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Inside Dental Assisting

May/Jun 2012, Volume 8, Issue 3
Published by AEGIS Communications


Social Media:

Connecting Patients and Practices

By Kate Hughes

Remember what it was like to frantically look up a plumber in the phone book as your overflowing tub ruined your carpet faster than you could turn the thin, flimsy pages? Remember how painstakingly slow that clunky dial on the rotary phone bolted to your kitchen wall clicked all the way back from “0” as you stood ankle-deep in soapy bath water?

Well, no one else does either, so if you haven’t changed your practice-marketing plan to reflect that, you are definitely what they would call “behind the times.”

While traditional marketing tools haven’t entirely gone the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird, there’s no denying that we now live in a fully operational digital world. This world runs on smartphones, iPads, and Google’s massive search engine—and it runs fast.

For many, these new Internet-based communication tools may not be quite as easy to master as the very excellent equipment of the erstwhile Bell Telephone Company, but master them you must. In addition to having outstanding clinical skills, astute practice management skills, and excellent patient relationship skills, practitioners are now finding themselves—in many cases at the midpoint or end of their careers—needing to learn and embrace an entirely new set of skills, and these are skills that very few people on the planet could even dream of having a decade or two ago. Instead, practitioners are finding their social-media footing along with the rest of the global village; some are trailblazing, most are sort of stumbling along, and many more seem to have stopped dead in their tracks. Whether it’s because they think they aren’t tech-savvy enough for it, too busy for it, don’t know enough about it, or, worse, are downright terrified of it doesn’t even matter—what does matter is that the longer dental practices stay anchored solely to their that’s-so-20th-century newspaper-ad and direct-mail marketing campaigns, the longer they’re going to miss out on the wealth of opportunities that the social-media revolution offers for the taking—and that can mean getting left behind entirely.

All of these virtual ways to connect and engage each other require new ways of thinking about and communicating your message. In this month’s feature, experts in social media and dental marketing explain how to dive into the world of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social-media outlets, and, more importantly, why.
–Introduction by Lisa Neuman

Since its launch in February 2004, Facebook has grown into an online community of 845 million active users.1 Twitter, launched in 2006, has acquired more than 100 million tweeters.2 LinkedIn connects over 135 million professionals in at least 200 countries.3 Social media allows individuals all over the globe to network with others with similar values, interests, and professions. By giving users access to a huge audience in a space that encourages participation and interaction, social media facilitates information exchange and allows said users to gather data in real time. This data could be anything from what their friends think about their new haircut to if anyone knows where to download a good, free word processor. Today, people rely heavily on social media for staying up-to-date and informed about current topics, and for getting answers to any and all of their questions. Importantly, social-media users also expect to find their friends, colleagues, and favorite businesses in this social space.

The dental community has yet to really embrace the social-media experience, and being underrepresented on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social-networking sites is doing nothing to help their businesses and reputations. Social media offers a wealth of opportunities for practitioners to directly connect with their patients and other people in the dental field, while providing a forum for people to discuss their experiences, share tips and tricks, and generally interact with each other. People build online communities and have online “friends” that play a big part in their everyday lives. If dental professionals were to become more active in social-media space, it would give them the chance to expand their patient base and forge deeper, more meaningful connections with their colleagues.

Why You Need to Jump on this Bandwagon

The Internet and social-media outlets have become integral parts of most people’s everyday lives. If someone is scouting for information about a new store or restaurant, the first place he or she goes is online to search for a company website and customer reviews. It stands to reason that the same process occurs when a person is looking for a dental practice, and in order to make the most educated decision possible, most people will do extensive research before choosing a new clinician. Now it is expected that dentists, as well as all medical professionals, will have an online presence.

A practice website is no longer enough, and a Facebook page, a blog, a Twitter handle, and even YouTube channels are commonplace for all kinds of businesses. The idea is to disseminate as much information across as many online platforms as possible, and there are a number of benefits that practitioners experience when they create and maintain a spot for themselves in social-media space.

