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Inside Dentistry
October 2012
Volume 8, Issue 10

Practice Marketing and Patient Communications Platforms in the Digital Age of Dentistry

A two-part discussion of the different operational and financial ROI models in the online world.

By Rhonda Savage, DDS | Diana P. Friedman, MA, MBA

Part 1 of this special series reviewed production and collections in dental practice in the digital age, giving dentists practical advice on how to adapt these systems and processes to take advantage of the new opportunities the online environment offers. The series concludes with an extensive discussion on marketing the dental practice using both traditional and cutting-edge online marketing techniques and technology.


Marketing is everything a practice does to educate existing and prospective patients about their services. It’s everything from an advertisement in the local newspaper, to Yellow Pages listings, and practice website to online social networks. The objectives of effective marketing campaigns include:

• Educate the market about a practice’s services
• Attract new patients
• Retain existing patients
• Extend the lifetime of each patient in the practice
• Extend the lifetime value of each patient by presenting and delivering more dentistry

Given the power of online communication tools, existing and prospective patients now have a louder voice in what they buy and how their dentistry is transacted. Trust is a critical factor and relationships are based on trust. In the digital age, it is imperative for the practice to figure out how to establish that relationship and trust by leveraging technology. Most significantly, in terms of practice success is the ability to attract quality new patients to the practice.

There are four patient needs that have stood the test of time14:

• Friendliness–courteous and welcoming communications by all team members in person and in any other form of written or verbal communication
• A reasonable waiting time
• A good atmosphere–a clean, orderly, and calm practice
• A relationship

All patients want and demand more than before, due to the ease of Internet access and the increased need for instant gratification. They want to feel special and respected. No matter the marketing model of the practice, it can deliver on these expectations.

Patients want to know that you care about them and their family. They want a relationship. A newer term in marketing is “Relationship Marketing,” which is defined as marketing developed from campaigns that focus on customer retention and satisfaction. In addition, especially since the 2008 economic downturn, research also shows that patients seek:

• Good value. Women especially want this, and are twice as likely to choose value over price15
• Technology. Patients want to know your practice offers state-of-the-art services, leveraging the latest technology in the delivery of their care
• Ease of making appointments and paying bills online.13 Patients seek the convenience of transacting with their service providers online

Facilitating successful marketing in all instances is the development and implementation of a clear practice brand. As consumers, we are extremely familiar with brands, and often make purchase decisions based on those brands we know and trust. Dentistry is no different. This involves not only a logo and design of communication materials (like business cards and stationery) but, more significantly, an identity that unambiguously communicates who the dentist is and what the practice is about.

A strong, clearly communicated brand makes a practice uniquely different and allows it to stand out from the crowd. The term “Unique Selling Proposition,” was coined in the late 1940s to define this critical element: How is your dental practice different from others? How do you differentiate your office from another in a.competitive market that appears to be undifferentiated? Establishing such a brand is critical to effective marketing, no matter the channel used to.communicate it.

A brand further helps the right patients who would be best served by the practice to self-identify and join the practice. Therefore, an integrated approach will present a clear, consistent brand on all your Internet communications. This goes far beyond use of logo and practice colors and includes the look and feel, voice, and quality of the brand identity elements. We.coming the right patients who seek the services you wish to deliver is key to a successful and profitable practice.

The Traditional Practice Model

The traditional practice model relies on pre-Internet print and customary channels to.communicate the messages. These include tactics such as advertisements in newspapers and local magazines, local media (radio and television), print newsletters, direct mail campaigns (such as the We.come Wagon and Val-Pak™ mailings), and listings in directories. In this traditional mode, marketing is a one-way communication—from the dental practice to the potential consumer, and tends to be more promotional (example: new patient courtesy pricing).

More importantly, the marketing “piece” needs to appeal to the masses and, therefore, is hard to individualize.16 This is not an effective tool in an extremely individualistic society when consumers want personalized service.

Though traditionally effective, in a recent survey of 132 dental practices, dental professionals noted two key concerns regarding this marketing model.17

ROI Tracking: “It’s difficult to track the return on investment. We never really know exactly how many patients we’re reaching.”

Cost: “It’s expensive and in the last few years, effectiveness has dropped.”

Traditional Marketing Channels

Newspaper Advertising: Newspapers are struggling; decreasing readership and advertiser support have reduced circulation. This stated, 33% of the surveyed dental professionals reported using newspaper advertisements.17 Well-crafted newspaper ads can still be effective; however, the rate of decline in print circulation and the high costs negatively impact effectiveness and ROI.

