, users are leaving in droves following the scandals and the fact that Instagram and other platforms are just more interesting to some demographics. Apart from cats. The internet’s official spirit-animal will always remain on every platform…forever.
You’ll certainly need an agency for this. You can’t learn it unless you want to really to take a long course and do a LOT of learning and testing. You also need to integrate it into your social which creates more technical headaches.
Google Ads has been around for much longer than Facebook and the results can be more predictable but with certainty comes cost. For each category the sweet spot is about $1,500 a month (Jacob Baadsgaard told me that in a blog – and it’s bang on the money). It’s not cheap, but unfortunately nothing good ever is.
Unfortunately, if your front of house can’t convert the inquiries into sales then you’re literally burning cash.
Imagine Google Ads are like the big brother of Facebook Ads, but there is a massive difference in how you acquire patients on the two platforms. Facebook people are passers by whereas Google people want the service right this second. They are at what Google termed the Zero Moment of Truth or ZMOT. So, you need to be more aggressive chasing them down because they are also looking at all your competitors in their search for quality dentistry.
Email marketing is powerful. It needs to be used in conjunction with Facebook, Instagram and PPC as a means of following up the leads that you gather. Familiarize yourself with the latest legislation (GDPR) and make sure you’re not breaking the law by emailing anyone who’s not given you express permission.
Also, just be yourself and don’t be too salesy in your emails or you’ll just end up in the junk box. You ideally want to drive traffic to your website or to an offer and will need to build a list of at least 1,000 real, engaged customers before you start seeing any results.
PR and SEO
Inbound is the most difficult, expensive but powerful channel for dentists and vying for the page one positions is where you should be focusing your attention. You can either learn it yourself or hire an SEO agency, but don’t expect anything decent for less than $3,000 a month.
To make matters worse, SEO can take time—especially if your site is new or you’ve just changed it around or rebranded. Out of interest there’s plenty of research to suggest seeing an ad in the top four or local pack can increase your organic CTR—a massive ranking factor. Our PPC branding exercises have done just that. It’s a short cut to SEO success too.
SEO is like a puzzle and you’ll need a wide range of skills to be successful at it. You need to be able to write well researched and interesting articles and optimize them for readers and search engines alike.
Your Own Patients and Referrals
This is still marketing! I know you’re all really excited about SEO, Facebook/Insta and digital. But the business of dentistry is about relationships. Too many businesses both big and small rely too heavily on new patients and forget to look after the ones they already have! An existing happy patient will refer their friends (no patient acquisition cost at all) and they will return to the practice—again, no patient acquisition cost.
So if we’re talking about the quickest and most ROI positive, efficient and effective way of marketing then it’s speaking to your existing patients and convincing them that a full treatment plan either now or in the future is going to change their life. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do marketing—far from it, if you want serious growth then it’s the only way. But chase the leads and keep the patients or you’re going to lose out.
So, in conclusion, the best places to advertise by an order of magnitude are chair side and PPC with a Facebook retargeting strategy. That means less focus on more, more, more and more focus on quality and care. I have spent the last 5 years deeply analyzing, testing and validating all the advertising platforms and ‘your own patients’ consistently ranks top of the list for efficient new patient acquisition and revenue development.
The answer is often not in some obscure new platform or channel but sitting right there in the chair waiting for you to bother to take a genuine interest in them as a person and their ongoing oral health.
Although, PPC really helps. A leading dental thought leader once told me that 2 new patients a week is a good metric. Here at Smileworks, we acquire between 8-12 a day at the moment and 5 of them are google and all for big cases. The referrals and social are usually for prophylaxis and hygiene.
It’s not a simple system but has SEM at the heart of it so get in touch by visiting my site here and I’ll help you free of charge if you’re struggling. The best student is the teacher and I love networking with other dentists. You can find my contact details at Smileworks Liverpool by following the link.
Over his career, Aden has developed and marketed millions of dollars of successful products. He lays awake at nights figuring out new marketing tactics and is constantly upping Disruptive’s internal marketing game. He loves to write, dance and destroy computer monitors in full medieval armor.