From a traditional marketing standpoint, social media has the ability to improve the search engine placement of a dental practice’s web presence. If a potential patient were to use a search engine to search for dentists in a particular geographic area, the clinician with the largest web presence would be the first return in the search results. Therefore, a clinician with a practice website, a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, a blog, and a YouTube channel would be high up on the list. The more active the clinician is on these websites, the higher he or she would climb.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is only a small piece of the marketing capabilities of social media. Holly Rountree, social-media manager at Splash Media, a social-media and Internet marketing firm, says that social media has caused marketing to turn from a one-way avenue of promoting products and services to a two-way conversation. “Today, it is not only possible to put your message out there, but you are capable of getting feedback from your audience in real time,” she says. This ability to interact back and forth with potential patients allows dental professionals to provide a personalized marketing experience for each individual.

The ability to create a personalized experience for potential patients is an important aspect of social media that sets it apart as a marketing device. This personalized experience creates a connection between the potential new patient and the dentist, which is extremely important. Howie Horrocks, CEO of New Patients, Inc., a dental marketing company, believes that connecting patients with a practice through social media can have a profound effect on how the patients view that practice. “Social media is a participation sport,” Horrocks says. “Dental practices, if they’re going to get into social media properly, need to be aware that their participation is necessary to the ultimate success of their efforts.”

Horrocks’ colleague, Mark Dilatush, who is the president of New Patients, Inc., agrees that getting existing patients on board with a practice’s social-media pages can be integral to bringing in new patients. “If your sites are set up properly, integrated properly, and populated on a relatively consistent basis, social media can bring in patients that have never been to your practice before,” Dilatush claims. For example, if a practice has a Facebook page and gets its existing patients to “Like” the page, those patients’ Facebook “Friends” would then be aware of the practice. “You can assume that the people ‘Liking’ your practice’s Facebook page are connected socially with local people in your neighborhood, and those people are now able to see some of the activity taking place on your practice’s page. It is about creating awareness; awareness that your practice exists, and awareness that people are already pleased with the work you are doing,” he says.

Dental professionals who do not take part in social media are missing out on huge opportunities to engage their current patients and get the attention of potential new patients, and they need to be aware that even if they refuse to create a social-media presence, their practices still might exist in social-media space. Websites like Yelp! and Google allow patients to review their dental visit for the general public. If a patient is in the market for a new dentist, Yelp! or Google Reviews might be the first place they turn, researching what other people thought of a particular practice.

This means that even if a practice does not establish itself on social-media platforms, they still have a presence, and they have no control over what is said about them. There is a demand for knowledge about medical professionals, so clinicians must be certain that they are contributing to conversations regarding their own practices. Dentists who are active on social media have a counter-argument to any “bad” reviews they may have on Yelp! or Google if they have their own site populated by patients who are happy to be associated with the practice. Simply seeing an online community in support of a particular practice can be enough to negate the bad reviews seen elsewhere in social space.

Social Media 101: The Basics

There are plenty of reasons to get involved in social media, but it can be daunting for someone who has never done it before. Dental professionals looking to start carving out a place for themselves on social media should keep a few things in mind.

Do it to Build Community

Unanimously, social-media experts agree that community building is the number-one benefit to having a social-media presence. Michael Gaglio, vice president of marketing at Ivoclar Vivadent, says that social media is about engaging with current and potential patients, as well as giving those patients a way to interact with each other. “Patients use Facebook to connect with their dentists and other patients. They do want to see what kind of content the dentist puts up on his or her site, but they mostly want to connect with other patients to share experiences and reflect on the challenges and outcomes of procedures they have gone through,” he says.

Have a Clear Goal in Mind

Having clearly defined goals is integral to having a successful social-media presence. Stephanie Williams, social-media manager and a colleague of Rountree’s at Splash Media, says, “Anyone using social media for business purposes should be aware of what their goals are and what they should look like when they are achieved.” Some practices use social media to grow their already-existing communities, while others may be more focused on bringing in new patients. Williams suggests that practices take time every quarter to evaluate their goals and see if they are being met.

