Build it and they will come.
It should be that easy, right? Just set up your dental office, hang out the big “OPEN” sign, and wait for patients to parade through the front door. Well, since we don’t live in a (dental) field of dreams, acquiring those new patients for your lean dental startup will take time, effort, and a great deal of expense.
Unfortunately, many dentists attempt to cut costs by skimping on marketing. I can’t argue with trying to reduce costs, but the real answer isn’t to avoid spending money. It’s to avoid wasting money.
How much should you be budgeting to promote your dental office?
For your first three years in practice, you should plan on spending at least $3,000 - $4,500 per month on marketing and advertising to attract new patients. Most new dentists fall well short of that.
“We typically see lean startup practices underspending for marketing, with budgets less than $3,000 per month,” says Kate Willeford, CPA, who is President of The Willeford Group and Vice President of the Academy of Dental CPAs. “Generally, it is only after three years that dentists realize the true value of marketing as an investment in their practice and increase their budgets to $4,000 or more.”
Since you may not be bringing much revenue in when you first open your practice, consider including your projected marketing expenses into any startup financing you secure. As far as operating costs go, marketing is just as important as equipment and salaries.
“Dentists are often uneasy about borrowing extra money, but budgeting a minimum of $25,000 to cover your first year of promotion can really help jumpstart your practice,” suggests Kate. “Otherwise, you may find yourself forced to accept multiple insurance plans just to get enough patient volume.”
Most of that first year expense goes toward foundational efforts like branding, website, signage, and stationery (more on those items later). But you still need to drive new patient inquiries, so be sure to also aggressively invest in lead generation strategies. Figuring out where to allocate your budget can be hard as a startup. This guide will help you determine the appropriate mix of strategies.
If your marketing budget pockets are a little empty, there are some common areas where I repeatedly see new dentists wasting money that could be better spent on essential marketing strategies.
Mistake #1: You’re not tracking results.
MEASURE YOUR RESULTS. (Yes, I used all caps because I was yelling.) Without reliable data, you’ll be guessing as to what’s working and what’s not. To paraphrase John Wanamaker, even if you know you’re wasting half of your advertising dollars, you won’t know which half.
Don’t rely on simply asking new patients where they heard about you. Half the time they don’t remember (or aren’t asked), and the other half they’re only partly right. Detailed and accurate information is critical, and will only be possible if you have the right call tracking and marketing analytics in place.
Mistake #2: You’re not converting the leads you do get.
If you cut corners on staffing (i.e., you’re closed on Wednesday so you don't have anyone at the office to answer the phone), you’ll miss out on phone calls from new patients. 75% of calls that go to voicemail just hang up and don't leave a message.
Bye bye money!
Even if the calls are being answered live, it’s quite common for calls not to be converted because teams don’t have the training and experience to overcome objections about insurance, cost and scheduled availability. Make sure that your call tracking software allows you to make HIPAA-compliant recordings of incoming calls so you can review what your staff is saying and train them how to convert more leads to patients.
Mistake #3: You’re not getting your money’s worth from your software.
If you do already have marketing and practice management software programs like Weave, Solution Reach and others, are you using it efficiently? Many offices end up overwhelmed by the initial training and end up using the platform for one particular thing (like automated appointment confirmations) and leaving other valuable marketing features like text messaging and automated email on the shelf. Worse yet, do you have multiple software systems with redundant capabilities? Either way, you’re losing out by not maximizing the features you paid good money for. We recommend learning one new feature of your software every one to two months. Implement it, make it part of your system, and then move on to conquer the next feature.
Mistake #4: You’re not planning ahead for your marketing.
Rushed, seat-of-your-pants marketing can incur rush fees and limits the quality of work that will represent your practice. Aim to start your marketing six months out, not six weeks before you open, to get the best possible return on your investment.
If you can successfully reduce your wasteful spending, you’ll be able to invest in the quality of marketing you really want (and need) to get your practice up and running.
Opportunity #1: Foundational Items
There are certain fundamental marketing components that are crucial for success, and your other advertising will fall flat on its face without them. Make quality a top priority for the foundational components below, and don’t be tempted to hand them off to your “talented” nephew or a fly-by-night freelancer.
Right out of the gate you’ll need to establish your brand identity and distinguish yourself from other local dentists. Blending in with the crowd with a generic tooth logo will make you virtually invisible to potential new patients. Your logo should represent who you are and be memorable.
Hopefully your practice is in a good location with lots of local traffic. If so, make the most of your signage to grab the attention of passers by. Do it right, and you’ll find your signage to be one of your best marketing investments. Ever.
Size, color, placement, lighting, and design all factor into your signage’s ability to attract new patients, so do yourself a favor and work with an experienced professional so your sign will turn heads.
This may be the most important part of your marketing, since new patients will want to check you out online before making an appointment. A poorly designed website will create a lousy first impression with your new patients, and we all know you don’t get a second chance at that.
Also pay close attention to choosing a company with experience in search engine optimization (SEO) and lead conversion when designing your website, since many people will be searching for their new dentist online. If your website is just a pretty digital brochure, it won’t do you much good.
