Quick Guide: How to Start a Basic Medical Marketing Program

Get Your Marketing Started With These Four Steps

Marketing a new practice can be daunting. From television spots to digital advertising, there are dozens of options that can bring new patients in the door outside the realm of physician referral. Where do you start?

To answer that question, we interviewed medical marketing experts and synthesized their advice into a four-step guide to cover the basic marketing that every practice needs. The world of marketing is vast and there are as many promotional pathways as there are doctors in practice. The goal here is simply to provide a blueprint to get started, recognizing that your approach to marketing is likely to get more sophisticated as your business grows.  

Complete these items and you will have the essential infrastructure that allows you to do basic marketing as you launch your practice. You can then add more advanced promotions when the time is right.

Step One: Create a Marketing Plan

Every practice needs a marketing plan to guide strategy and spending. It’s a great place to start your marketing efforts because it will influence all the decisions you make thereafter.

The plan can be a simple document or you can make it more sophisticated. There are many ways to do this, and it does not pay to get too hung up on the right or wrong methodology. What matters is that the plan makes sense to you and helps you launch your marketing program. No matter what your approach, every plan should contain some basics:

  • Ideal Patient. You need to know the type of patient you plan to attract: how old are they, where they live, what treatment they need, their insurance profile and other basics.
  • Competitive Set. Who are your major competitors and what do they offer? Do your research.  
  • Differentiators. What makes your practice different from these competitors and how are you different? Patients assume you are qualified so it is important to go beyond expertise and experience.
  • Basic Messaging. You should be able to explain your practice and what makes it different in a few simple sentences. Marketers call this an “elevator pitch,” the short explanation you would give if you were talking to someone on an elevator. This is not a mission statement. Rather, this is your answer when someone asks, “what do you do?”
  • Financial Targets. How much revenue do you need and how many patients do you have to acquire in order to pay the bills and take a salary each month? The answers will drive your marketing goals. This will require work, but some of it may already be done. If you created a business plan or provided projections to obtain financing, you can draw from there. If not, do some research and be extremely realistic. Aspirational numbers will not help. Consult with colleagues to check your assumptions.
  • Budget and Tactics. When you have targets and you know how many patients you need to bring in each month, you can decide which marketing tactics to employ. Perhaps you will do a series of webinars promoted with digital ads. Or maybe you will meet with community organizations and do radio ads. List the tactics you plan to employ, along with cost and performance projections. This will require research and some estimation. If it is too overwhelming, skip it for now and come back to it after you have basic infrastructure in place. Your marketing plan can be a living document.
  • Roles and Responsibilities. What marketing activities will you handle directly? Which will you hand to your staff and which will require hired experts? Part of your plan should delineate how work gets done.

Of course, we all know that no plan survives contact with reality—and that’s okay. You can adjust, pivot or create an entirely new plan if needed. Small businesses do it all the time. The point is to do some basic thinking about marketing and codify it. If nothing else, the plan gives you something to hand to a consultant should you decide to employ professional help.  

Step Two: Develop a Website

Every practice needs a website because a high percentage of your patients will visit before they book an appointment. This is also something concrete you can do to get started, even if your marketing plan is light on details.

The site should be a professional presentation of who you are and—perhaps more importantly—what you offer. Beyond that, it should reflect your brand, highlighting the differentiators and appealing to the ideal patient you outlined in your marketing plan.

Start by listing what you want the site to be. How will it look? What content will it contain? Do you need a blog or a system for patients to book appointments electronically? One good exercise is to keep a list of websites you like and why. When you talk to a developer, you will have solid examples to hand over.

Most doctors will turn to a development shop to create the website, and that is usually a smart move. Unless you have special skills, this is not the place to DIY. Your website is the heart of your digital presence, every bit as important as your office. If you are booking online, you will also require a secure environment. Spend the money to have it done right.

There are many, many ways to have a website built, from custom design and engineering to templates and open-source software. You don’t need to become an expert in digital technology. What you need is a functional site that promotes your practice and says what you want to say.    

