Published 7/1/2009
Ira H. Kirschenbaum, MD

Marketing your practice via the Internet

How Internet marketing can help your practice—and what it can’t do

Despite the Internet’s ubiquitous presence in our lives, opportunities for marketing medical services on the Internet are actually quite limited. In a practice-related context, Internet marketing is the strategic use of Web sites to accomplish specific goals, such as educating patients, advertising your practice, selling specific services, or advancing the careers of certain surgeons in a group. It involves both the design and construction of your site as well as strategies to attract patients to the site. These strategies could be as simple as including your Web address on your business cards or as complex as investing in sponsored advertising programs on well-known Internet search engines such as Google®, Yahoo!®, and MSN®.

Know what you are marketing
When developing an Internet marketing strategy, you need to have a basic understanding of exactly what you are marketing. You are not marketing your practice. You are not marketing your practice because your practice is not a definable, marketable product. Is your practice the building, the physicians, what the physicians do, or all of the above and more? This question is the real “gut check” for any practice considering a marketing effort on the Internet.

In my experience, practices choose to market either a service or a skill. Users do not go to the Web to find a good orthopaedic surgeon. They do not go to the Web to find the most prestigious practice. They go to the Web looking for a specific service or in search of a person with a specific skill that they need. On the Web you will have one or two pages and perhaps 3 minutes to grab someone’s attention and convince him or her that you should be the one to supply that service or skill.

Additionally, Web marketing within a practice should not be an identical effort regarding all the members of the group. Some skills and services are simply not as marketable as others. Some skills are marketable at some times of the year (like during certain sports seasons) or to certain age groups. Some services, such as trauma surgery, don’t lend themselves to Web marketing. In contrast, a specialized spine procedure for a chronic degenerative problem is well suited for Web marketing.

Look at your practice carefully and decide what services and skills your practice offers that may be unique or that may have a story to tell. Put these higher on your list of programs that you would spend more resources on with Web marketing. Answering the following questions will help you establish an Internet marketing strategy.

Who is your audience?
Understanding your target audience enables you to make Web-site planning decisions and determine how best to reach that group. Don’t assume that all the patients who search on the Web are young or that every effort you make on the Web needs to be applicable to every type of target audience. Following are examples of important questions you need to answer:

  • Am I emphasizing services for chronic diseases or more acute problems?
  • Is there a particular age group that I need to reach?
  • Who makes the decisions for my patients concerning their treatment?
  • Does the group I want to reach need to be specifically educated about the service I am offering?
  • What is the nature of your message?

The nature of your marketing messages can reveal a lot about how you do business. For example, using an educational focus and investing resources in educating patients about treatments and services may imply that you are an expert in those areas. Or, you may want to tout certain qualifications, such as your board-certification (not a big one), your selection as a team physician for a specific sports team, or your certification to perform a particular procedure.

This is a more direct form of advertising, however, and regardless of the nature of the message, you should be cautious that all you say meets the tests of accepted standards in medical marketing and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ Standards of Professionalism (SOPs) on Advertising by Orthopaedic Surgeons.

What is the “call to action”?
In most marketing efforts for a product or service, there is a point at which the target audience should be given the opportunity to respond. This could be the opportunity to fill out an online form to request more information, or to call a telephone number for an appointment, or to take some other action. This point is often referred to as the “call to action.”

Broadcast commercials are notorious for their “And if you call now…” offers, but a call to action need not be particularly brash. It simply is a moment during patients’ browsing through your Web site at which you can provide them the opportunity to contact you.

Are you branding or are you selling?
Most of the time Internet marketing is a way to profile your practice’s services and personnel to patients to attract more business. But you may also want to establish your practice as a brand. This is very difficult to do, and very few medical brands have been established. Although Internet marketing efforts can contribute to overall branding efforts, activities such as years of high-level service or serious research advances are more powerful in this arena.