Yellow Pages: The ratio of consumers using the print Yellow Pages has drastically declined with the advent of the Internet. Bill Gates noted in 2007 that “the traditional Yellow Pages are doomed as Internet searches.combined with on-screen interface on smart mobile devices get better and proliferate.”18 One of the major Yellow Pagecompanies, Dex One, had over a 60% drop in revenue from 2009–2010. This stated, dentistry has been slow to identify more effective communication channels. A significant 70.6% of survey respondents noted some form of continued use of Yellow Pages advertising.17

Direct Marketing: 48% of the respondents utilize some form of direct marketing17 (for example: post cards, coupon mailers). This stated, many survey respondents indicated uncertainty in the direct marketing medium’s effectiveness due to high costs, lack of ability to track returns, and risk of attracting a less than optimal, price-sensitive patient. In addition, recent cost-saving measures by the US Postal service resulted in fewer delivery dates, and a much slower (5 to 7 days) delivery schedule for all classes of mail.11 This can dramatically and negatively impact a practice’s marketing efforts.

Coupon Mailers: Can bring in a flood of patients, but the quality of the patient is a concern to practices. In a recent national survey, dental professionals provided.commentary regarding the fact these campaigns can drive the wrong, one-time patient to the practice, and be a losing proposition.17

The costs associated with traditional marketing methods are quite significant, at $3,133 per month. This does not include more costly tactics such as directory listings (for example, 1-800Dentist™) and more upscale promotional programs, including extensive television and radio exposure.

Traditional marketing methods drive, on average, 20 new patients to dental practices each month, 20 with an average cost of $275 per patient.21

The challenge with traditional marketing is not only the costs but, more significantly, the effectiveness in driving the right patients to the practice and securing a positive ROI. Preliminary research data documents that the quality of an online patient is better as this patient is more educated and engaged in their oral care. More evidence, however, is needed in order to confirm this anecdotal data. In a recent survey of dental professionals who leverage traditional marketing methods, in response to changes they targeted in their marketing campaigns, more than 85% of the respondents noted they want a higher ROI and 65% desired a higher quality of new patients.17 Similarly, nearly 40% indicated an automated tracking of results would be a desired improvement.17

The Digital Practice Model

In the digital age, advanced practices shift their marketing campaigns and investments to where consumers are seeking them out—online. Interestingly, this shift has been quite fast and dramatic. As recent as 2005, a national study conducted jointly by Harris Interactive and Public Relations Society of America concluded dental professionals identified the traditional method of marketing as the best method. Times have changed. With the fast pace of technology development and adoption, a dramatic change in consumer behavior and purchase decision process, the low ROI of traditional marketing methods, and a tighter economy, digital marketing has grown at an astounding rate to deliver cost-effective solutions. To reach consumers, mobile marketing budgets in the United States are expected to soar to a breathtaking $56 billion.22

A digital marketing mix includes all online communication channels usingcomputers, such as a websites, blogs, e-mail blast promotions, electronic patient communications, e-newsletters, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, pay-per-click advertisement on search portals, web registries, as well as search optimization campaigns. Unlike the traditional, more familiar marketing methods, the Internet is a brave new intangible world. The courtship of dentistry and online marketing is relatively new, often perceived as a bold frontier or venturing into unchartered territory, causing dental professionals pause. As owners of small businesses with tightening margins, dentists rightfully are risk averse and wait to act until new innovations are better understood and there is proof of ROI.

In a highly.competitive and volatile economic climate, the success of any dental practice depends on being discovered and selected by the right new patients. Success also is determined by the ability to strengthen relationships with existing patients and remain their provider of choice. With the shift in consumer preference to seek information, make purchase decisions, and transact with service providers online, the transition from traditional to online marketing is no longer an option. Bold as it sounds, in the 21st century, a practice without a web presence is invisible to its market.

The data speaks for itself. US adults spend more time with media on the Internet and mobile devices than with content available via newspapers or magazines. 92% of adults use search engines to find information on the Web.23 This activity has be habitual, with roughly 6 in 10 online adults engaging in search activities on a typical day. This pattern holds true across all age groups. The Internet takes up more than one quarter (25.2%) of daily media time, and mobile accounts for 8.1%.24 More importantly, 139.1 million consumers on a monthly basis utilize the Internet to seek healthcare information from healthcare sites.3

One of the greatest fears of any practice when considering online marketing is the ability of the practice to accurately target their audience online. Unlike traditional marketing, there is no list of pre-determined prospects. The other concern is the ability to track effectiveness and ROI.

It is important to review what a.complete, online digital marketing campaign needs to include. With the fast-changing technology, this list will likely be obsolete within 6 months. The list includes the tools discussed below.


A practice website is an extension, reflection, and testament to your profession and dedication, and is one of the few vehicles that extends a brand and markets a practice to prospective patients 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Furthermore, a practice website is the cornerstone of a dental practice’s digital presence in the marketplace. It is critical to build it in a manner that optimizes its ability to synergize and connect with other online patient and market communication channels (like a blog, YouTube channel, Twitter, Facebook page, patient portal). This is critical in achieving a consistent and effective brand for the practice.