List everything you need, then think about the type of partner you want. Maybe you want a medical marketing firm that can build your site now and offer more advanced services later. Or perhaps you want a one-person shop that offers personal service and lower fees. Whatever the case, choose firms to interview that regularly work with doctors. View samples of their work and make sure you like what they do. Plan to interview several different providers and recognize that this is akin to free consulting. You can get smarter as you go, and eventually make an informed decision. Here are some things to consider:  

  • You are Choosing Technology. By choosing a developer, you will also be choosing the technology that creates your website. Most shops will push you toward their expertise. Steer toward something mainstream that will make transition easy if you change developers.
  • Design and Development are Different. Designing a website and building it are traditionally two different functions. However, these functions are often combined at small firms. This can be fine, if you don’t have ambitious design needs. If you do, make sure there’s a professional designer in the mix.
  • Canned Solutions are Okay. The trend in website development is to rely on templates for design, which can be customized with your colors, images and design elements. Though choosing a template can be hard—technologies like WordPress have thousands of options—this approach can make building a site faster and cheaper. Just recognize you are trading flexibility for efficiency. Not everything on a template can be easily changed.
  • Service is Important. Websites break. Messaging changes. You will need ongoing service for your site. Choose a vendor that is excited to work with you. Remember: they will never be more friendly than they are right now, when they are trying to win your business. Treat any sour attitude as a red flag.

Step Three: Engage Review Sites

Today’s patients are informed consumers, and many will turn to review sites to before they book an appointment. That means that sites like ZocDoc, WebMD, Healthgrades, Realself, Vitals and Yelp can impact your business. You will need a solid profile on each site that reflects your expertise and differentiators. You will also want to encourage positive reviews and mitigate any negative comments. This ongoing exercise is known as “reputation management,” and it can be important when you are starting out.

Professional help, both consultants and software, is available. But this is also something you can address yourself for launch. Get professional photos made (another place not to DIY) and create a thoughtful profile on each site, providing all the information they allow. Many of these sites offer paid plans that allow more visibility or promotion. You can start with free options, at least until you know which sites your patients use, and upgrade later if it makes sense.      

Step Four: Conduct Basic Marketing

With a plan, a website and a basic digital footprint, you are ready to do the basic marketing that comes with a launch.

For example, you can send out announcements of your opening; update and post to your Linkedin account; introduce yourself at community organizations and meetings; or sponsor an informational meeting or grand-opening reception. In each case, you can refer everyone you encounter, digitally or in person, to your website for more information.

One common addition is a basic content and email program. You can post new content to your site several times a month designed to answer patient questions, establish yourself as an expert and encourage people to book an appointment. Using a basic email tool like MailChimp, you can then send out a monthly newsletter that contains that content.

Both the newsletter and the content itself become tools to reach large numbers of new people. The goal is to create a virtuous circle: patients looking for answers find your content, book an appointment and become patients. They then receive the newsletter, which continues to educate them, makes them aware of new services and reminds them that they are part of an active and caring healthcare community.

Next Steps for More Advanced Marketing

Of course, all of this can get more sophisticated. For example, a practice can use search engine optimization (SEO) to make it easier for potential patients to find content. It can advertise on websites and social media platforms to promote that content or to increase newsletter signups.

When it is time to expand, many doctors turn to a medical marketing firm that can bring both expertise and capability. The right firm will understand how to effectively use search engine marketing (SEM), digital advertising, paid social media promotion, video and traditional media. They can create an integrated, multi-channel program. Equally important, they can carry that program out, track how it performs and make adjustments.

The trick is to manage costs. To be effective, a marketing firm has to generate a return on investment that justifies its fees. If you pay them $10, they need to generate $11 in business to make the effort worthwhile. Good firms are very conscious of this equation and become highly invested in your success because it is directly tied to their own.

If all of this seems involved, it certainly can be. The good news is that you don’t have to take it on all at once. Put the basics in place first and grow your marketing program over time.