Maximize Your Marketing Efforts

Once a practitioner decides to become active on social-media sites, it is important that he or she recognizes that success with social media means integrating social-media marketing efforts with overall marketing strategy. Dental practices need to provide a path for users, leading them to their social presence, and incorporating it with traditional marketing tactics. Websites and marketing materials such as pamphlets, advertisements, mailers, etc, should tie in with and direct patients to the social-media sites. Offline interactions should be strengthened online, and online interactions should be nurtured offline as well.

Along with marketing integration, there’s social integration. If a practice is generating content by writing blog posts or developing videos, it should use various social networks to distribute links to these posts and videos. Tweeting a link to a previously recorded video is a great way to bring new life to existing content. Integrating social-media presences increases the reach of content and is a great way to get a practice’s message across a larger audience.

Update, Update, Update!

Michael Ventriello, public relations manager at Lanmark360, a professional healthcare advertising, marketing, and communications agency, believes that it is critical for clinicians to realize that if they choose to establish themselves on social-media platforms, they must maintain their accounts. They should be consistently updating Facebook, Twitter, and blogs with current information that would be interesting and valuable to their patients, as well as interacting with people who reach out to them. “Creating a social-media platform and then abandoning it could potentially be more harmful than not starting one at all,” he says. Ventriello’s colleague, Marisa Tranchina, social-media coordinator at Lanmark360, says, “You can end up giving your patient the impression that you’re available and then any questions they may ask will be left unanswered. That will leave a bitter taste in their mouths. It’s like calling a help line and being left on hold.”

Tranchina also stresses that engagement with your online community, or followers, is what makes a successful social-media campaign. It is not worthwhile for a practice to acquire huge numbers of “Likes” and “Friends” on Facebook if there is no content that promotes interaction and discussion. “You must always be providing value to your patients and always thinking socially,” says Tranchina. A social-media platform provides a means for patients to learn more about a clinician’s practice, and clinicians should welcome that opportunity to share as much information as possible. Updating social-media pages does not have to take a long time, and responsibility can be distributed throughout the practice. Most social-media experts suggest checking social-media sites a few times throughout the day, to make sure that any questions are being answered promptly.

Engage Your Patients

Establishing a presence and keeping it populated with relevant and interesting information is only a piece of what can be accomplished with social media. Practitioners should be using their social-media sites to foster communities and encourage communication with their patients.

Social media gives patients a means of showing their support, whether it be “Liking” the practice on Facebook or “Following” the dentist on Twitter. It also gives the dentist a quick and convenient way to communicate with his or her patients. Even something like filling a canceled appointment can be accomplished on social media. If a practice has a large following on Facebook and Twitter and an appointment suddenly opens up, the office can post or tweet that there is an open slot at 3 p.m. that afternoon, and if anyone would like to fill that slot, they can call the office. The post should also include the office phone number, giving patients immediately useful information.

Dr. Kami Hoss, an orthodontist from San Diego, California, is the co-founder of “The Super Dentists,” a pediatric dental and orthodontic practice that has truly embraced Internet marketing and social media. Hoss and his wife, Dr. Nazli Keri, a pediatric dentist, joined forces to form The Super Dentists over 15 years ago, and since then, the business has grown to include three locations and 10 specialists
in orthodontics and pediatric dentistry.

Hoss and Keri have an extremely interactive website as well as a hugely populated Facebook page with well over 5,000 “Likes.”

Hoss explains that The Super Dentists first became involved in social media in 2009, but it was not until a year later that they realized the full potential as a tool for marketing and patient communication. “We always want to build great relationships with our patients and we find that social media, especially Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, is a great tool to do just that,” he says.

The Super Dentists’ Facebook page is very interactive and attracts a lot of traffic. Hoss and Keri post about everything from what is happening in their office to events they are sponsoring within the community. They also run coloring contests and ask trivia questions about The Super Dentists, pediatric dentistry, and orthodontics. The key, Hoss explains, is ensuring that the site is active and that everyone who visits it can feel involved.

