Take a new look at some proven practice-enhancing advertising methods

Marketing is the new advertising. The days when aesthetic surgeons could just hang up a shingle and develop a successful practice are long gone. Now, no matter how good they are in the technical aspects of their field, they must also be good marketers to succeed.

As a result of their past experiences with marketing attempts that did not produce results, many surgeons are discouraged about their ability to market themselves. Despite the discouragement, however, it is a good idea to take another look at advertising.

Advertising is simply a way to build and maintain relationships with new and existing patients. Your overriding goal should be to get patients to like you and trust you. If they do, they will remember you when they, or any of their acquaintances, need what you can offer.

The new future of advertising lies in what Madison Avenue advertising executives refer to as “non-ads”—consumer messages written in the more relaxed style of a conversation between friends.

Many surgeons have found that paid advertising does generate leads. Your competitors may already be advertising and capturing market share at your expense. If none of your competitors are advertising yet, that may be the most compelling reason for you to consider it.

Ethical Issues

Before embarking on a practice-advertising campaign, consider the ethical issues involved.

Mark L. Jewell, MD, president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, says, “The position of the ASAPS is the same as the ASPS [American Society of Plastic Surgeons] regarding the ethical advertising of one’s services. We believe that it is appropriate to use communications through all forms of media to market professional services and inform the public of what can be expected in plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures in a tasteful and ethical manner. This, obviously, is open for interpretation by our members, yet ultimately, they are held to the standard of the code of ethics of ASPS.”

It is important to strike a delicate balance between tasteful, professional advertising campaigns that maintain your integrity and positioning as a qualified physician. In some markets, the governing bodies have cracked down on programs designed to lure unsuspecting patients.

For example, in an effort to protect the public from unscrupulous physicians, officials in Germany—which has the world’s sixth highest rate of aesthetic surgery procedures (behind the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, and Spain)—have been considering a ban on misleading and suggestive advertising for aesthetic procedures. Similar legislation has been proposed in Great Britain.

The Many Forms of Advertising

Medical advertising can take many forms, and each medium has some distinct advantages and disadvantages. Developing a marketing plan and setting a budget will help guide you, but you will have to spend enough to compete in the market.

The best way to ensure that you get a good return on your investment is to selectively target the potential patients that you wish to attract. Doing a detailed analysis, quarterly and annually, will allow you to repeat your advertising successes and eliminate the failures.

Let’s take a look at the most common advertising strategies, and how you can use them most effectively.

Television and radio. Television advertising can be extremely effective because of the sheer numbers of viewers you can reach, and it offers a substantial return on your investment. Many cable providers—particularly in smaller markets—offer affordable advertising for physicians. As competition in the television market has increased, producing commercials has become more affordable. The right media buy, therefore, will allow you to get the most from your ad budget.

However, you cannot expect to run one ad in your local market and reap big rewards. Television and radio advertising must be done consistently to garner results and should be part of a larger, comprehensive practice-enhancement strategy.

Newspapers. Before you start a print-advertising program, research the local newspapers in the community from which you want to attract new patients to determine what sections and days of the week will be the most effective. Pay special attention to “health” sections and supplements, which often have a longer shelf life.

Many vendors offer ad slicks that can be submitted to publications to add your logo and contact information, including your Web-site address. Taking advantage of professionally designed, camera-ready art will substantially reduce your graphic-design costs. To get the most out of your print advertising, consider including a “call to action”—such as a special introductory offer, a new technology, an innovative procedure, or an in-office seminar—that drives a patient to contact your office upon seeing your ad.

Another valuable tactic is submitting articles that show you as an expert in your field for publication in local newspapers. Daily and weekly newspapers in local markets are often eager for new content, especially on a hot topic such as aesthetic plastic surgery. If you are already an advertiser, requesting that one of your articles be reprinted in the publication may increase the value of your advertising contract with that publication and expand your exposure.

Advertorials can be another vehicle to get the word out about your practice. These can be designed as patient-education pieces that include your philosophy on a particular topic or a message as a consumer advocate to dispel some of the myths that surround plastic surgery.

Seminars. Seminar marketing is a very popular and cost-efficient way to attract qualified patients. For many physicians, sem­inars have proven to be a satisfying practice-expansion technique that does not com­promise their ethics or reputations among their peers. A seminar is simply a way to invite new and existing patients into your practice, and it offers you a setting to talk about what you do and showcase your work.

To ensure good attendance at your seminar, appealing local-market advertising can pay for itself many times over. Just one surgical case can easily finance your seminar program. Encourage your own patients to bring a friend to increase attendance.

