What has your Web site done for you lately? Is it everything you hoped it would be? Is it bringing you new patients ready to book procedures? Is it making you and your staff more efficient? Is it saving you time and money? If not, now may be time to go to the next level and make your Web site interactive.

Although you may have been, and continue to be, frustrated by such subjects as Web-site design and search-engine optimization, the Internet really is your friend. You want to embrace it. The Internet has the ability to acquaint you with millions of people all over the world as well as those in your own neighborhood. It gives prospective patients access to you 24/7 and at their convenience.

It also levels the playing field. Nowadays, little old you can have just as much exposure as any competitor or even a big corporation. Of course, it takes time and money to set up a Web site, but the secret is to make the most of that effort. Let’s look at your choices.

Types of Web Sites

A standard Web site is a stagnant informational tool—your customized practice brochure converted to an HTML file and uploaded to the Internet. It’s an online way to give your patients information about you and your practice. Think of it as a one-way street. It typically gives your visitors the basics about you and your practice, such as your credentials, before-and-after photos, and your telephone number, and prompts them to call you for an appointment.

This type of Web site, while not fancy, can help reduce the redundant telephone calls you get at your practice asking about your hours of operation, your location, and directions to your location. It also can answer other questions about you and your practice quickly and easily. Patients can get their information promptly when they want it.

An interactive Web site, on the other hand, takes your standard Web site and makes it sing! Not literally, unless you program it that way, but it really bumps your Web site up to a whole new level. Think of an interactive Web site as a superhighway with two lanes going in opposite directions. Not only are you giving information, but you are also getting information back.

Interactive means “involving your visitors,” and it implies an exchange of information with your visitors. Making your Web site interactive can be the deciding factor for how long a visitor will stay on your site. You have only 10 seconds to convince a visitor to stay put, so an interactive Web site can make the difference between a visitor clicking on you and leaving, or staying and getting to know you virtually, which can lead to getting to know you in person.

Interactive Ideas

The beauty of interactivity is that you can add as you go. You may want to start with some simple basics and then add more comprehensive features later. The following interactive features can be added to your Web site.

E-mail. The first and most obvious kind of interactivity is to have a way in which someone can send you a message or contact you. It helps you start a dialogue and build rapport with the prospective patient. It also answers their questions and prompts them to make an appointment.

You can do this by making your e-mail address a “clickable” link on each of your Web pages. This is normally enough, but sometimes people don’t surf on their own computers and can’t click on the e-mail link because they don’t have an e-mail program on that particular computer. The answer is to put a contact form on your Web site. This allows anyone to contact you, no matter where they are surfing.

Keep your contact form simple and able to be filled out in a short amount of time. If prospective patients click on your contact form and see 10 or more fields of information to fill out, they will most likely rethink asking you anything. And, even though you may only require them to fill out certain fields, they may not see the asterisks next to the required fields and will opt out because this is asking too much. Keep it simple for now until they get to know you.

Ask them to provide only their name and e-mail address, and include a box for their question. Be sure the question box has unlimited character space so prospective patients can freely explain, in detail, what they want to learn more about. You can always ask them for more information later when you have bonded with them and they are more comfortable with you.

“Click to talk.” An interesting new telephone technology is available that allows visitors to click a graphic (such as a picture of a telephone or a friendly receptionist) that says “Push to talk” or “Click to talk now.” When visitors click on that graphic, a pop-up window appears and asks them for their phone numbers.

Their telephone numbers are then routed to your office immediately, and one of your staff promptly calls each prospective patient to give him or her more information and schedule an appointment. The prospective patient is very impressed that the telephone rings and one of your staff is at the other end. Now that is service on-call!

Patient intake forms. Encourage your patients to fill out new-patient forms ahead of time. They can complete the forms online and click the “submit” button, and the forms then route directly to the correct staff person. Or, they can print the forms out, complete them, and bring them to their appointment.

This will save both you and the new patient time during the office visit. It will also help the new patient bond to your practice. This can be especially helpful if you are experiencing no-show issues. The new patient is much more likely to keep an appointment if he or she has submitted the paperwork ahead of time. Be sure your forms include your privacy statement so the patients feel comfortable sharing their personal medical histories with you over the Internet.

Guest book. Adding a guest book to your Web site will give you great information about whom you are attracting to your site. The trick is to give visitors something of value so they give you back something of value: their names and e-mail addresses.

Nowadays, many Internet surfers are wary of sharing personal information with anyone until they know they want to develop a relationship with that person or business. With this in mind, you may want to add a carrot.

Rather than asking visitors to sign your guest book, have them click on a “special offer” icon. After providing their names and e-mail addresses, they can then download, or be e-mailed, an automatic-responder containing a special coupon for their first (or next) visit to your office. This way also ensures they entered a legitimate e-mail address.

Reassure them that their information is safe with you and will not be shared with anyone else. Have a privacy statement they can click on to read so they are comfortable giving you this information about them.