Hoss and Keri’s social-media presence serves their goal, which is to establish themselves and the other clinicians who work at their practice as experts in their field. “We want a good balance between fun, entertainment, and education when it comes to our Facebook page and other social media,” says Hoss, who makes a point to populate his page with orthodontic and pediatric dentistry information.

The Super Dentists Facebook page and website also act as a forum for Hoss and Keri’s patients to pose questions and interact with each other. Hoss explains that if one person has a question related to dental health, and posts it on the Super Dentist Facebook page, he or Keri will be sure to take the time answer that question. Hoss thinks that it is very important for him and Keri to answer these questions in a quick and efficient manner, and he will check his Facebook page several times a day to guarantee that no question goes unanswered. Hoss will also, with their permission, post photographs of patients who just had their braces removed. “When we deband our patients we’ll ask if they would like a photo of their new smile posted on our Facebook page. Most of our patients are already heavily into social media, so they can tag themselves in the photo and show off their new smile to their friends online instantaneously,” Hoss says, going on to explain that another positive trait of social media is that the Facebook “Friends” of his patient will now know about his practice.

Hoss understands that making a practice’s social-media sites a draw for patients is just as important as keeping them populated with relevant, engaging information. Most patients are not going to be visiting their dentist’s social-media pages on a consistent basis, so choosing an angle that involves them (like coloring contests, trivia questions, or even gift card and movie ticket giveaways) is a good way to continue to drive traffic to these sites.

Once a practice’s social-media sites become popular with its patients, practitioners will find that the number of people “liking” the page will start to increase exponentially. It is not something that happens overnight (The Super Dentists’ pages saw very little traffic in their first year), but every person who “Likes” the page has a number of online “Friends” who will see that activity, and likely investigate to see what the page has to offer. In addition, the Facebook “Friends” of current patients will be able to learn about the dental practice without any involvement from the clinician. Most of the information that they need is already present online, and they can see how the clinician interacts with his or her patients through the activity on the social-media site.

Social media connects dental professionals to their patients (and potential patients) at all times, and allows patients to check in with clinicians at the time most convenient for them. Dental professionals are able to help their patients in real time and provide them with answers to questions that may not come up during face-to-face visits. Interaction on social-media sites can also serve to inform patients about new happenings in the dental field, which helps them to be more aware of their options and the different procedures available to them without feeling overwhelmed or tuning out. Small, manageable bits of information presented via social media can keep the patients informed, engaged, and involved, which benefits both the patient and the practice.

Connect with Colleagues

Healthcare professionals who use social media should not limit themselves to interacting only with their patients. Sites such as LinkedIn have the capability to connect industry professionals from all over the globe so that they can share ideas, swap case reports, ask for advice, discuss recent innovations, and take in industry news. These connections can be invaluable. Before the age of social media, correspondence was limited. Practitioners saw each other at trade shows, symposiums, and conferences, often briefly and without much of an opportunity to discuss cases or industry and professional news. Now they can create forums within their online communities to submit inquiries to be answered at their colleagues’ earliest convenience. The responses are typically thoughtful, informed, and available for all dental professionals who belong to that social-media site, not just the person who posed the question. The ability to share knowledge online is a major benefit of being involved in social media, and the number of people who stand to benefit from this knowledge is considerable.

George Endler, vice president of marketing at Henry Schein, believes that social media provides professionals in the dental field the opportunity to become “thought leaders.” If a dentist wants to be considered a leader in his or her field, social media provides a platform to find an audience and share his or her knowledge. Before social media, dentists were limited to writing journal articles or presenting their research before committees. Now, they have access to a huge—and immediate—audience of people in the dental community. Dentists can blog, participate in communities on sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, or even, Endler says, “contribute to sites like Wikipedia and Dr. Bicuspid. They should watch the communities, topics, and articles that are interesting to them—and feel free to comment or pose questions; as experts, they will be concerned with helping move the profession forward.” Endler describes that in the past, writing or being sourced as a reference in academic articles allowed dental professionals to gain notoriety in the dental field, whereas today, they can gain the same sort of notoriety and recognition though being referenced on social media sites. “You have to be a participant to be recognized,” he says, “but social media provides many exciting new platforms and opportunities.”