This stated, not all practice websites are created equal, so it is imperative you select a provider, preferably with in-depth experience in the dental industry. A practice has 10 seconds to capture the attention of a potential patient before they click out and visit a.competitive site. If they opt to stay, research shows you have 90 seconds to convert the visitor to a new patient. A breakthrough series of studies by Sesame Communications identified 25 key variables that optimize the process and help your practice be chosen by more patients.25 The three most critical factors include the website’s warmth, patient focus, and the right content.

The fast pace of technology has not passed websites. A recent Pew study reported that 87% of smartphone users access the Internet using their mobile phone.26 Consumers with children now spend an average of 6.1 hours a day communicating and seeking information online on their mobile smartphones.27 The Internet user base is expected to double over the next few years, and most of these users will be mobile.28 In 2011, more smartphones were shipped than PCs29 and tablets,30 confirming the dramatic shift to mobile devices is here to stay. There is a great opportunity to connect with busy, on-the-go patients who prefer this medium. This stated, websites that render beautifully on acomputer screen lose their effectiveness and impact when viewed on the small touchscreens of modern smartphones. The format and technology demands a separate mobile site be designed to effectively reach those on-the-go patients. Not only is the design of a mobile site different, its content is also optimized to provide easy access to required information for tech-savvy patients.

Search Engine Optimization

Search engine optimization (SEO) enhances your website in order to ensure it ranks higher on search engine results, thus increasing visitor traffic. SEO focuses largely on organic search results, and higher rankings are achieved by optimizing a site through its content and links. This is critical as 71% of Internet users don’t click past the first page of search engine results.31

Search engines are always working toward improving their technology to crawl the Web more deeply and return better, more relevant results to users. In the world of search, change is a given. In fact, Google has publicly stated that they change their search algorithm more than once per day.32 Unfortunately, there is a limit to even how well search engines can operate. Professional management of your SEO can increase the visibility of your site to thousands of prospective patients. This is why a great SEO strategy is never a point in time set-it-and-forget-it activity.

Measuring and tracking success is also important. Professional SEO specialists track data on rankings, referrals, links, and other factors. Specialists help to analyze your SEO strategy and create road maps for success. But knowing the numbers won’t help a practice unless they can effectively interpret and apply changes to improve their course.

Pay-Per-Click Advertising—Search Engine Marketing

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a dynamic area of marketing. Unlike the organic optimization of SEO, SEM promotes your website by using paid placements to increase visibility in the search engine results page. An effective SEM strategy for a dental practice leverages these advertisements, called pay-per-click (PPC) ads, which appear at the top, or in the right margin, of the search engine result pages to drive highly targeted new patients to the practice website.

While SEM involves account management fees and the cost for each clicked ad, it’s more affordable than you may think, and can be one of the quickest and most efficient methods to promote a practice and attract an educated, ready-to-purchase consumer. According to market research, new customer acquisition is just below $10 with PPC, while it is nearly $70 with direct mail campaigns.21 Although the cost per customer acquisition may vary according to the industry, these figures offer a benchmark for the effectiveness of SEM.compared to traditional marketing.

It is important to have a professional SEM expert, one with dental experience, manage the advertising campaigns. A specialist will bid the amount a practice is willing to pay for each click on selected keywords. They will also write and manage the practice’s advertisement messages.

The advantage of PPC is that a practice only pays when their advertisement is clicked. The SEM expert helps to plan and target the campaign, and adjusts the budget depending on its effectiveness. If the campaign outperforms expectations, the practice can choose to increase the budget and drive additional traffic to the site. PPC campaigns can be live within a day or two and also yield instant results, as campaigns are immediately listed on the search engines.

Social Media Marketing

Social Media Marketing involves leveraging online communications channels like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, forums, podcasts, and wikis to influence consumers. They help your existing patients spread the word about your practice, resulting in referrals. Social Media Marketing blends technology and social interaction for the co-creation of value.

For those that believe social media is a passing fad, take note: if Facebook were a country it would be the world’s third largest, preceded by China and India. With 71% ofcompanies using Facebook, 59% using Twitter, and 33% using YouTube, social media is fast b.coming a standard marketing tool.33

Social media is distinctly different from traditional forms of media, such as television or newspapers, as it enables online two-way communications—a dialogue. It allows the practice not only to connect with new prospective patients, but significantly maintains relationships with its existing patient population. This increases patient loyalty, retention, and over the lifetime of the patients, value. Social media is relatively inexpensive and enables individuals and businesses to create online conversations with anyone, anywhere.

