The Importance of Your Ophthalmology Marketing Plan During a Crisis

May 8, 2020
9 min read
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Marketing your ophthalmology practice can be tough in the best of times, but when it comes to marketing in a crisis, you've got to revisit your strategy. Here's how to do it.

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What do you think of when you hear the word “marketing”?

If you are like most doctors, marketing is synonymous with branding. But branding is just a part of marketing. Yes, if you are starting out, it is especially critical to get your branding right from the get-go, and we will be covering some branding essentials at a later point. The reason we are not starting with branding is because I believe it is important to start your practice off with a renegade mindset, one that (hopefully) your competition does not have.

A renegade marketing mindset is one that does what everyone else is not doing—a 180, so to speak. And that means asking of your ophthalmic practice marketing no less than you would ask from a new tool or therapeutic modality: a scientific, evidence-based approach that looks at the data, keeps the emotion or feelings out of decision-making, and doesn’t chase shiny new objects.

The practice of ophthalmology especially lends itself to the strategies I am going to cover here because of the alliance of premium, cash-pay services—refractive, aesthetics, optical, dry eye, and hearing—with its core services—cataract, cornea, glaucoma, retina, general ophthalmology and oculoplastics.

Most of the discussion will assume you are already in practice but just starting out. If you haven’t started your practice yet, don’t fret; you have a slight advantage in being able to set your marketing program up from scratch and avoid a lot of mistakes that your older colleagues have made.

Why are we talking about marketing right now?

We are all scurrying around trying to figure out how to keep our practice as healthy as possible while revenue withers under the thumb of this pandemic. Marketing your practice during a time of crisis and uncertainty means acquiring new skills and perspectives. Most practices have seen a drop in revenue that will continue for the foreseeable future, so it is critical to stretch every marketing dollar as much as possible. For that reason, it is important to use this time to build a plan that maximizes every opportunity—a plan that keeps you in the game until we are able to start seeing patients back in the office.

One recurring theme you hear from business experts is that coming out of this crisis, businesses will have to be leaner, more efficient and smarter about how they spend their marketing money. Gone are the days of simply picking as painless a number as possible for your marketing budget and delegating it to your office manager or outsourcing it to a marketing agency, essentially the set it and forget it Strategic Marketing Plan. Maybe your strategy was the “Just add 10% over last year and be done with it”?

Now more than ever, it is time to think about your marketing not as an unavoidable expense but as a portfolio of accountable investments and marketing processes.

What do I mean by accountable and what do I mean by processes? Let’s tackle these one at a time.

Make your marketing accountable with metrics

In order to make your marketing accountable, it has to be able to prove its value. Not unlike a financial investment, your marketing investment makes money or the funds are reallocated into another marketing asset that will. How do you know if a mutual fund, for instance, is giving you value? By measuring it and tracking its performance. If it continues to provide value, we will likely reinvest the dividends. If it stops providing value, it’s time to reassess, recalibrate and, if necessary, invest in something else that we think will provide value. With the non-renegade approach, the only thing we know at the end of every month, quarter and year is that spending went 100% (or more?) according to plan.

Unfortunately, too many ophthalmology practices see marketing as just a budget item to be delegated and spent that (hopefully) makes the phone ring off the hook. Sure, we put money in, but we aren’t really sure how much money is coming out. This is what I refer to as “black hole” marketing.

If, on the other hand, we are determined to make, as best as we can, every marketing dollar measurable and trackable, we have a pretty good idea of how many dollars are coming out every time we put a dollar in. I call this “black box” marketing. Similar to the concept of a black box in science and engineering, we may not know exactly how or why it works (though advanced marketers do know this), but we know by the campaign metrics that it’s working.

In most practices, marketing activities are neither measurable nor trackable. These activities tend to fall into the large grab bag known as branding: a pretty website that mostly looks like a digital yellow page ad with pictures of the doctors and a slogan like, “We treat you like family, state-of-the-art technology, we’re available 24/7”; a radio spot or billboard which essentially says the same thing; a sponsorship of the local little league team which gets you a banner with your logo draped along the 3rd base fence. You get the picture. What is the return on your investment (ROI) for each of these assets? How would you calculate that?

Let’s say, you hire a local agency to revamp your website—new photos, slicker look, more pages with useful information—and the following month you notice a 10% increase in phone calls. They tell you it is obviously due to the upgrades you made to your website. But can you be sure? Maybe a competitor got some bad press and you’re attractive to their shocked patients.

Or maybe, as what happened to my practice several years back, it was because one doctor passed away, another one retired, AND an insurance plan cut back its panel of providers (to our benefit), all within a short period of time. The result was that we started seeing a bump in new patients. Coincidentally, we were running a new advertising campaign. But because we had not implemented processes for the tracking and measuring, we couldn’t honestly congratulate ourselves for our genius marketing skills.

View Your Marketing as a Portfolio of Projects and Processes

Now, back to our finance analogy. For many of you, your biggest marketing investment is in traditional marketing activities like brand awareness and corporate identity. Branding is more than the promotion of your business by means of advertising.

Branding is the impression you make, the message you send and the story you tell.

Branding is how your patients describe you to others. Your brand style contributes to the feeling your patients and referral partners get when they come to you. Yes, it includes: your logo, your tagline or slogan, the colors on your website, your mission, values or philosophy—but more than that, it is the entire patient experience from when they first learn you exist until they are no longer under your care. It is everything from your bedside manner, your billing and claims resolution to even how callers are treated on the phone. The line item called “Branding” is where most practices spend the lion’s share of their marketing budget. But, like keeping cash in your investment portfolio, it is required but insufficient. Much more should (and must) be done besides “just in case they need an eye doctor some day” brand awareness.

If you consider Branding as one of many asset classes in your marketing investment portfolio, you can move from this mindset,“I think we are spending too much on marketing. Where can we cut some fat?” to “That health fair gift card campaign cost us $500 but we gained $2000 in new business for a 4:1 ROI (return on investment); let’s double our investment on the next one!” This is the black box I referred to earlier. For every $1 that goes in, $4 comes out.

Mapping Your Marketing Campaigns to a Strategy

We’ve established the importance of branding, particularly for a practice starting out. Keep in mind it is like the cash in your financial portfolio. But now it is time to diversify your portfolio by mapping your marketing efforts to specific strategies. You are more likely to gain control over your marketing spend while increasing your chances of getting a return on your investments.

I recommend you follow 2 simple rules:

#1 - Every marketing campaign that your practice implements must be categorized as one (or more) of these “7R Marketing Strategies™”:

  1. Reputation
  2. Reviews
  3. Retain
  4. Resell
  5. Reactivate
  6. Recruit
  7. Refer

#2 - If your staff or your agency cannot map the expense to a result (one of the Rs) along with success metrics, then you should not authorize the funds.

In the next post, I will explain the genesis of the 7R Marketing Strategy™ and take a deeper dive into each one.

Note: are you new to ophthalmology practice or just about to start your practice? Need some advice from someone who has been there/done that? Drop me a line at ppolack@ocalaeye.com.

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About Peter J Polack, MD, FACS

Peter J Polack MD FACS is a cornea, refractive surgery and external diseases specialist at Ocala Eye, a large multi-subspecialty practice in north central Florida and founder of Emedikon Marketing Systems. He has written and podcasted on EMR and technology in healthcare and is also co-author of The Ultimate Ophthalmic Marketing Guide.


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