Share Information

In the past, collecting information about new procedures, materials, and even policies and laws that could affect the dental industry was limited to the dental profession’s various print publications, and maybe an occasional quick spot on broadcast news. Now, there are vast numbers of dental-specific news sources being updated constantly by thought-leaders across a broad spectrum of fields covering a wide range of topics.

As a recent example, in March 2012 The New York Times featured an article on its home page about how the rise of dental caries in pediatric patients, particularly preschoolers, was leading to more invasive procedures requiring surgical extraction under general anesthesia in a hospital setting.4 Within hours of the posting, the story was picked up by numerous dental media outlets and shared, re-posted, or tweeted. In fact, most major dental publications, including Inside Dental Assisting, have their own websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts that are updated daily with fresh content to inform and engage their audiences.

Blogs in particular have become an excellent source for dental industry news, with practicing dentists doing research and posting their findings online for their peers. Bloggers connect their blog to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, which will then notify their friends and followers when a new blog entry is posted.

This interconnectedness means that if a practitioner finds a dentistry blog and really enjoys its content, then she can choose to follow the blogger on Twitter and “Friend” him on Facebook. If she then links her smartphone to her Twitter account, she will be able to receive text alerts whenever the blogger posts something new. She will follow the Twitter link to his new blog posting, and after reading it, she can go to his Facebook page to discuss the entry with others who read the article. She will always be in the loop, and the blogger has done his due diligence to keep his followers informed and engaged by creating a social-media space where readers can interact with others who enjoy the same kind of content.

Social media is also capable of breaking news long before traditional media outlets. Almost every large company in the dental industry has a social-media presence, and when they release a new product, have a change in leadership, or reach a milestone, not only are they sending press releases to all the major dental publications, they are also posting links on their social-media sites. People following these companies on Twitter or Facebook will see a tweet including the headline and a link to the full story, and they can choose whether or not to continue reading. Practitioners following these companies and reading press releases online are distinguishing themselves and their practices as the most up-to-date in the profession because they are seeing everything first. Social media provides a convenient way for professionals to remain educated about topics that interest them without having to check each and every source separately, because they can all be seen together on a Facebook profile or Twitter feed.

Find Your Best Fit

Not every dentist, assistant, hygienist, or specialist will want the same thing from social media. Not everyone is comfortable providing the level of interaction as The Super Dentists, and some professionals just want to be flies on the wall and use social media to keep tabs on the goings-on of the dental profession. Others do want to be active participants, and connect with their patients and colleagues through these online communities. Social media has something to offer for everyone. John Pohl, president of 14th Floor Solutions, which is Heraeus’ marketing agency, recognizes that there is a surplus of options for people looking to make the leap into social media, but believes there is one common thread that ties them together. “Social media is about providing the people you’re connected to with beneficial, insightful, entertaining, and involving material. The best content on social media inspires lots of response, and that interaction is what drives these sites to succeed,” he says.

Once a professional can clearly define what he or she wants to achieve via a social-media presence, it is time to start experimenting. Some platforms work better than others, and practices must discover through trial and error what works best for them. It is clear, however, that social media provides a vast forum for creating and spreading information, and dental professionals who are not taking advantage of the vast array of opportunities available online are missing out.

References

1. Facebook Newsroom. Fact Sheet. Available at: http://newsroom.fb.com/content/default.aspx?NewsAreaId=22. Updated 2012. Accessed February 1, 2012.

2. McMillan G. Twitter reveals active user number, how many actually say something. Available at: http://techland.time.com/2011/09/09/twitter-reveals-active-user-number-how-many-actually-say-something/. Updated September 9, 2011. Accessed February 1, 2012.

3. LinkedIn. About Us. Available at: http://press.linkedin.com/about. Updated 2012. Accessed February 1, 2012.

4. Saint Louis C. Preschoolers in surgery for a mouthful of cavities. The New York Times. March 6, 2012. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/health/rise-in-preschool-cavities-prompts-anesthesia-use.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all?src=tp. Accessed March 6, 2012.


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