Reputation Management Software
As a startup dental practice without an established reputation, patient reviews will be very important to building your authority as a trusted healthcare provider. Swell and Birdeye top the list of multiple software options out there to help you automate the process of collecting and posting positive reviews online where new patients will be looking for them.
OK, I admit stationery isn’t sexy when it comes to marketing your practice, but it’s a crucial piece of building your brand, since your patients will see it over and over. Please don’t settle for a generic Word template. Get your letterhead, envelopes, invoices, appointment reminders, and business cards designed professionally as part of your logo package.
Opportunity #2: Lead Generation
Once you’ve established a strong foundation for your marketing, you can shift your attention to lead generation. The following strategies are most commonly used by dental startups. To run lean, choose two and “lean” into them. If you spread your budget across too many sources you’ll limit impact and cost yourself money.
Search engine optimization is something you may be able to do yourself if you are updating your own website and are somewhat familiar with how to edit content and basic settings. Otherwise, think about hiring someone (again, make sure they are reputable) to do it properly. It can take a while to work your way up the rankings, but you have to start early to see results. This is a lean strategy that pays huge dividends over time. What starts as a 5:1 ROI in the first year can quickly grow to 30:1 ROI in 4-5 years if you remain committed to SEO.
While you’re waiting for your SEO to gain traction (and even after it does), it can be a good idea to supplement your organic SEO with paid search ads to put yourself at the top of the first results page. You can do Google Ads on your own but I recommend getting Google Ad certified to make sure you don’t waste your own money.
Facebook advertising gives you a relatively inexpensive way of getting your message to a targeted audience. Facebook ads can be a great place for direct response promotions that feature some sort of special offer, like discounted new patient checkups.
Other Marketing Strategies
Once you’re up and running and seeing a positive ROI from digital advertising, you can consider adding traditional media to the mix. Direct mail, TV, radio, and billboards can all be effective, but they generally cost more and require a longer commitment than digital.
I’ve only been talking digital up to this point, but snail mail is still a very viable option. Use targeted mailing lists to zero in on the patients most likely to visit your office. Age, household income, marital status, and number of children are all demographics that you can use to narrow down your list, or you can use Every Door Direct Mail (EDDM) to send to specific postal routes near your office for as low as $.18 per piece.
TV, Radio and Billboards
I lump these three media together because they are generally more effective for building brand awareness and keeping your name top of mind than for directly driving new patients to your office. They can definitely be a valuable part of your marketing mix and boost conversions for your other marketing efforts, but you may not see concrete data to connect them to new patients. For a lean startup, these strategies may want to wait a few years.
As a lean dental startup, there are also a number of things you can do that cost nothing (or next to nothing) to help bring in new patients.
Freebie #1: Community Events/Community Organizations/Memberships
Getting out into the community and meeting people is a great way to build your awareness. Just don’t be too much of a salesperson. Let people get to know you and like you. Likeability and familiarity go a long way toward building top of mind status.
Freebie #2: Internal Patient Referral Programs
Happy patients can be your best (and cheapest) marketing. Research has shown that 83% of consumers are willing to refer someone after a positive experience with a business. Make it easy for your patients to send friends and family your way with referral cards and find small but meaningful ways to thank them for doing so.
Freebie #3: Professional Networking/Referral Relationships
Fellow dental and medical professionals are also a great source for referrals. Set aside an hour a week to meet with local colleagues over lunch or coffee. Offer to cover their emergencies over vacation and you’ll find a valuable ally when you want to take your family away for a week.
Freebie #4: Social Media
It can be challenging for a new business to get traction on social media platforms, but you can gradually build an audience by standing out from the crowd with authentic, personable content and consistent posting. New patients will also look at your social pages in addition to your website to feel out your office before making an appointment, so make sure your positive culture and staff personalities come across loud and clear.
Freebie #5: Google Maps
Don’t play the online version of hide and seek. Make sure your new patients can find you easily by updating your presence on Google My Business.
Freebie #6: Online Directories
Last but not least, add your name, address, and phone number (known as NAP) to any and all relevant directories in your community where people might search for a dentist. And while you’re at it, make sure the information is listed everywhere consistently, otherwise it can have a negative effect on your website’s SEO.
You can’t afford to be penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to marketing your startup dental practice. Look to eliminate wasteful spending and take advantage of free and low cost strategies so you don’t have to sacrifice the important marketing investments that will have the biggest impact on the growth of your practice. Save where you can, but spend where you must.
Bio: Xaña Winans is the founder of Golden Proportions Marketing, a full service dental marketing company. Married to a dentist, her group has been marketing dental practices for over 19 years and provides strategic planning, internal, external and digital dental marketing to dentists across North America. You may contact Mrs. Winans at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 866-590-4476 to learn about dental marketing strategies, or you may visit https://go.goldenproportions.com/dental-marketer-deal (this is an affiliate link. You also get an exclusive deal with GP if you decide to purchase from them).