Hot Tips to Building a Deliberate Presence Online
“Individuals in the United States are adept at holding 2 competing views about health care: on one hand, health care revolves around a sacred compact between patients and clinicians and local institutions; on the other hand, health care is a business that operates on (regulated) market principles.”
—Selena Ortiz, PhD & Meredith Rosenthal, PhD
Unfortunately for medical practices, the business of healthcare is running on an ever-thinning margin of profit. This means that all slots must be filled, making patient retention and acquisition a bigger priority than it ever has been. The result is an increase in dollars spent on marketing. Between 1997 and 2016 clinician practices increased their spending on advertising from $11 million to $61 million, according to a JAMA 2019 report (Schwartz LM,Woloshin S. Medicalmarketing in the United States, 1997-2016 [published January 8, 2019]. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.19320)
Being relatively new to self-promotion (and having those lower profit margins) has many physicians asking where exactly they should put their marketing dollars. The answer is content marketing. “Content is King” chant today’s marketing mavens, who know that you have to be online, and it’s not enough just to have a website anymore. To stand out you need to regularly produce quality, patient-focused content.
Though its digital manifestation is new, content marketing itself is not. It has been used by companies like Jello via their recipe books and John Deere with their customer magazine for more than a century. According to The Content Marketing Institute, “Instead of pitching your products or services, you are providing truly relevant and useful content to your prospects and customers to help them solve their issues.”
For medical practices this typically translates to informational and friendly posts on social media, lay-friendly website content, and a regularly updated blog. When blogging—short for ‘web logging’—first started, it was used like an online diary or personal soap box. The comments section acted as a hub for social engagement and community building (and some fighting).
Soon businesses and news outlets recognized the appeal and marketing potential of blogs; they can reach far more people on the internet than they can on local news stands. That’s when blog posts became more like articles, with comments sections much more heavily monitored and screened. The writing style, nonetheless has still retained much of its original informality.
Medical practices began adopting blogs much more recently, less for community building (comments sections are often turned off) and more for patient education.
There are many terrific examples of this version of content marketing in action. The Cleveland Clinic has a great blog. So does Mayo, New York Presbyterian, and Harvard, too. And these institutions aren’t just blogging because they have huge marketing departments; they blog because it works.
Here are the top five reasons why blogging works:
It Gives a Big Bang for Your Buck
Blogging is one of the more low-cost forms of marketing when compared to traditional marketing like ads and flyers. All you need is a website, which can come pretty cheap these days, and the will to do it. Your blog can be tracked for views and sharing giving you valuable information on their yield. You can monitor direct return on investment by seeing how many times an article directs someone to your contact page and they make an appointment.
When you think of a blog post, don’t just think of it as one article on your website, though. You can leverage each post into smaller teaser posts on all your social networks, broadcasting it even further and directing traffic back to your website. Even if you are still a traditionalist, you can recycle all or portions of your posts into ink and paper marketing materials.
It Will Get You Found
Ninety Percent of Americans use the internet—and of those, three quarters use it to find health information. Seniors are the fastest-growing demographic of online users, and they view the internet as an “important source for health information and a medium for patient empowerment.” In other words, your patients are online, and if you want them to find you, that’s where you need to be too.
Most internet health searches start at a search engine, usually Google. Google follows complex algorithms to decide what shows up when any given search is conducted. Their aim is to deliver the most relevant and authoritative sources to the searcher. If you want that to be you, your website needs to have great content that is regularly updated. A blog is, hands down, the best way to do that.
If you have a blog post that answers a common question in your specialty or tells the story of a patient with a similar condition, a person searching those issues will stick around and see what you have to say. And people are pretty savvy about this kind of content marketing. In one survey, more than half of consumers said they were more likely to purchase from a company that provides them with custom content.
It Benefits Patients
Customizing medical content into a lay-friendly format such as a blog is of particular benefit because of the inherent complexity of the subject. Health literacy in America remains low. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “For the first time, there are national data that demonstrate currently available health information is too difficult for average Americans to make health decisions.”
Blogs are a great way to bridge that gap; they are typically written in the first or second person, using everyday language with minimal jargon. Starting a blog for your practice can go a long way toward improving the care of the patient population you are most invested in. Being in practice you know exactly which questions your patients ask the most and which issues tend to trip them up. Providing this information in your blog is a great way to extend your practice beyond its clinic walls.
And let’s face it, there is a lot of bad information out there on the internet, and it is likely that your patients are consuming some of it. You can counter some of that by offering well written, evidence-based content from an expert they trust: you.
It Helps You Control Your Online Narrative
Speaking of dreck on the internet, do you know what patients are putting out there about you? Hopefully it’s all good, but even the best doctors occasionally have unhappy patients. Whether it is well directed or not, they may be pointing at you as the problem.
If the only things about you on the internet are a few bad reviews, those will come up first when your name is googled. And it matters where on the pages of results that information shows up. Seventy five percent of people never go beyond the first page. If you have a consistent stream of good content associated with your name or practice that is what will rise to the top. In this way a blog can help you control the online narrative.
The tone you set and the type of content you deliver in a blog can show people who you are and what your practice is all about. It is a place you can show your clinic culture, say, with photos of staff retreats or participation in community events. You can share patient stories (abiding by HIPAA, of course) that showcase the excellence in care that you and your staff are committed to.
It Meets the Expectations of Today’s Patient
Millennials have changed healthcare and what is expected from you as a physician. They are completely naturalized to the internet, accessing information, products and services on demand and they have set this precedent for everyone else.
People have gotten used to near constant advertising coming from their TVs, phones, tablets and computers, and as a result, they have become very discerning consumers. This means your branding and messaging has to stand out, and you have to be helpful, authentic, and more transparent than ever before.14 A blog is a place you can be just that.
This doesn’t mean you have to cross doctor-patient boundaries, though. Just follow the elevator rule about patient privacy and behave online as you would in your office.
Much about being a physician hasn’t changed; the body is the same and the Hippocratic oath still applies. But there is no doubt that the business of being a doctor has morphed immeasurably in the last twenty years. Today few practices can get away with omitting a marketing budget altogether, and much of that marketing occurs online (Schwartz LM,Woloshin S. Medicalmarketing in the United States, 1997-2016 [published January 8, 2019]. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.19320). If you haven’t already, it is time to join your patients and your colleagues and build a deliberate presence online. The best ways to do this is by starting a blog.