More significantly, social media has made the move from web to mobile devices, drastically increasing its reach and effectiveness. Data shows it is quickly b.coming a staple of American life. A few facts:

• Facebook now has more than 800 million active users34
• Twitter reports 100 million log in at least once per month35
• YouTube statistics show that over 3 billion videos are viewed each day, with more than 490 million unique users worldwide per month35
• There were more than 156 million public blogs in existence in February 201136
• A.comScore study revealed that 72.2 million people accessed social networking sites or blogs on their mobile devices, and nearly 40 million US mobile users access these sites daily37
• Score reports Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn grew their mobile audiences by at least 50% in the past year. Facebook was home to the largest mobile audience among the three destinations. Facebook has more than 57 million mobile users as of August 2011—up 50% from the previous year. Twitter saw its mobile audience jump 75% to 13.4 million people, while LinkedIn’s mobile audience climbed 69% to 5.5 million users37

Practices are leveraging social media to broaden brand awareness and grow their business. According to a recent survey from McKinsey & Company, nearly 71% of enterprises use social technology platforms to acquire new customers.38 There is good reason: social media has be a critical touch point for brand engagement—making Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, blogs, chat, text, and other channels as relevant to consumers as a brand’s website or location.

Online Patient Portals

Patients overwhelmingly prefer digital communication channels. Providing them with 24-7 access to account information, insurance form printing, online payment, appointment confirmation, and electronic e-mails and newsletters all drive costs of the practice dramatically lower.

Contest Platforms

A new addition to the practice’s arsenal is contest platforms. Practices can create practice-branded contests and sweepstakes on their Facebook page to engage and grow their audience on Facebook. This directly engages existing patients and has been shown to be effective in reaching inactive patients as well as creating leads of new prospective patients.

Contest platforms help to grow a practice’s social media base, a key source for word-of-mouth referrals, keep the practice top of mind and drive patient engagement. Contests also extend the presence of the practice to their patients’ social media circles and to gain new prospective patients.

A.comprehensive digital marketing campaign is dramatically less expensive and more effective than traditional methods, averaging $2,034 per month for a.complete, optimal solution suite. In.combination, these campaigns yield a new patient acquisition cost of $49.75 .compared to the traditional $275).

Online marketing allows practices to locate and convert their audience, plus immediately see the results. Unlike the ambiguity of traditional marketing, online marketing offers greater measurement, often in real-time. Practices can gain insight through valuable analytics; they can measure their goals and determine ROI. They can study data from nearly every phase in their conversion process; what the visitor does when they are on the practice website and what led to their telephone call or online appointment making. This can lead to increased conversions over time as they can adjust their campaign(s) according to visitor data.

A professional integrated solution will also allow practices to track, and record, all calls.coming from their communication channels, identifying both new and existing patients. This takes the guesswork out of the equation, when real data is provided and ROI assessment bes simple. Best practice and growing evidence indicates that.combining online campaigns will produce significantly better results and greater return on investment (ROI) than using one online channel alone. An example of heightened effectiveness of integrating campaigns: Conversions were nine times more frequent among prospects who had also received an engaging e-mail newsletter, as opposed to those who hadn’t received marketing messages.21

Other studies confirm that multiple online marketing campaigns have a positive impact on both total calls and amount of new patient calls to a practice. One study found the largest improvement was when an account with one online marketing campaign added two additional campaigns. This led to a 137% increase in new patient calls during the 5-month study period. On average, studied practices received 58 calls per month with an average of 13 calls self-identified as new patients, equivalent to $11,700 in incremental production to practices per month.39

Although many practices leverage online marketing to attract new patients to increase practice growth, many overlook the opportunities that exist with current patients. Existing patients are more likely to accept treatment, keep appointments, and refer family, friends, and coworkers. According to the Academy of General Dentistry, the average practice has a 60% to 70% chance of gaining treatment acceptance from an existing patient due to patient satisfaction and loyalty.

The Bottom Line

The transition from the traditional patient communication platform to the digital age provides the dental practice with astounding benefits including:

• Lower overhead
• Higher ROI on investment
• Improved practice efficiencies
• Higher practice effectiveness
• More new patients
• Higher patient retention
• Increased patient lifetime value
• Increased referrals

Though it can be somewhat intimidating to venture into the digital age, with consumers embracing online communications, staying on the sidelines is no longer an option. A practice without a web presence is invisible to the market, and cannot prosper and grow in this era of online consumers. Implementing more costly and less effective traditional patient acquisition and retention methodologies will yield significantly lower ROI.

When selecting a provider for your online platform, seek an expert with specific and focused dental experience. An expert can provide an integrated solution that synergizes all of your digital communication channels while providing you with real-time measurements of effectiveness.


Rhonda Savage, DDS is a stock shareholder for Sesame Communications.


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About the Authors

Rhonda Savage, DDS
Chief Executive Officer
Miles Global
Past President
Washington State Dental Association
Gig Harbor, Washington

Diana P. Friedman, MA, MBA
President and Chief Executive Officer
Sesame Communications
Seattle, Washington

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