According to George J. Bitar, MD, medical director of the Bitar Cosmetic Surgery Institute in northern Virginia, in-office seminars that offer a pleasant atmosphere, light refreshments, friendly hosts, before-and-after slides, existing patients who can share their experiences, and a 30–45-minute lecture with time for public and private question sessions are a highly effective way to generate new surgical patients.

“We have found that one great way of getting our institute in the spotlight is to educate people in the form of seminars that I conduct about once per month in one of my offices,” Bitar explains. “The trick is to make it a personable atmosphere. We have about 20 people at any given seminar so that people feel that they can ask questions and truly explore their specific cosmetic-surgery concerns.

“I come across as an educator, which I believe is an obligation of any board-certified plastic surgeon,” Bitar continues. “I get many people who eventually become patients from these seminars. By the time these people come for a consultation, they are very well informed.”

Direct mailers and newsletters. A powerful direct-mail package can be designed to be sent to a purchased list of potential patients. Clearly, the more targeted the list is, the better return you can expect from it. However, the industry average for direct-mailer return on investment is only about 2%.

Marketing to your own patient base will have a higher rate of return because of your name recognition. Your own patients know and trust you already; they are more likely to tell a friend about you. But be aware that  direct mailers can be an expensive way to market your services, because of the high cost of printing and postage.

Newsletters, like direct mailers, give you an ideal opportunity to inform your patients about new products, techniques, and procedures you are offering in your practice in an educational way.

A newsletter is an opportunity to communicate with your patients in a personal way and to establish yourself as a source of information. It can be distributed to seminar attendees, displayed in the reception area and in your treatment rooms, given to referral sources, and mailed to current and former patients.

One newsletter will not do the trick, though. Successful newsletters are produced on a regular, consistent basis—at least twice per year. In most practices, one issue is printed every quarter. You need to institute a program to ensure that too much time does not lapse between issues and that each one has a long shelf life.

The modern variation of the printed newsletter is the email newsletter. The setup costs are usually minimal, and it is preferable to outsource the job to a list-management organization that can maintain your database and send out the e-newsletter for you.

“Although we have had a well-designed marketing program in place since we opened our surgery center, we have had the best response from our e-newsletter,” says Lain Ruch Downs, executive director, The Centre, PC in Elkhart, Ind. “It is cost efficient, but it can be somewhat time-consuming as you have to make it your own. Our Web site also drives steady traffic to our practice.”

Web marketing. In today’s competitive environment, a Web site—much like your phone system—may be the lifeline to your practice. It is very often the most important way that patients reach you, and it has become a virtual necessity for all physicians who offer elective services.

Think of your Web site as an electronic brochure that is constantly evolving. Unlike expensive glossy brochures that quickly become outdated, a Web site provides a greater opportunity for potential patients to view and react to its content. In addition, updating your Web site is far simpler and affordable than producing and printing a brochure.

If you do not have a Web site, you are creating a barrier to practice growth. According to Ran Berkman, president of the Webtools Group in New York City, “Web-based marketing is the single most cost-efficient way for physicians to increase their presence and credibility online, and to get their message across to attract new patients.”

Most physicians would agree with that assessment. “Revamping our Web site has increased the amount of new patients coming from the Internet from about 10% to more than 50% in a few months through some very innovative suggestions regarding optimization and advertising of our Web designers,” says Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, director, 5th Avenue Dermatology Surgery and Laser Center in New York City.

Another successful self-promotion meth­od is to submit articles with your byline for publication on Web sites. This can be a highly effective strategy that can position you as an expert, elevate your profile, and—if you include a hyperlink in the copy—increase traffic to your own Web site.

Web-based health and medical information is among the top attractions online. The Internet enhances the quality of the communication between physicians and patients, and it has taken the physician-patient relationship to a higher level. It has also facilitated increasing efficiency and productivity, and it has enabled physicians to broaden their exposure.

Faint echoes of, “I don’t need a Web site; I’m a plastic surgeon,” can still be heard in some hospital corridors, yet the number of physicians likely to say this is diminishing today. There is stiff competition to invent better ways to drive visitors to a Web site, to keep them on the site longer, to give them a reason to come back often, and to get them to click.

The stigma of physicians advertising themselves has long been lifted, especially among those who perform elective procedures such as aesthetic surgery, laser therapy, refractive surgery, hair transplantation, cosmetic dentistry, and infertility treatments. To increase your client base, you have to market yourself and your services consistently and in a way that does not compromise your ethics, training, or sense of professionalism. PSP

Wendy Lewis is a contributing writer for Plastic Surgery Products and the author of nine books, including America’s Cosmetic Doctors (Castle Connolly). She is also editorial director for www.MDPublish.com, a medical publishing group. She can be reached at [email protected].