When are you using education for marketing?
The Internet has the powerful advantage of being able to distribute a large amount of text, still images, and video inexpensively. The use of high-quality educational information geared toward patients is a common, powerful Internet marketing tool. It is preferable that you craft at least the text of your own material, even if you license images or video from other sources. The best marketing is connecting your image with your words.

Linking your Web site to general information on a third-party site offers some value, but does not substitute for the power of your own message, especially as it relates to complex surgical problems. The Academy has numerous opportunities for members to use vetted, authoritative information at no cost that you should explore.

What tools work on the Internet?
The Internet has a nearly limitless number of creative tools to help you express yourself. Keeping your presentation personal and professional should always be at the forefront of any Internet marketing campaign. Images of the surgeons and staff working, accounts of real patient experiences written with clear educational intent, and short but clear explanations of diseases are very powerful.

Although first impressions may be that the “best” Web sites are the slickest and showiest, well-written, high-integrity material will overpower a “wow” site that is thin on content.

Learn from the best sites
The better medical Web sites integrate a clear presentation of a physician’s or group’s mission. They possess an easy-to-navigate design and provide access to significant amounts of information for the patient about health and disease, and more importantly, about the physicians and the services they offer.

An honest self-presentation will help distinguish your marketing campaign from others. The Academy offers a free, well-thought-out template at http://orthodoc.aaos.org

The difference between Internet marketing and traditional advertising
Internet marketing has the unique advantage of always being at hand. An advertisement in a newspaper or on a billboard goes away the next day or when your contract ends. A Web site is 24/7, as are your patients. You can respond rapidly to trends, inexpensively modify your messages, or change your site in any manner that suits your schedule.

Like traditional advertising, however, Internet marketing has its limits. You should familiarize yourself with your state’s licensing rules and with the AAOS Standards of Professionalism on Advertising by Orthopaedic Surgeons. Be certain your Internet marketing materials contain nothing that could be construed as false or fraudulent, no offers of bonuses or inducements to make appointments, no guarantees of success, and no fictional client testimonials. In other words, be honest. Consult an attorney if you have questions.

Internet marketing follows the same general principles of marketing. You need to remain honest and trustworthy. You must understand what your patients need or want to know and use your Web site and your marketing messages to provide them with a better understanding of their disease or condition. It is equally important, however, to attract patients to your Web site in the first place so you can educate them on the unique services your practice provides.

Ira H. Kirschenbaum, MD, is chairman, department of orthopaedic surgery, Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center, Bronx, N.Y.

How to attract visitors to your Web site
A medical practice does not have to be particularly large to have a significant Internet presence. The key is attracting patients to your Web site and ensuring that your Web content will keep them there.

Start by adding your Web site address (URL) to your business cards and letterhead. Place a sign in your office directing patients to your site. Include your Web address on all print media issued from your office, be it an article you write for your local paper or an advertisement for a magazine, to generate additional traffic.

One of the more effective techniques to funnel patients to a site is to employ sponsored ads and use ad-words with popular search engines such as Google.com, Yahoo.com, Ask.com, and others. These search engines display results in two different ways in different parts of the computer screen. The center of the page shows search results based on the popularity of the searched phrase. The problem is, sometimes searches find tens of thousands of pages containing the search phrase. Web-site designers often say they will optimize a site so it appears as high as possible in these listings, but on a pragmatic level, little can be done to the site itself. The use of sponsored ads, however, truly levels the playing field.

Sponsored ads are the links that appear on the search engine page above and to the side (and occasionally, elsewhere) of the regular search listings and lead to Web sites relevant to a search. How do you get a link to your Web site there? Just agree to pay a modest fee (generally from 5 cents to as much as $50 per key word—the specific amount is determined via a bidding process) each time someone clicks on that link and is transported to your site.

The position of the link to your site relative to the links to other sites is the result of a complex equation related to the bidding structure and the success of your campaign. Understand that you are not buying words—you are bidding on their use. This is an expensive—but potentially very profitable—way to market your practice to patients who specifically typed a phrase that connects to a service you offer. Practices that have targeted procedures selectively in this manner have seen exponential growth in these procedures.