E-mail newsletter or e-zine. Offer your visitors a free e-mail newsletter or “e-zine.” Enable them to sign up for the newsletter by entering just their e-mail addresses. This not only increases your e-mail database, it keeps your visitors informed about what’s new in your practice as well as in the world of aesthetic enhancement.

It’s important it be up-to-date, newsworthy, and interesting so that recipients continue to receive your communications rather than unsubscribe to them. It’s also very helpful to add exclusive Web offers with very tight deadline dates so they respond now rather than wait.

Making your newsletters professional looking and aesthetically pleasing also helps them get noticed and acted upon rather than passed over with just a glance. Send them out on a consistent basis, perhaps monthly, to keep your name in front of a pool of potential aesthetic patients who may act now or later.

Be sure your newsletter provides links to your Web site and information about how people can subscribe or unsubscribe. Encourage readers to forward the newsletter to friends and people who might also be interested in your services by adding a simple link that says, “Send to a friend.”

Media center. The more a visitor perceives you as a highly skilled physician, the more likely he or she is to pick you over others. Often, media coverage you’ve received equates to expertise in the layperson’s eyes.

A media center that includes videos of you being interviewed by the media or speaking at an event should be added to your Web site. List any and all publications you have written for, any mentions you’ve received in print, any awards you’ve won, or any clinical studies or specialized training you have completed. You could even add a link called “Doctor in the news.”

Your visitors should know about anything you’ve done that goes above and beyond your standard education that portrays you as an expert in your field. This added value on your Web site can differentiate you from others and have you stand out on the Internet.

Videos are hot right now, and they are highly recommended if you are assertively marketing yourself on the Internet. It’s very compelling for your visitors to see and hear you in a video, as well as see your office through a virtual tour and meet your staff through video introductions. The more that visitors believe they know you, the more likely they are to book an appointment.

Let your visitors also click on stories told by the patients themselves. Nothing is better than letting a patient tell another patient how great you are and how happy she is with her result. Because quantity is still a perceived value, include several stories from patients from various demographic areas so the visitors can relate to at least one of them.

See also “The Future is Here” of this issue.

Bulletin boards and blogs draw visitors to your Web site because they help your visitors share their views with one another. The beauty of bulletin boards and blogs is that your visitors create your content. However, for this to work, you must have enough traffic. Announce on your Web site, in an e-zine, and in a direct mail piece a specific period of time when there will be a discussion on a certain hot topic.

You will need to install a script on your site to have a bulletin board or one hosted on another server for free (with advertisements) or for a monthly fee (without advertisements). Just understand the downside to this technology: When you allow free-flowing discussion to take place in an unsupervised format, you could get comments you didn’t expect and don’t desire.

Surveys. Offer visitors a short survey of fewer than five questions, and have them provide their e-mail addresses so you can send them the results. Make the questions intriguing to pique their curiosity about how others will respond. You may want to offer them a chance to win something simple if they participate, like a complimentary facial or a vendor’s gift basket.

Search tool. Your visitors want to get to information they care about—fast. Get them there quickly by offering a search box so they can enter a keyword and go straight to it. The more pages your Web site has, the more important this feature becomes.

Downloadable forms and articles. Allow visitors to download pages and special links to articles you’ve written or read. Be sure your name, logo, and telephone number are on each page to prompt them—or anyone else they show them to—to call you.

Online store. Consider selling products online. You can offer your own skin care line as well as the other lines you carry. Your e-commerce site helps build patient loyalty and further bonds your patients to your practice, because they return for refills and look to you for their skin care needs online and off.

Patients may perceive you as a true industry leader if they see that you have the technical savvy to run an online store. Shopping-cart vendors can handle the entire feature for you to keep it simple.

Online patient education. To help your patients better understand a procedure, offer them simple intuitive “courses” on your Web site. These courses are professionally produced and include visuals as well as audio. With a click of a mouse, they can watch and listen to an explanation of the procedure they are interested in learning more about in layman’s terms.

This feature differentiates you from the others who don’t offer this feature on their Web sites, will help convert more visitors to new patients, and will save you time during the consultation.

See also “The 21st-Century Medical Practice” by Catherine Maley, MBA, in the September 2006 issue of PSP.

A Sound Investment

Making your Web site interactive takes knowledge, time, and money. Of course, using professionals helps you save money in this area, because they know what they are doing and can do it in a fraction of the time others without the experience would take. Incorporating even a few of the above ideas will help turn your stagnant Web site into a more exciting, interactive Web site that potential patients want to visit again and again.

See you on the Web!

Catherine Maley, MBA, is president and senior marketing strategist of Cosmetic Image Marketing in Sausalito, Calif. Her firm specializes in helping aesthetic practices grow using public relations, advertising, and strategic marketing. She can be reached at (877) 339-8833 or via her Web site, www.cosmeticimagemarketing.com.